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Near, Yet So Far The view from Mike Piazza's balcony was changed forever

It was nearing midnight on Sept. 12 when the altered New York
City skyline first came into view. After a seven-hour ride from
Pittsburgh, where the New York Mets had been at the time of the
terrorist attacks the day before, two buses carrying the team
rolled eastward near Newark on Interstate 78. In one of the
vehicles the players had tried watching a comedy, Me, Myself &
Irene, on the overhead monitors, but someone ejected it from the
VCR because no one felt like laughing. Now The Cider House Rules,
a drama about an orphanage, was playing.

Where the Twin Towers should have stood, giving familiar comfort
to the homebound New Yorker, there were instead giant billows of
gray smoke illuminated by the white floodlights of rescue crews.
Somebody on the bus clicked off the movie. There was total
silence in the coach. For 10 minutes, as the Mets drew closer to
the disaster and, thus, the gruesome reality of it, no one
breathed a word. Players stared out the windows, many with mouths
agape. Some of them began weeping. Although they had watched
hours of news coverage in Pittsburgh, this was the moment the
terror hit home.

Mike Piazza, New York's All-Star catcher, was dumbstruck by the
fact that such colossal fixtures had been obliterated. Perhaps no
prominent athlete lives as close to ground zero of the attack as
Piazza. His Gramercy Park apartment is only four blocks from the
area cordoned off in the disaster's immediate aftermath. He had
been able to look southward from his apartment and get a partial
view of the World Trade Center. No more. "My building's fine,"
Piazza said last Friday, "other than the smoke and the smell, and
you hear a siren about every five minutes. No words can begin to
describe what New York is like now."

Piazza, who grew up outside Philadelphia, is an adopted New
Yorker, but he and Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, who lives
uptown, are the athletic princes of the city. No one else comes
close. Until March, however, three years after the Florida
Marlins dealt him to the Mets, Piazza had lived in a house he
purchased in Alpine, N.J., about 20 miles from midtown Manhattan.
"When I got traded to New York, I didn't know enough about the
neighborhoods and values of apartments to buy anything, so I took
a place in Jersey," Piazza says. "But it seemed as if every other
night I was in the city, so it made sense to find a place there."

Piazza was sleeping in the Mets' hotel in Pittsburgh on the
morning of Sept. 11 when his phone rang. He normally doesn't
answer his hotel phone, especially at that hour, but this ringing
was incessant, so he picked it up. It was his agent, Dan Lozano.
"They bombed the World Trade Center!" Lozano shouted.

One friend, whom Piazza didn't want to identify, told him a
chilling story. The man said that one of his colleagues received
a cell phone call from the colleague's sister. She was trapped
inside one of the burning towers. "She told him, 'I'm not getting
out,'" Piazza said. "Basically, she called to say goodbye....The
one thing I can't begin to understand is attacking civilian
targets. I mean, there were babies on those planes!"

When the bus arrived at Shea Stadium, it was after midnight.
Piazza had no luck rousting a car service. Jay Payton, a teammate
who lives near Times Square, offered him a ride. It was 2 a.m. by
the time they neared Manhattan. They had to stop at police
checkpoints along the way. The lights on the lower East River
bridges had been extinguished, as in a war. The roar of fighter
jets echoed across the night. An acrid smell filled the air.

"I have the feeling that I've been changed by all this," Piazza
said. "We've all been changed. How can you not be?"

The rescue crews' floodlights stayed on all last week, visible
from Piazza's apartment. Last Saturday the Mets had been
scheduled to play the Montreal Expos at Shea Stadium. The weekend
games, of course, were postponed. Instead of playing baseball,
Piazza and six teammates visited injured policemen, firemen and
civilians at two hospitals in Manhattan. He was struck by how
each victim had a story and how quick each was to tell it. Piazza
was there to listen to his fellow New Yorkers.

--Tom Verducci

COLOR PHOTO The Mets' Mike Piazza on Monday during God Bless America beforefacing the Pirates in Pittsburgh in the teams' first game after the attacks. [T of C]

COLOR PHOTO: JOE MCNALLY Hell met Perched mere blocks from the smoky ruins, a distraught Piazza grieved for his adopted city.