It has been 20 years now and I still can’t forget the look of sadness my teammates and I saw on the faces of the first responders at Ground Zero days after the attacks.
They all looked so tired, and mentally and physically drained. They stayed there for days on end and were on a mission to find someone alive. Sadly, that never happened.
It was such an eerie scene. I felt like we were in a war-torn country. There was so much destruction all around us.
I remember saying to my teammates Al Leiter and Todd Zeile, “What are we doing here? They don’t want to see some baseball players now.”
But you know what? I was wrong. Our presence there gave the responders a little diversion. They had questions about how the Mets were doing. We brought down some Mets shirts and caps and exchanged them for police and firefighter hats.
That led to us wearing the hats of every service agency in New York City that suffered a loss on 9/11.
I am proud of the many things our team did that September but wearing the hats was something special. I remember we got a call from the wife of a court officer saying how much she appreciated us remembering her husband. It’s that kind of thing that was bigger than baseball and made us feel like we were making a difference.
The guys on the 2001 team understood our mission. As a native New Yorker, 9/11 was personal for me and was personal for everyone, from ownership to the players and people who worked in the clubhouse.
We knew we had to play baseball, but we also knew we had another perhaps even more important job to do, which was to help the city heal.
We were set to open a series in Pittsburgh on Sept. 11. We were supposed to have a team union meeting and I got a call from Don Fehr, the union chief, saying what had happened and that the games would be postponed.
Our hotel was close to a federal building and MLB asked us to move to a motel in the suburbs because no one knew what to expect. We stayed there for two days and headed back to New York by bus. The trip was more than nine hours long with general conversation throughout the trip until we approached the George Washington Bridge.
Then Todd Zeile just blurted out, “Hey guys, look to the left and see the smoke.” The towers were gone and not a word was said for the rest of the trip.
When we got back home, it was a different Shea Stadium. The parking lot was turned into a recovery area. People from all over began dropping off supplies to go to Ground Zero. We would work out in the morning and in the afternoon, under the direction of Sue Lucchi, Kevin McCarthy and our manager Bobby Valentine, we packed the trucks with food, clothing and medical supplies to go downtown.
No one said no to anything. Bobby was our leader, but all the guys were out there too. Al Leiter, Mike Piazza, Glendon Rusch, Lenny Harris, Rey Ordoñez, Mark Johnson, Desi Relaford, Marcus Lawton, Bruce Chen, Tsuyoshi Shinjo, Robin Ventura, Vance Wilson, Joe McEwing, Edgardo Alfonzo, Jay Payton, Armando Benitez, Steve Trachsel, Todd Zeile, Mookie Wilson, Dave Wallace and John Stearns. Everyone did something and we were out there every day.
Not all our efforts were loading trucks at Shea Stadium. Each day there was a different firehouse or hospital to visit. We became affiliated with Tuesday’s Children, an organization which took care of the kids who lost a parent on 9/11. We later threw a holiday party for the kids, gave them tickets to games and tried our best to fill the voids in their lives.
We got back on the field in Pittsburgh on Sept. 15 and that was hard. I remember there was a gigantic poster with thousands of signatures next to our locker room with messages of encouragement for us. It seemed like the entire world was rooting for the Mets.
We swept the Pirates and were still in a pennant race. Now there was the debate of when we should start playing again in New York.
I’m so proud that we were part of the first sporting event in New York City after 9/11. Going to Shea that night on Sept. 21 for a game against the Atlanta Braves, I never saw so much security. But once I got inside I knew we would be safe. There was police all around us.
The ceremony was something I will never forget. I still have a tear in my eye when I think of the bagpipers coming onto the field.
Let me say this in a nice way: There was no love lost between the Mets and the Braves. But on that night, we were all brothers. We embraced each other and Bobby V and Braves manager Bobby Cox gave each other a big hug. This was truly a different night.
When I went in to pitch, I was as nervous as I have ever been in any other game. I knew I had a job to do and I had to concentrate.
In the bottom of the eighth inning when Mike Piazza hit the “home run heard around the world” that won the game for us, the stadium shook. I can still hear the cries of “USA! USA!”
I looked into the stands and people were smiling for the first time.
After the game we all went into the dugout to sign autographs for the kids. I remember meeting Carol Gies and her three sons, Ronnie, Bobby and Tommy. Carol’s husband Ronnie was a firefighter who was lost on 9/11. All three of her kids went on to become firemen.
We didn’t win the pennant in 2001 but we won so much more. We helped put a Band-Aid on a gigantic wound and let people know that life could go on again. I was fortunate enough to accomplish some good things in my career, but for me nothing was more meaningful than what our guys did 20 years ago.
We helped New York City be a better place and that is more important than any ring or championship.
I am looking forward to the game against the Yankees on 9/11 at Citi Field. I am sure it will be an emotional night for all of us. I know the field will be filled with first responders and other people who served during 9/11. We are going to have about 10 guys from our 2001 team there too, and it will be good to reminisce with all of them.
Whatever we did back then, we didn’t want any attention for ourselves. We did it for one reason only and that was to help.
Once again I am so proud of what we did in 2001, from wearing the hats, to donating a day’s salary to Rusty Staub’s police and firefighter charities, to the visits to Ground Zero, to the visits to the hospitals, to the meet-and-greets with Tuesday’s Children, or to just lending an ear to someone who needed to talk.
I now live in lower Manhattan and I walk past the reflection pools at the World Trade Center almost every day. When I think about 9/11, I am guided by one simple sentence: “Never forget; never, ever forget.”
John Franco is a Brooklyn native and all-star relief pitcher who played for the New York Mets from 1990 to 2004.