The weirdest part about the inevitable recollections a baseball game played between the New York Mets and Atlanta Braves at Shea Stadium on September 11 summons is the obligatory reference to how remarkable it was that when these teams squared off just shy of six years ago in our city's first large “normal” gathering of any kind, their fierce rivalry was put aside.
Think about it. The horrifying circumstances enveloping the city; the tension and uncertainty; the precautions and the prayers; the dimness in our hearts…and the fact that the Mets and Braves didn't hate each other for a night is considered as historically groundbreaking in context as any of it.
It's a different September now and it was a different Tuesday in New York yesterday, no matter the coincidence of the date and the day of the week. The Eastern Division equation has been shaken like a snow globe time and again over the past six years, never mind what's occurred in the world at large. The Mets have tumbled and they have risen. The Braves rode high until they succumbed to a middle path. The statistical reality is the two teams haven't actually finished adjacent to each other since 2000. Yet these are longstanding rivals still. Maybe someday through another round of realignment or another shake of the snow globe, they won't be quite in each other's heads and faces the way they have been for the last decade.
It would be too bad. Sport thrives on rivalry. These two have earned theirs. I used to think it was a little overstated because it was a lot lopsided. The Mets' ascension has altered that aspect of this rivalry for the better. The Braves' refusal to completely go to seed has been good for it as well. We like a good nose-looking-down where they're concerned — and we'd probably be pretty happy if they were about ten back of the Marlins — but in the abstract as well as in this particular September, the arrangement works. Neither combatant should be a hollowed-out version of itself. You have to hate somebody in sport, and your bile has to be worth your while.
Let's not be shy about how we feel about the Atlanta Braves. Hate is not too strong a world given the sordid interaction between these two teams since approximately the conversion of an Olympic stadium created Turner Field. Yet on September 21, 2001, I couldn't imagine hating a baseball team for the crime of trying to beat another baseball team, even my baseball team. Those were just people down there on the field. They were embracing. How could I hate anyone ever again who wasn't literally out to destroy me? Those feelings came back again with the stories that trickled out of the booth Tuesday night, particularly when it was pointed out there's still that cluster of Braves who were there then and are around now.
Everybody points to Piazza's home run and its healing power from the Friday night game. Yeah, I guess. I have to confess I've never quite bought into it, and I was there, standing and applauding like everyone with a pulse. I was happy the Mets had won a baseball game and I was encouraged that they extended their participation in the pennant race a little longer and I was thrilled if anyone who was in need of a serious lift received it from one swing of the bat…but I personally couldn't get past its marginal meaning in the larger scheme of things.
For that, I needed to hate the Braves. I couldn't hate them Friday night. No, it took Sunday afternoon — Brian Jordan and all he wrought (two-run homer in the ninth, game-winner in the eleventh) — to make baseball real again. To make it OK to hate a baseball team for trying to beat another baseball team. For succeeding at beating a baseball team. For ruining the playoff chances of a baseball team. For doing in my baseball team.
Logically, it didn't click any more than Mike launching his shot Friday night did. Not one more person lived instead of died because of a baseball game. But emotion usually has about a six-game lead on logic in our sport, and my prevailing emotion Sunday was hatred for the Atlanta Braves.
Hate. Baseball hate. It was back. It felt so right.