NEW YORK -- Three hundred and forty-three firefighters and paramedics died during the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center. Mets closer Bobby Parnell knows the number off the top of his head.
Parnell's father, Bob, is the chief of the Salisbury, N.C., fire department, where he once had a piece of steel taken from Ground Zero and displayed as a memorial. Many of Parnell's closest friends are firefighters. Many of their fathers are firefighters, and their father's fathers before them.
"The fire corps is a brotherhood," Parnell said. "Whenever you get a chance to support your brotherhood, you do that."
One of Parnell's friends, Chip Thomas, traveled to New York City this weekend to visit Ground Zero and tour Station 10, the Fire Department Engine and Ladder adjacent to the World Trade Center. It is a trek that Parnell has made before. It is a trek that Parnell will make again.
Nor is he alone. So many Mets, both past and present, visited firehouses and met with first responders in the days leading up to the 10th anniversary of the attacks, making this week about much more than Sunday evening's pregame remembrance ceremony at Citi Field.
"The whole week was special leading up to tonight," third baseman David Wright said. "Obviously, we remember and honor those heroes, but at the same time, I think it should be done a little more often than once a year."
Not for a decade have the Mets looked back on the attacks as vividly as they did Sunday, before a nationally televised game at Citi Field. Shortly after the sky overhead darkened in Queens, the Mets and Cubs lined the diamond alongside members of eight New York City service agencies, including the Police Department and Fire Department. They observed a moment of silence. As he did on Sept. 21, 2001, in the first Major League game in New York City following the attacks, Marc Anthony sang the national anthem. First responders and families from the non-profit organization Tuesday's Children unfurled a 30,000-square-foot American flag across the outfield behind him, while thousands of fans held electric candles above their heads.
Following the anthem, two members of the 2001 Mets, John Franco and Mike Piazza, broke off from their former teammates to participate in the ceremonial first pitch -- Franco to Piazza, as it was back then. When those two walked off the field, a bagpipe corps began playing "Amazing Grace." For a moment, fans chanting "U-S-A" drowned them out.
It hardly seemed to matter that the Mets and Cubs ended the night with a baseball game, and yet in so many ways it did. It mattered because of the role baseball played in the aftermath of 9/11, helping a city and a nation pause -- if only for a moment -- from their grieving.
"It definitely is painful looking back, thinking about that week and reflecting on it," Piazza said. "I thought the ceremony was very moving and just very well done. I'm very proud to be a part of it, very humbled to be a part of it."
Wright was an 18-year-old Minor Leaguer watching on television when Piazza gave the Mets an emotional victory over the Braves at Shea Stadium in the first game in New York after baseball finally resumed following the attacks. He still considers it "one of the coolest sporting events that I've ever witnessed."
Among that night's more memorable aspects was the Mets defying Major League Baseball's edict for them to wear their regular game caps, instead playing with service hats from the NYPD, FDNY and other agencies. It was an act that did not repeat itself Sunday; on the 10th anniversary of the attacks, the Mets complied with MLB and, after wearing service hats throughout the pregame ceremony, traded them in for black Mets caps. The service hats will be put up for auction on Mets.com/gameused, with proceeds distributed to various 9/11 charities.
"That's their decision," said Wright, who keeps a collection of all the service hats he has worn on various Sept. 11 anniversaries. "If we had a vote in it, I think we would wear the hats. But at the end of the day, Major League Baseball makes that call, and we're going to respect that."
"They contacted the club and said it's an absolute, no chance at all," player rep Josh Thole said.
"Certainly it's not a lack of respect," said Joe Torre, MLB's executive vice president of baseball operations. "We just felt all the Major Leagues are honoring the same way with the American flag on the uniform and the cap. This is a unanimity thing."
"I certainly understood what they wanted to do in regards to wearing the hats. I used my history with the fact that we were in the World Series 10 years ago."
If it was an issue to some in attendance, it faded as soon as the pregame ceremony began. In the days and weeks leading up to Sunday's anniversary, nearly every member of the Mets spent hours telling and retelling their own 9/11 stories, from Pedro Beato's experience on the roof of his Brooklyn high school, to Angel Pagan's sudden fear of flying, to manager Terry Collins' time as a member of Tampa Bay's coaching staff.
Because the Rays were the first visiting team to play at Yankee Stadium following the attacks, Collins had an opportunity to meet with first responders before the game, engaging in a long chat with one fireman in particular. The man signed an FDNY hat that day and gave it to Collins, who stores it amongst his collectibles at home.
"You just started having conversations with them, and as they were all telling their stories, you're sitting there listening and wondering if you could have done it," Collins said. "I know you just react sometimes in those situations, but the harrowing experiences and the fear and the danger and everything combined, and for these guys never to have a second thought -- when you hear the things they had to go through, is truly amazing."
Sunday gave the Mets reason to honor as many of those men and women as they could. And so just as they did 10 years ago, the Mets spent an emotional evening reflecting, paying tribute and playing baseball in New York City. There was something typically American about all three.