John Franco on the importance of saluting the first responders on 9/11 anniversary

By John Franco

For me, 9/11 is the true identity of our 2001 Mets team. When the attacks hit, every member of our organization stepped forward and knew what to do. That includes players, coaches, manager, front office, and ownership.

Before our first game in New York after September 11, Fred Wilpon and Nelson Doubleday addressed us in a clubhouse meeting. They told us this is a crazy time, and we would be asked to do a lot of things. Their message was simple: Do what you can do.

Well, no one said no to anything that was requested of us. That’s why this weekend I made my 15th visit to a firehouse to pay our respects. Todd Zeile and I went to Engine 16 Ladder 7 on East 29th Street.

It’s important to never forget what went on that day. Close to 3,000 brave souls lost their lives. We go to the firehouses not only to honor the 343 firefighters who passed away but also the policeman, court officers, EMS, and other first responders who were lost. We are not only paying our respects to those who died but it is important to let the guys on duty today know we are thinking of them, too.

Three of my cousins and one uncle were firefighters. My dad, James, was a sanitation worker, and I always wore an orange shirt under my uniform top to keep his memory alive.

I was brought up to respect the men and women on the front line. The first responders put their lives on the line every day and we can never lose track of what they do.

I look at these firehouse trips as a way to teach the kids, who were born after 9/11, what the country went through. No one knew what to expect when we played the Braves 10 days after the planes hit. Could there be another attack? Would they target Shea Stadium? I will never forget all the security we had at the game that night.

I still remember our first firehouse visit. It was right by Ground Zero and it was totally destroyed.

Our team swung into action right after the attacks. Shea was turned into a recovery area and each day before we worked out, we packed trucks to send supplies downtown.

A group of us — Mike Piazza, Al Leiter, Todd Zeile, Bobby Valentine, and Jeff Wilpon — made countless trips down to Manhattan to cheer up the people who were working on the pile. We had no cameras or newspaper people with us. We just did the right thing.

I know each team today will wear 9/11 hats commemorating the agencies who lost people that day. Well, we were the first team to wear those hats and I have been proud of that till this day. There was a lot of pressure on us to take the hats off after a week or so, but we said no. Todd, who was our player rep, told everyone that you would literally have to tear them off our heads.

I think one of the reasons why our team is remembered so fondly is the fact we played the first sporting event in the city after 9/11. A lot of people did not want us to play because they felt it was too soon. Well, in the end we did the right thing and our getting back on the field helped the City get back to normal.

Thanks to Bobby V., we became affiliated with Tuesday’s Children which came to the aid of the 3,000 kids who lost a parent on 9/11.

Another thing we did was donate a day’s salary to Rusty Staub’s Foundation which took care of the police and firefighters’ families who lost someone in the line of duty. It wasn’t just the players who gave, it was practically everyone in our entire organization.

On this day of mourning, I would be negligent if I didn’t give a huge shout out to Rusty, whose organization raised millions of dollars for the families of the police and firefighters. He was such a giving person.

When I came to the Mets, Rusty was holding yearly barbecues at Shea which served as fundraisers for the first responders. I didn’t miss one and I made sure my teammates came out, too, to sign autographs.

One of the highlights of my career was the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 game we played at Citi against the Yankees two years ago. We had about 16 guys there and we shared a lot of great memories. What we went through as a group will be a bond that keeps us together forever.

When a tragedy like 9/11 hits, you never know what to expect and how people are going to react.

Well, we were the perfect team to face the aftermath of 9/11. I was born in Brooklyn and lost friends when the Towers went down. Al is from New Jersey. Bobby V., was born in Connecticut. This was all personal with us. We also had a group of guys who were not only great players, but great people. I was proud to work side-by-side with Robin Ventura, Edgardo Alfonzo, Joe McEwing, Vance Wilson, plus Mike and Todd.

As I said before, playing the first game after 9/11 is a big reason why we are remembered so fondly. Everyone can recall where they were when Mike hit a homer against Steve Karsay. People were able to laugh and smile again after that hit.

Four days before we played at Shea, we beat the Pirates in Pittsburgh in the first game back. I was fortunate to get a save on my birthday. It was a night I will never forget.

The Pirate fans gave us such a warm welcome. There was a huge poster outside our locker room with about 4,500 signatures extending their best wishes.

Monday night, at Citi, I will be participating in the pre-game ceremonies. I will be catching a first pitch from a member of the New York Sanitation Department. My dad would be smiling.

It was great catching up with the firemen on Friday. I always get emotional when I look at the plaque which lists the guys who died on 9/11. They say time heals all wounds. Well, sometimes it doesn’t.

Todd and I had a great chat with the guys at the House. We talked baseball and had some laughs. I was struck by how young some of these firemen were. One guy was 27. They treated me to a ride on the truck which was fantastic.

I cannot believe it has been 22 years since the Towers fell. The memories for me and for all my teammates are still fresh. We will never forget; I promise you that.