published Sunday, September 11th, 2011

A Braves loss that even Chipper could accept

ATLANTA — Every time a plane flew over on its way to or from LaGuardia Airport, Larry “Chipper” Jones flinched.

And, as always, there were a lot of planes flying over Shea Stadium to make the Atlanta Braves star nervous as he stood in left field facing the New York Mets on Friday, Sept. 21, 2001.

 The baseball game was the first major sporting event in New York City after terrorists flew two planes into the World Trade Center on 9/11, bringing the Twin Towers to the ground and bringing the United States to its emotional knees. After days of empty skies except for military aircraft, the country’s commercial air traffic had resumed days earlier.

So planes flew and Jones kept one eye on the sky.

“None of us wanted to be there,” he said from the Braves’ locker room inside Turner Field. “I think a lot of us had that Pat Tillman mentality. We wanted to fight [the terrorists]. When 9/11 hit, I think we all realized how small baseball was in the grand scheme of things.”

But in the immediate scheme of things they weren’t Tillman — the Arizona Cardinals football player who joined the military because of 9/11 and was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan. They were professional baseball players who had their own important role to play in soothing the psyche of America in general, and the Big Apple in particular.

“A lot of people saw it as our job to return some kind of normalcy to the city of New York, if not all of America,” Jones said. “It certainly wasn’t like serving in the military, but it did seem like our patriotic duty to play, to give the country some relief from the pain and anger we were all feeling.”

The pain and anger had gripped the nation for 10 days since two planes crashed into the ill-fated towers, one struck the Pentagon and another crashed in a Pennsylvania field.

But the tragedy had been most personal to New York area residents, who lost nearly 3,000 friends and family members in the towers’ collapse.

“It was almost impossible to go to sleep,” Bobby Valentine, the Mets manager at that time, told USA Today last week. “How many funerals can you go to? How many times can you hold a hand and look into empty eyes that show you nothing but a broken heart?”

For Herm Edwards, the New York Jets football coach at that time, it was cars in the city’s parking lots that cemented the fact that nothing was going to be the same.

“The next few days [after 9/11] when I was going to work [past a commuter parking lot], I noticed there were certain cars that never left the lot,” he recalled. “Within three days you figured it out. Those people ain’t coming back home.”

Yet people came back to Shea Stadium that Friday night, some 41,000 strong, to cheer their Mets and momentarily set aside their grief. Diana Ross sang the national anthem. The Mets and Braves shook hands. During the seventh-inning stretch, Liza Minnelli delivered an emotional rendition of “God Bless America.”

“There were tears in the eyes of many of the fans that night,” said Jones. “There were tears in the eyes of the Mets players. There were a few tears on our team, too.”

Jones insists that he was never worried about the security at Shea that night — just the planes flying to and from nearby LaGuardia.

“I was looking up every time,” he said. “The security on the ground was great. There was definitely a military presence everywhere you looked. But every time a plane flew over we all looked up. We all thought Shea would be such an easy target for a second attack.”

In the bottom of the eighth, he looked up to see Braves reliever Steve Karsey about to face Mets catcher Mike Piazza after walking Edgardo Alphonso. Atlanta led 2-1 at the time.

“I remember thinking, ‘That’s not a good matchup for us,’” said Jones. “I remember worrying ‘Piazza could hurt us here.’”

On an 0-1 count, he did just that. He crushed Karsey’s pitch over the left-center-field wall. The Mets led 3-2. They would hand their shaken fans an unforgettable victory an inning later.

“When he hit it, the whole stadium stood up,” said Jones. “That whole place went absolutely berserk. I’ll never forget it.”

Interviewed by the New York media a few days ago, Piazza said, “I thought it was divine intervention. When the game started, I didn’t know whether I was going to have the strength to get through the night. I feel blessed to be remembered for a home run that helped the city heal.”

How much the nation has healed is open to debate.

“I still remember it like it was yesterday,” said Jones. “And it still hurts.”

There is no debate, though, about how Jones views that singular Braves defeat a decade later.

“It was the only game of my 18 years here — heck, the only game of my whole life — that I wasn’t at all mad that we lost,” he said. “This was one time when my team losing served a greater good.”

Contact staff writer Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6273.

about Mark Wiedmer...

Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...

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