Mike Piazza left his apartment in lower Manhattan earlier than usual. Police were checking cars at the bridges and tunnels for terrorists and explosives, and Piazza didn't know how long his trip to Shea Stadium would take. It was the afternoon of Friday, Sept. 21. That night Piazza's Mets would be playing the first big league baseball game in New York City since the terrorist attacks 10 days earlier. When Piazza moved into his apartment, at the start of the season, he had been able to see the towers of the World Trade Center from his south-facing windows. Now he could not.
A few blocks south of Piazza's apartment, a stream of well-wishers stopped by a redbrick relic of a firehouse, Ladder 3, on East 13th Street. The visitors carried votive candles, handwritten prayers and boxes of candy. None of the firehouse regulars were there to receive them. Twelve Ladder 3 firemen perished on Sept. 11. The 15 who did not were heading to Long Island for the wake of one of their fallen brothers. A firehouse, a good one, is a team.
Shortly after 7 p.m., as the wake for firefighter Joe Maloney was beginning on Long Island, Diana Ross was singing God Bless America at Shea, backed by 40,000 voices. Piazza, the most stoic of men, wept. The Mets were playing the Atlanta Braves, and a pennant hung in the balance. People were getting on with their lives.
Maloney was a Mets fan, following the rooting path cleared by his two kids. At Ladder 3, everyone was either a Mets fan or a Yankees fan. In New York's firehouses baseball—slow enough to fill the long, quiet nights—is still the national pastime, and softball is played for keeps. Everyone at Ladder 3 either played for the company softball team or rooted for it. Playing ball and fighting fires, there's a link there, has been forever. What do you want to be when you grow up? A ballplayer. A fireman. Those two jobs, changed world and all, still fill a million childhood dreams.
Near the end of the wake, some of the men slipped out and went to a nearby bar to catch the final innings of the Mets game on TV. They toasted Joe Maloney and his 14 years at Ladder 3 while Atlanta took a 2-1 lead in the eighth. Then Mike Piazza of lower Manhattan smoked a two-run home run in the bottom of the inning, and the home team won 3-2. New York won. Those three words never sounded so good.
Nancy Carroll wanted to make it to Maloney's funeral. She and Joe's wife, Kathy, are close. The two women had sat together at firehouse picnics for years. Nancy, however, couldn't go. Her husband, Mike, had spent 15 years, his whole career, at Ladder 3. He was at the center of Ladder 3 life, the shortstop on the softball team, the captain's right-hand man at fires. The men of Ladder 3 were his brothers. They ate together, they watched TV together, they knew one another's secrets. She wasn't ready to see them. She wasn't ready to face the memories.
Kathy Maloney at least had a body to bury. Nancy Carroll didn't have that. Day after day she continued to hope her husband would be recovered, but the days turned into weeks, and bodies weren't being found. Finally she consented to a service. Mike Carroll's memorial Mass was held on Saturday, Oct. 20, at St. Ignatius Loyola, an ornate Catholic church on Park Avenue several long blocks from Yorkville, the old working-class neighborhood on Manhattan's Upper East Side where Carrolls have lived for generations. The church, the same one where the funeral of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis took place, in 1994, was packed. Nancy had tried to attend Jackie's Mass, but she had turned back when her infant son, Brendan, spat up his breakfast on her blouse.
At her husband's funeral, each mourner was handed a laminated Mass card, about the size of a Topps card. On one side was a photo of Firefighter Michael T. Carroll, wearing his helmet. In the picture he looks young, alert, fit, mischievous. He was 39 when he died. On the other side of the card, where his career stats could have been, was an old Irish blessing.
May the road rise to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sunshine warm your face, the rainfall soft upon your fields.
And until we meet again, may God hold you in the palm of His hand.
On the pulpit was a flower arrangement in which bright blossoms formed an overlapping N and Y, just as the letters do on the caps worn by the Mets, who were Mike's team, and the Yankees, who are Brendan's. Mike's body was represented by a helmet—a surrogate helmet, since his was never found. At the start of the Mass, a Ladder 3 fireman, Pat Murphy, one of Mike's Softball teammates, carried the helmet down the center aisle with slightly extended arms, as if it were a crown. Near the end of the service Mike's brother, Bill, four years older, delivered a eulogy. In the Irish tradition, he began with a story.