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Keidel: Sports’ Monumental Impact Following September 11, 2001

New York Mets catcher Mike Piazza (L) is congratulated by teammates (2nd, L to R) Todd Ziele, Robin Ventura, Armando Benitez and Bobby Jones after the Mets beat the Atlanta Braves, 3-2, behind an eighth-inning, two-run home run by Piazza on September 21, 2001 at Shea Stadium. (Photo credit should read MATT CAMPBELL/AFP/Getty Images)

New York Mets catcher Mike Piazza (L) is congratulated by teammates (2nd, L to R) Todd Ziele, Robin Ventura, Armando Benitez and Bobby Jones after the Mets beat the Atlanta Braves, 3-2, behind an eighth-inning, two-run home run by Piazza on September 21, 2001 at Shea Stadium. (Photo credit should read MATT CAMPBELL/AFP/Getty Images)

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By Jason Keidel
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I called Ben from Port Authority. It wasn’t like him to be late and not call.  We were supposed to meet 30 minutes earlier for some bowling on Labor Day.

“My son is sick,” he panted after darting to the phone.

“And you didn’t think to call me, jacka–?” I said.

“My bad, Jay,” he said. “I’ll make it up to you.”

I could hear his grin massage his apology.

“Whatever,” I said, annoyed but not angry.

Benito Valentin had it like that. He was impossible to hate, and it was equally difficult to stay mad at the man.

Ben was many things, particularly funny and a supremely hard worker. He could take a call from a client, put him on hold, call him a cocktail of names, make the office choke with laughter and then resume his conversation. He was allergic to convention or political correctness. I’ll never forget a conversation we had, sparked by a woman who asked him about Puerto Rican pride.

“I’m not Puerto Rican,” he barked. “I’m an American.”

Ben died the next week, leaving a wife and three children in his charming wake.

****

Bridget Thomas-Esposito called me the day after I had reconstructive knee surgery. Drooling from my morphine drip and feeling quite loquacious, I slurred, “I have a catheter.”

“What’s that?” she said.

“I have a tube jammed into my privates,” I replied.

“Ha! Better you than me,” she said.

She was like that, unrefined yet sophisticated, imbued with a woman’s anatomy and a man’s candor and caveman humor. She cared about me before I even knew who she was.  Ben was the same way, which explains why they were so tight.

In the late ‘90s, Ben, Bridget and I worked together inside 2 Penn Plaza — which is also called Madison Square Garden — among 15 people squatting in cubicles, sawed off at the top of our monitors. We were a tight group of travel agents, working for American Express.

A week into the job I broke my left leg — really broke it. If memory serves it was November 8, 1997, the night that Evander Holyfield knocked out Michael Moorer. Along with a pal from childhood, I thought I morphed into an MMA expert. It was one of those idiotic nights from our 20s, sponsored by Coors Light. A few minutes and a shattered left knee later, I was on my way to the ER.

Bridget was the first friend to call me at the hospital, and I’d only known her a month. Forgive the cliché, but Bridget would give you the shirt off her back –and bra and shoes. She was blessed with the kind of kindness I never had.

****

Eventually, we lost our corporate travel account –- Young & Rubicam, an ad agency on Park Avenue South.

All of us displaced and on the lip of unemployment, Amex offered us a job with our newest account: Marsh & McLennan. About ten from our group took the gig. I accepted, and then changed my mind the next day.

The company was hit directly by American Airlines Flight 11. All eight floors they occupied and the 294 employees occupying them were incinerated. I lost Bridget and Ben. I don’t know their families and they don’t know me. If they read this, please know that you aren’t the only ones who miss them, the only ones who love them.

We’ll never know why or when we walk the opaque line between life and death, our existence as arbitrary as it is inexplicable. I used to work inside 7 WTC, but not that day. I took another job within American Express, but not that day.

****

Mike Piazza hit the most enduring home run of his stellar career as the embers glowed downtown, as Mayor Rudy Giuliani told us to resume our lives.

No doubt America’s heart stopped on 9/11. And while we New Yorkers don’t take ownership of our nation’s glory and gory, you must be from the five boroughs and just beyond to understand what we felt.

Before Y2K, New York City was a wonderland, with fruit for every appetite known to man. Thus I was something of a city hick, as oxymoronic as that sounds. Being born and raised in Manhattan, I felt no need to travel, to see the world, as such, because the world was Manhattan. What else could someone need?

This is before the mass gentrification and sterilization of my home, now consumed by a puritanical bent, with condos and pharmacies sprouting like weeds all over my island.

On 9/12, or maybe the next day or the next week, we turned to sports, to grown men crying alongside us, somber in the outfield and listening to our national anthem with FDNY and NYPD caps cupped across their hearts. For those highbrow vegan types who see sports as nothing more than displaced testosterone — “Pituitary cases stuffing a ball through a hoop” — to quote Annie Hall, this missive is lost on you.

So when Rudy and the like implored us to resume our lives, knowing how impossible that was, we turned to Shea, to Yankee Stadium, to Giants Stadium. I had ringside seats, ensconced in press row, ready for Felix Trinidad to fight Bernard Hopkins inside MSG on September 15, 2001, before Satan chartered two planes and crashed them into two buildings. The fight was postponed until September 29.

An amalgam of emotions poured into the arena that night. Trinidad, Puerto Rico’s undefeated prince, was battered by Hopkins. Perhaps no one but Bernard himself knew that would happen. The cowbells froze and the salsa music was muted as so many stunned Puerto Ricans staggered out of MSG, flags solemnly draped over their shoulders, their wives and girlfriends consoling them. I was offered $1,000 for my press pass before the fight, but not even $5 after. (Not that I would have sold it.) No doubt all of us watched something remarkable that night, but our souls still sat next to those working downtown, showing their mettle as the metal loomed between them and possible survivors, as the smoky rubble churned yet another night.

If you Google “Marsh & McLennan 9/11” you get a gaggle of idiotic blogs, belching conspiracy theories rather than respect for those who departed. Tragedy brings out the best and worst in us, and the Internet frames the contrast perfectly.

So we turned to sports then and now when we’re confused, our blanket in troubling times, reverting to the comfort food of our adolescence. When I was a kid there was nothing more safe than sitting next to my old man on Sundays, watching football until I fell asleep during 60 Minutes. Pops would carry me to bed, waking up the next morning not knowing how I got there.

It all changes, doesn’t it? 9/11 made sports seem so trivial yet titanic in one breath. 9/11 wasn’t just about a plane and a building, and Piazza’s fly ball was about more than putting a crooked number up on the scoreboard. And even though the prepubescent heroism we superimpose upon athletes is distorted, it serves a proper purpose: distraction, a buffer between us and the grim, meat-hook realities of everyday life and death.

Everyone has a story like mine. Many are much worse. And once in a while we can watch a game, at the game, and stand next to our brothers and sisters without saying a word, knowing our five-borough bond is implicit and monolithic.

Perhaps it’s just as well that Manhattan isn’t nearly the glowing emblem it used to be. This “Freedom Tower” juts like a middle finger at the victims and their families, erected by rich men over the skeletons and souls of those we love.

Perhaps it’s just as well. New York City isn’t the same without them, anyway.

Feel free to email me at Keidel.Jason@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter here.

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