Robin Ventura was used to seeing men in uniform sprawled out around the New York Mets locker room.
Twenty years ago, though, the sight Ventura saw after entering the locker room looked a little different.
For one, the men in the clubhouse wore fireproof uniforms.
A few days before firemen took up temporary residence in the Mets locker room, Ventura woke up on Sept. 11, 2001 in a Pittsburgh hotel room.
His morning routine had been crafted by years on the road. Grab a cup of coffee and turn on the TV. Ventura flipped on the Today Show and picked his cup up off the counter.
Not even the strongest cup of joe in the Steel City could prepare him for what he saw.
“I just remember I had my coffee in my hand, and couldn't figure out what was going on,” Ventura said.
Images of smoke and fire. Sounds of shrieking people and groaning steel. The World Trade Center had been attacked by hijackers, and Ventura said he felt numb watching the television.
“Terror is the right word,” Ventura said. “There was confusion. You're nervous. All of a sudden it was like nothing felt right… everything kind of changed in that instant.”
Mets players congregated in the hotel lobby. There was an impromptu meeting and team members went to pack their bags. They might be in danger.
“We were next to a federal building and everybody was panicking,” Ventura said. “Major League Baseball had us moved to a different hotel out in the suburbs.”
The Mets bussed to their new place and it was there, at a small motel where guests can park right outside their rooms, where the day’s happenings hit Ventura.
“It's hard to explain to people how big the building was that went down and how much it took out,” Ventura said.
It was all bus rides for the foreseeable future. Planes were grounded.
The Mets traveled back to New York the next day. All MLB activity, games and practices had been paused. The team didn’t know what to do, but the eight- or nine-hour bus ride hampered by traffic provided plenty of time to ponder.
“We ended up on the Jersey side coming in,” Ventura said. “You could see where Ground Zero was. All it was just smoke. There were lights everywhere.”
The Twin Towers, each previously 110 stories tall, washed a wave of debris over the immediate vicinity. Ventura said it was as if someone had taken a giant hose of dust and sprayed it everywhere, wrecking nearby apartments.
“It was wet, too, so it would stick,” Ventura said. “Everywhere you walked around, cars had soot on them… when you see those pictures of people just covered in powder, that's because it came down and just shot out. “
The wreckage site in Lower Manhattan was not the only space that looked different to the returning New Yorkers. Their home stadium had been transformed.
“Shea Stadium already started as kind of the collection center for all the supplies…anything that was needed to go down to Ground Zero, that's where it was staged before they took it into the city,” Ventura said. “It was great.”
The circular stadium, which was demolished in 2009, was encircled by a grey asphalt expanse. The parking lot, designed to hold lifeless vehicles on game day, was alive with activity when the Mets got back home that day in September 2001.
A crowd of volunteers used the space to gather, organized and package supplies for distribution. The caches of goods included water bottles, food, snacks and bandages.
“There (were) people everywhere,” Ventura said. “There’s fire trucks from a couple states away that were already there. It was just like this huge effort just to get as much stuff there as you possibly could.”
Going back to work was difficult. In fact, after teams could resume practicing a few days after the attack, Bobby Valentine, then Mets manager, and his ball club agreed it simply was not worth it.
“The first practice we had, you know, we kind of did it for about 30 minutes and nobody was really into it,” Ventura said.
Valentine sensed the apathy and made a suggestion.
“Our manager was like, ‘Let's just go pack boxes,’” Ventura said. “Everybody just kind of went out and just started packing boxes and doing stuff.”
The commotion of the relief efforts was a far cry from the comfort of the diamond a few hundred feet away. Packing cans of corn with hundreds of other volunteers, though, felt better than catching one in practice.
“Somebody would just kind of yell at you,” Ventura said. “They would just tell you what to do. We didn't know what we were doing. You just did it. He didn't really think too much… it was kind of chaotic organized chaos.”
The work of Ventura and the Mets continued to be woven into the work of first responders in the short time after the attack.
Like those dispersing rescue supplies, firefighters temporarily used Shea Stadium’s facilities. Men fresh off 12- or 24-hour shifts clearing rubble and looking for survivors at Ground Zero nine miles away slept on cots in the Mets locker room.
“It was really weird,” Ventura said. “You'd walk into a room and they're kind of in their gear. They took their jacket off, but they're still there sleeping in their boots and their pants.”
Ventura said he felt guilty practicing baseball while seeing firsthand what the firefighters did. The Mets did not practice very much in that time, but they were good hosts. The players let excited (but exhausted) firefighters hit, take ground balls and play a game on the field.
The Mets played the first game back in New York 10 days after the World Trade Center fell.
Shea Stadium was bursting at the seams with patriotic fans, leading to a weird atmosphere of somber and joyous moments.
“You didn't even know if you could cheer, laugh, clap or do anything like that,” Ventura said. “I think that was kind of the start of people being able to feel comfortable doing that.”
With snipers lining the roof providing a visible reminder of the bolstered security, catcher Mike Piazza hit a go-ahead home run to center field in the bottom of the eighth. It would be the deciding factor against the division-leading Atlanta Braves.
Ventura greeted his future Hall of Fame teammate at home plate with a two-handed high five.
“The game was emotional,” Ventura said. “Mike Piazza hit a home run at the end of it that was really cool. It kind of was like the perfect little topper to the first game back.”
Ventura always thinks about Chris Quackenbush during yearly anniversaries of the attack on NYC. A big Mets fan, Quackenbush was paired with Ventura in a charity golf tournament hosted by Valentine.
Two weeks after the tournament, Quackenbush became one of the 2,996 casualties of 9/11.
“It was just tough every day going to the ballpark in New York knowing that when you're meeting people, it wasn't for ‘Hey how's it going?’ It was because they lost somebody.
"It was a tough rest of the season.”
The Mets decided to honor firefighters, nurses, doctors and other key groups in the efforts to stabilize America’s biggest city by wearing hats honoring the first responders.
Ventura wore a Port Authority hat; an ode to the group that oversees bridge and tunnel infrastructure in that area.
Heads poking over the Mets dugout railing sported navy-blue caps reading things like NYPD and FDNY in the appropriate lettering, even if it clashed with the uniform and MLB asked them to stop.
“We were like, ‘Yeah, we're not gonna do that,’” Ventura said. “We're just gonna keep wearing these …and we ended up wearing them the rest of the year.”
Firemen eventually left the Mets locker room, but the first responders of New York never left the hearts — or hats — of Ventura and the Mets that season.