NEW YORK — They came dressed in shirts proudly depicting the American flag Saturday, carrying miniature flags, wearing New York firefighter and police caps.
The ballpark was filled with Mike Piazza jerseys as if he was still catching for the New York Mets.
They brought signs, “United We Stand! God Bless America! “We will never forget!’’
And they chanted USA! USA! USA! all night.
The standing-room only crowd, one of the largest in Citi Field history, may have bought tickets for a baseball game between the New York Mets and Yankees, but the reality was the game was just a backdrop against the emotional tribute on the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
“We have a role to play,’’ Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. “We certainly understand the importance of the games, but it’s important every now and then to have reminders that puts things in perspective.
“This is one of these days.’’
The flags atop Citi Field were all at half-mast when the first responders came onto the field carrying flags representing their organizations.
“New York State of Mind’’ bellowed from the scoreboard as fans stood, cheered, and cried, before the signing of “God Bless America.’’
Then, came out the bagpipes, as the Mets and Yankees stood at full attention in front of the dugouts as if they were at West Point, with tears streaming down fans’ faces.
When the music stopped, the Mets and Yankees walked across the field and embraced another just like 2001, only this time they stood intermingled with one another on the foul lines. Every Yankee stood by a Mets’ player and every Met stood next to a Yankee.
The National Anthem was sung, and it sounded like every fan in the stands and player on the field was singing along, followed by a roar of “USA, USA!
When the players retreated to their respective dugouts, another video was shown, this time with the Mets and Atlanta players reminiscing about their first game back in New York on Sept. 21, 2001, which will forever be known as the Mike Piazza game.
The ceremony concluded with former Mets manager Bobby Valentine and former Yankees manager Joe Torre throwing out the ceremonial first pitches.
Only then did the fans finally sit down.
Perhaps the most beautiful sight came once the game started with airplanes flying overhead at Citi Field into the LaGuardia Airport.
Never have those planes looked and sounded so good.
It was a stark contrast to the silence at LaGuardia in the first game back on Sept. 21 after the attacks when there was a no-fly zone.
“We were so used to seeing plans arriving or departing every three minutes,’’ Valentine said. “It was so eerie to see no plans at all. Everything about that game was different and surreal. The men standing on top of the stadium by the light posts with long guns, the dogs walking around and sniffing in my office at 7:30 in the morning, and all of the police and military wearing fatigues.
“It was like the world had changed.’’
It was as if the country lost its innocence, with so much anger and distrust and suspicion.
Yet, on this glorious night, the Mets and Yankees made sure that all of the good was celebrated when New York came together as one, trying to heal together.
“Every single day, we’re still recovering,’’ Mets first baseman Pete Alonso said. “We’ve never stopped recovering because it cut that deep.’’
Yet, the tragedy also brought triumph, and good overcoming evil.
This is what the Mets chose to celebrate, the healing of America.
They brought back more than a dozen former players and coaches from that 2001 team, everyone from Al Leiter to Rey Ordonez to Mookie Wilson to Jay Payton to Lenny Harris to Glendon Rusch, sharing their memories.
Leiter, who was living in the Upper East Side with his family that year, remembers his daughter was scheduled to have her first day of school that day, and having to explain why posters were on every light pole with pictures of the missing.
Valentine remembers being on a fire station rooftop with several of his players by Ground Zero days after the attack, looking out, and seeing a pinkie finger on the ledge.
“Those are the images,’’ Valentine says, “that stays with you forever. You can’t get that out of your mind.’’
The Mets weren’t trying to erase those memories in their poignant ceremony, vowing never to forget, but rather celebrate a nation coming together.
“There was so much fear and anger, I knew we had to play to help that game 20 years ago,’’ Leiter said. “I think now, with the Yankees and Mets playing against each other on this date for the first time, is also just as special.
“Look around. I think New York needed this.’’
Edgardo Alfonso, surrounded by reporters on the field before the game, turned around, looked at the boisterous crowd, felt the energy, saying it resurrected memories from 20 years ago when they were the first sporting event in New York after the attacks.
It was the game Piazza became a hero, hitting the game-winning home run against Atlanta, lifting the spirits of an entire city.
“When he hit that home run,’’ Edgardo Alfonzo said, “it felt like we won the World Series.’’
And this night, the Mets and Yankees will tell you, felt just as big.
It was more than just a baseball game.
It was a catharsis.
“Today has so much reverence to it,’’ Piazza said. “It was really interesting and touching to see some of the ceremonies at Ground Zero. I think it’s very important to not only recall, remember and reflect, but to educate the next generation and teach them what transpired. The lesson should be that life is precious, and life can be short. You have to love the people around you. It can end very quickly.’’
Valentine was subtly reminded when he was regaling friends and guests with stories. He was interrupted by a young Mets’ employee, who introduced himself, stuck his hand out, and thanked him.
“My dad was a firefighter, and was killed at 9/11,’’ he said. “I was 3 years old. My brother was 1. But I wanted to say thank you for everything you did for us.’’
Valentine looked at him, and softly said, “Thank you, but we didn’t do enough.’’
The game went on, and although the Yankees and Mets are fighting for their playoff lives, there is no winner. No loser. For at least a night, bringing everyone together once again was a majestic triumph.
“For everyone to stay together, and for the love of this city,’’ Mets manager Luis Rojas said, “I feel blessed just to be here.’’
So did every soul who walked through the Citi Field gates.
Follow Nightengale on Twitter: @Bnightengale.