It was not long after the end of the New York Mets’ September 21 3-2 win over the Atlanta Braves—the team’s first game back at Shea Stadium after the horrific events of September 11—and inside an intense and emotional Mets locker room, Todd Zeile and I had fallen into a conversation unlike any I’ve ever had in 20 years of talking to professional athletes.
I’d told Zeile that since the resumption of baseball earlier in the week, there seemed to be a collective spirit hovering over all those entering the playing field and sitting in the stands, and that the extraordinary exchange of handshakes and embraces between the Mets and the Braves just before the start of the game had truly crystallized in my mind the notion that there was indeed a sense of Major League ballplayers uniting in service to the game itself. “We’d talked to some of the guys on the Braves about the gesture,” Zeile replied. “I mean, here’s a team that’s been our nemesis, our enemy, the last few seasons, but we wanted to show that there are things over and above this game that we understand.”
While that answer would have sufficed, the Mets’ first baseman didn’t stop there. “It goes to a spirit of selflessness as opposed to selfishness,” he continued. “There’s such an element of selfishness in sports . . . not that that’s necessarily bad. It’s part of what makes you a professional athlete. You grow up being very aware of things you can do physically, and you have to on a very real level be selfish about what you do and how you take care of yourself. You have to be competitive as an individual, and then you go from there, especially in a game like baseball, where you have to combine individual goals and team goals, and do everything you can within that framework for the good of the team. But there is a feeling for us, as a team representing New York, that we needed to show our appreciation for the people here who lost their lives, and the fact that the people here are living through this. We’re trying to make them as proud of us as we are of them.”
In a few days, the regular season will have concluded, and the Mets will most likely have finished their 2001 run unable to pull a National League East rabbit out of the NYPD/FDNY/EMS/ OEM/Port Authority hats they’ve been wearing instead of their own. Then again, after four and a half months of truly dismal play, the fact that they were able to make any kind of stretch run was in itself a small miracle. Trying to find the right analogy to describe their improbable turnaround, skipper Bobby Valentine said, “The volume has increased. It’s the same song, but more volume. My frustration with this season is that I haven’t been able to control that volume, in getting people up to the level that they should be at.”
Unfortunately for Valentine and the Mets, it was indeed the same old song playing in Armando Benitez’s head. In the space of one week, he blew two huge games against the Braves that all but sealed the Mets’ fate. Now nearly 29, and finishing his seventh year in the majors, Benitez remains baseball’s Baby Huey: an infantile thrower rather than a pitcher, unable (or unwilling) to learn from his mistakes—or even acknowledge that he makes them, for that matter. Not long ago, after one of his broken-record snits about the media wanting to talk to him only after bad outings, the Daily News‘ T.J. Quinn reminded us of an exchange he had last year with Benitez after the closer had lost a game by giving up half a dozen hits in a row. Afterward, he just shrugged, saying, “He hit a good pitch.” “Who did?” asked Quinn. “They all did,” replied Benitez.
Still, the simple fact that baseball has, in the space of just a few short weeks since the horrors we’ve witnessed, become important again to many of us is something to take hope in. “I still want it to be less grandiose than it sounds,” Zeile told me back on the 21st, “but we do recognize that there are a lot of eyes on baseball as America’s pastime, and that people want it to stay healthy and show that the fabric of life in this country can’t be torn apart by terrorists. It’s a shame that it’s taken something like this for some of us to reevaluate what our priorities are in life, to actually embrace the fact that we’re a compassionate society.” Zeile glanced over toward the row of lockers to his right—the “veterans’ corner” inhabited by Brooklyn’s John Franco, son of a New York City sanitation worker, by New Jerseyite Al Leiter and (at this point) naturalized New York citizen Mike Piazza. “All I can say is I’m very proud of the people I’m around.” Shoulda/coulda/wouldas aside, my guess is most Mets fans would probably agree.