Piazza’s post-9/11 moment still haunts Martinez (Nats up 5-2)

MINNEAPOLIS - Everyone has a 9/11 memory. Where they were. What they thought. How they felt afterward.

And many post-9/11 memories involve baseball, which in many ways helped the United States heal through one of its darkest times and bring back some semblance of normalcy in the days and weeks after the terrorist attacks.

Davey Martinez remembers all of it, because he lived through all of it. And he had a front row seat to one of that fall’s defining baseball moments: Mike Piazza’s dramatic home run at Shea Stadium in the first game played in New York after the attacks.

Martinez, playing for the Braves, was at first base when Piazza launched Steve Karsay’s eighth-inning pitch deep to center field for the two-run homer that lifted the Mets to a 3-2 victory and induced one of the loudest roars Shea Stadium ever experienced.

Martinez-Hatless-sidebar.jpg“To hear those people cheer and hear the fans, for that split-second I can remember just forgetting what had happened, but not really,” Martinez recalled today, his eyes welling up as he spoke. “But for the fans, it was an unbelievable breath of fresh air. This country’s been through a lot, and we stuck together. So to be a part of that, and to be a part of this country, I’m just really happy to be an American. And those people that lost lives, my heart goes out to them, always.”

The Braves had just completed a road trip to Montreal and Chicago, then had a day off before they were scheduled to open a homestand at Turner Field. Martinez wanted to spend the off-day with his family, so he was in Tampa on the morning of Sept. 11, dropping off his kids at school when the attacks began.

“I was getting ready to go to the airport, and I hear all these rumblings on the radio,” he said. “And I said: ‘Man, we need to go get the kids out of school.’ At this point, you don’t know what’s going on. And we went back and got the kids and went home, turned the TV on. And as I turned the TV on, they showed the first plane hit, and I was like: ‘Oh, no. Something’s wrong.’ That was the first thing: ‘Something’s going on. Something’s wrong.’”

Major League Baseball would postpone games for the rest of the week. Play resumed on Sept. 17, and Martinez and the Braves faced the Phillies at Veterans Stadium for four days before then heading up to New York for the Sept. 21 series opener at Shea Stadium.

It was the first sporting event held in the city after the attacks, and a horde of workers was still in Lower Manhattan cleaning up the rubble. The Braves wanted to show their support, so a group of them went to Ground Zero to pay their respects before the game that night, which was an emotional scene of its own.

“I can remember the anthem and ‘God Bless America,’ ” Martinez said. “We all had red, white and blue on. We didn’t have wristbands or anything, but we all got tape and colored it red, white and blue just to represent our country. It was kind of a somber moment. And then once the game started, it was kind of like: ‘You have to play. You have a job to do.’ But as I recall, we didn’t score very many runs. And it was two teams out there really fighting to do what we felt was important, and that’s to be out there for the fans and to play baseball and for those three hours to try to forget about everything. But it was hard. It was really hard.”

Martinez, who unbeknownst to him at the time was in the final month of his playing career, wasn’t in Atlanta’s starting lineup on Sept. 21. But he pinch-hit for Wes Helms in the top of the eighth, drew a two-out walk off Armando Benítez and then took over as a defensive replacement for Julio Franco at first base in the bottom of the inning, with the Braves leading 2-1.

The lead would be short-lived. Karsay issued a one-out walk of Edgardo Alfonso, then served up Piazza’s towering home run that gave the Mets a 3-2 lead. If you watch the video closely, you can see Martinez standing near first base as Piazza rounded the bag, the sellout crowd in a frenzy behind them.

“I just kind of stood back and just watched him jog by me like, ‘Wow,’ ” Martinez said. “I just listened. And I could hear the fans. Look in the stands, and there were people crying. There were so many people from the fire department, the police department there, at the game. It was something.”

Update: The Nats bats have returned tonight. They’ve jumped out to a 5-0 lead in the third inning, thanks in large part to an old friend named Ryan Zimmerman. Zimmerman delivered a two-out RBI single to center to cap a two-run top of the first. Then he belted a two-run homer off Martín Pérez with two outs in the top of the third to cap a three-run rally. Howie Kendrick preceded that blast with a two-out double off an 0-2 pitch. The Nationals really needed to jump out to an early lead tonight, and that’s exactly what they’ve done. In the bottom of the third, Jorge Polanco hit a two-run homer for the Twins.

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