The emotional first MLB game in New York after 9/11 is most remembered for Mike Piazza’s game-winning home run, but just one inning earlier, it was Liza Minnelli who had the Shea Stadium crowd on its feet.
Former Mets center fielder Jay Payton was waiting on deck as Minnelli crooned a powerful rendition of “New York, New York” during the 7th-inning stretch of that Sept. 21, 2001, game in Flushing. Members of the NYPD and FDNY kicked their legs in a chorus line on the field as Minnelli sang, while fans waved American flags and held up patriotic signs in a moment of solidarity.
Eighteen years later, Payton remembers it well. Immediately after her rousing performance, Minnelli walked up to Payton and gave him a big hug and a kiss on the cheek as the crowd continued to buzz.
“Her getting there and singing that, it was just a reminder of how beautiful this country is,” Payton recently recalled to the Daily News. “A uniting of everybody being there for the same purpose, for the same cause, and just to show that we’re strong."
His spur-of-the-moment exchange with the iconic entertainer is part of the reason Payton ranks that game against the Atlanta Braves among the most memorable of his 12-year career. He got a photo of that moment autographed by Minnelli after his mother sent the picture to the singer.
“I was just embraced in the moment,” Payton, 46, remembers. “She got done singing and I was probably 10 feet from her. She just came over with big, open arms.”
The game took place just 10 days after the horrific Sept. 11 terrorist attacks rocked New York and the nation. Bobby Valentine, who was the Mets manager at the time, recalls the discussions that took place over whether they were resuming play too quickly, or if the team should finish up all of its remaining games on the road.
Valentine says it was important for the team to “stand up and be seen” in the aftermath of the tragedy.
“The emotion that most of us and probably most of America was feeling at the time that was a different emotion from ever before was that one of fear," Valentine told The News. "It was fear for our own safety and our family’s safety. For Atlanta to come up into New York was an amazing concession on their part. ... I got the word that our Commander in Chief really wanted us to play in New York, and I wanted to do everything I could to make that happen.”
Valentine too, was moved by Minnelli’s performance, and by seeing the NYPD and FDNY officials take the field.
“I think it was mainly the men and women in uniform who had suffered so much since 9/11 that were in the news, but they weren’t front and center in the news," Valentine, 69, said. "I think until we donned the hats of all the first responders and they lined up and did the chorus line did anyone really make them the absolute epicenter of the comeback.”
The Mets would go on to win the game in storybook fashion. Less than an hour after Minnelli electrified the stadium, Piazza slugged a towering, two-run home run to center field in the bottom of the 8th to give the Mets a 3-2 lead.
They would go on to win by that score, and leave New York with an unforgettable night.
“Because it was so much more than just a game, it stands out amongst all games,” Valentine said. “It was an event. It was the Band-Aid that everyone was searching for to stop the bleeding."