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Coutinho: Memories Of 9/11 And The Mets

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A giant US flag hangs from the South side of Shea Stadium 21 September 2001 prior to the start of the game between the New York Mets and the Atlanta Braves in New York City.  (credit: STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images)

A giant US flag hangs from the South side of Shea Stadium 21 September 2001 prior to the start of the game between the New York Mets and the Atlanta Braves in New York City. (credit: STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images)

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By Rich Coutinho
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It is hard for me to believe 10 years have passed since that fateful September morning when forever all of our lives changed. At the time, I was covering the Mets as a freelancer and working as an Operations Director for the Bravo Network and I can still remember it like it was yesterday. Most mornings I took to Metro North into the city to the Bravo offices on 44th and 5th Ave but on this morning I had a meeting in the corporate Cablevision offices in Bethpage (at the time Cablevision owned Bravo).

When I left from my home in Bronxville, I heard on the radio that a tower had been hit but at that point it was viewed as an accident.  As I left the toll bridge on The Whitestone Bridge and  proceeded to drive onto the bridge, to my horror, the second plane hit the towers. My first thought was just to get over the bridge not knowing what really happened. Motorists, upon hearing this news, were obviously shaken as I could see their looks of disbelief.

At that point, all I could think of was my staff of seven people in New York — so I got on the phone with the hopes of telling them to evacuate. At that point, they had already fled the building so I proceeded the call them on their cellphones till I reached one of them. I instructed them to use any means possible to leave the city. Some lived in Manhattan while the others did not, but fortunately, my assistant from her cellphone booked some hotel rooms for people who could not get home — likely the last rooms available in Manhattan.  I am so glad I acted quickly because a short while later the towers came down and all hell broke loose.

I started to think about my friends who worked in that building and the many police officers and firemen I knew whom I was sure would be asked to help once I realized the severity of the moment. I tried to get through this time by going to my office — knowing that we had to still stay on the air and it was my responsibility to do just that. We decided that Bravo would remain with regular programming with a crawl to drive people to get news.

The next thing I had to do was inspect every piece of programming to make sure there were no shots of World Trade Center (you’d be surprised how many films and shows do that — every episode of Friends for instance). It seems so trite and wrong to immerse myself into work with our world seemingly collapsing and not knowing if the people I knew got out of the building. But it also kept me from totally losing it and held my anger in check I was feeling for the people responsible for this.

I somehow got through the day and checked into a hotel that the company booked for me. For the first time, I realized the enormity of what occurred. I found out that most of my friends and family had gotten home safely that night but two close friends did not, including my accountant — whom I had known since I was 6 years old. And all I could think of was his wife (whom I also grew up with) and her two children aged 6 and 4. We had just spent a Saturday together just two weeks before and spent most of day both playing softball and talking about our childhood. We both agreed our parents sacrificed so much for us and felt so lucky to be where we were in life. It was weird — we rarely talked about stuff like that — most of our conversations were about sports and women-but for some reason on that day we waxed poetic about our lives. I am so glad we did.

For the next few days, I went to work but clearly was merely just going through the motions spending half the time angry and the other half of the time depressed. And I did not lose any family members, but friends close enough that it hurt. And for days the families held out hope their loved ones would be found posting flyers all over the city. And that whole time, all I could think of was the people who died and also those who survived whom would never be the same.

To tell you the truth, I did not even think about baseball until I was asked to cover the Mets workout the following week. I was walking around in a trance somehow refusing to believe that the World Trade Center was not there anymore. For people of my generation, this was OUR building — the Empire State Building was our parents building, but the WTC was our place. By that, I mean it was the place that symbolized the strength of New York — two towers that showed what Americans can build when they do it together. So many of us had special moments there and now all that was left was those moments.

I remember arriving at Shea Stadium for that workout like I had been so many times before, but this was different. Growing up at Shea, airplane noise was as commonplace to hear as “Batter Up,” but the first time I saw a plane pass over the stadium I looked up at it in a manner in which I had never looked to the sky. I remember saying to Omar Minaya, who was sitting next to me,”I never thought of them as weapons but I guess they are.” Omar just nodded his head and we chatted a little bit before he turned to me and said,”You know if we don’t resume our normal life Rich, then the terrorists win. And if there is one thing I know about you, it is how you hate to lose.” I smiled and it kind of snapped me out of it so much so I went down to Ground Zero for the first time the very next day. As a general manager you could choose to like Omar Minaya or not like him, but I hope that story illustrates why as a person, Omar Minaya is as good as they come.

Then there was the first night back at Shea for a game and the heightened security made all of us feel safe and secure. I remember that the pre-game ceremonies were as emotional as I’ve ever felt in a ballpark. But it was also the first time I felt like I could take a deep breath. After all, I grew up in this ballpark and watched so many great moments here. It was fitting to honor our fallen heroes at the one place I have felt the most comfortable in my life. For me, the Mets have always been a big part of my life because they are a lot like all of us. Far from perfect, but always there and though the great moments are not as commonplace as they are across the river, those moments are off the charts whether it is Cleon Jones going to one knee, a Tom Seaver gem, a Dwight Gooden masterpiece, or a Mike Piazza blast. But it goes far beyond that — following the Mets teaches that despite your imperfections, you can experience priceless moments that make the ride one worth taking. And in so many ways, it was the only place for me that the healing process could ever take place.

The Piazza homer put the icing on the cake but if the truth be told, the moment I saw the first pitch on that night, normalcy began to creep in for me. Now, we must never forget what happened almost 10 years ago or the people who lost their lives. But I must tell you if my two close friends made it out of that building, they would have been at Shea that night doing the exact thing I was doing — starting the healing process watching the greatest game in the world in the very place where we learned how wonderful that game really is.

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