The Mets were in their hotel rooms in Pittsburgh getting ready to face the Pirates when they began getting calls and seeing the news of the gruesome terrorist attack in lower Manhattan on Sept. 11, 2001.
"I was told about the first plane during a phone call, so I hadn't turned on the TV yet to see what was happening," John Franco told me during an interview in 2013. "I called my wife, Rose, and watched the news with her, she was home, and I was speechless, we just couldn't believe what we were seeing."
Franco, who grew up in New York and is the son of NYC sanitation worker, said he was friends with firefighters and people who worked and died in the buildings that day.
"Sitting there, staring at the TV, I kept thinking of all those people, some I maybe knew, and all of the police and firemen that we knew, all of these these men and women and their kids," Franco said, during what felt like a stream of consciousness. "We all felt helpless just sitting in a hotel hundreds of miles away, especially with so many of us having family and friends there."
Meanwhile, with that night's game immediately canceled, the team's GM, Steve Phillips (who was at Shea Stadium) and his manager, Bobby Valentine (who was with the team in Pittsburgh), spent the early part of the day working by phone with MLB on how to get the team back to New York to be with their families.
"We decided to shut down the office (at Shea Stadium) and let everyone there go home," Phillips told me in 2016. "I know, for me, I was desperate to get home, get the kids out of school and hug them and hold them and explain to them what was taking place."
According to Franco, he and several of his teammates met in the hotel lobby and watched the news on TV together, while doing their best to call home and check in on loved ones.
Phillips said the initial plan was to keep the team in Pittsburgh. However, because most air travel had been shut down by the federal government, the team rented a bus to make the 300-mile drive to New York.
"It took nine hours or so to get home and the bus was quiet the entire way," Bobby Valentine told me in 2017. "It was just about sunrise when we got within view of the skyline. We had seen the smoke and cloud for a while, but it wasn't until the bus got off the GW that we could see the buildings were gone. It was horrifying. Guys were silent, angry, afraid, everyone in shock and didn't know what to do next. It was surreal."
The bus arrived at Shea Stadium where players and coaches learned that the parking lot was was being used as a staging area for military and volunteers, with supplies being trucked over to lower Manhattan to help with rescue and recovery efforts.
"We had them staying at Shea Stadium. They were sleeping on cots in the tunnel of the stadium," Phillips recalled. "They'd get up, eat quick, go down to Ground Zero, work their shift, come back to Shea and do it all over again."
"I had never been that sad and that angry ever before in my life," Valentine explained. "I needed to do something. I didn't know what to do. I think I actually considered going down to the recruitment center and joining the fight."
Instead, Valentine went to Ground Zero to help deliver a shipment of flashlights, protective goggles, face masks and eye drops.
There was an overnight shortly after returning to the ballpark during which Valentine recalled leaving to go home, but then he noticed a group of tired volunteers in a huddle struggling to load batteries in hundreds of flashlights needed in the rescue effort.
So, naturally, Valentine joined in helping to create an assembly line, unwrapping batteries, loading them in to the flashlights and then loading the flashlights into the truck. However, the group was stalled when in the distance it heard the revving of motorcycles.
Bikes aggressively barreled into the parking lot, according to Valentine, with the bikers mostly wearing black leather. Valentine stood up, at which point the lead biker asked, "You guys need some help?"
The group of riders jumped off their bikes and began loading batteries.
In time, Valentine also led Franco, Al Leiter, Robin Ventura, Mike Piazza, Todd Zeile and other coaches and teammates to the wreckage.
"More than anything, we wanted to go there and say, 'Thank you,' just express our gratitude for what these men and women were doing to save lives and our city," Franco added.
In return, many of the first responders started giving their hats to the players in hopes that they would wear them as a sign of appreciation for their efforts and fallen friends.
MLB allowed the Mets to wear the hats on the field the rest of 2001 season. However, since then, the league has only allowed the team to wear the first responder hats before games.
According to Phillips, in the first few days after the attacks, the league considered canceling the remainder of the season. However, they eventually agreed to return to playing.
"It's not every day, but it's almost every day that I think about that time," Valentine told me this past January, while shaking his head. "For me, the whole thing still feels like it just happened... and it's something I will never forget."
Matthew Cerrone (Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | Contact) is lead writer of MetsBlog.com, which he created in 2003. He also hosts the MetsBlog Podcast, which you can subscribe to here. His new book, The New York Mets Fans' Bucket List, details 44 things every Mets fan should experience during their lifetime. To check it out, click here!