Imagine, after years of toiling in the minors, finally breaking onto the roster of a Major League Baseball team.
Imagine working your way into a regular spot as a relief pitcher for that same team, helping them fight a longtime rival for the division title.
And then imagine it all grinding to a halt, to a point where not only does baseball seem unimportant, but to where you no longer recognize the city, country and world you live in.
This was the life of Jerrod Riggan after the events of Sept. 11, 2001.
The Brewster native had finally latched on with the New York Mets and was working his way through the most successful of his four seasons as a Major League pitcher when he woke up to a phone call in his Pittsburgh hotel.
It was Riggan’s wife, Jennifer, on the other line. She told him the story we now know all so well — two planes had been hijacked by terrorists and flown into the World Trade Center towers. Jennifer could see it all from their home in Queens, watching until the towers crumbled to the ground.
The Mets were scheduled to start a three-game series with the Pirates that day, but it would be six days before they took the field again. Instead they were on lock-down; as a nationally-known sports team, the Mets could have been a target.
“It was kind of spooky,” Riggan recalls. “The rest of the day we were just in the Pittsburgh Westin. We kept in touch with friends and family in New York, I made sure my wife was OK. It was a lot of down time. We were uncertain what was going to go on.”
After a few days stuck in Pittsburgh, the Mets returned via bus to New York City while they, along with the rest of America, wrapped their heads around the heinous attacks that claimed the lives of 2,753 men, women and children.
“We hopped in a Greyhound bus and bussed back. It was kinda funny, through the circumstances we stopped at a truck stop and here’s Mike Piazza, Al Leiter and Robin Ventura at a truck stop, and all these truckers’ jaws were wide open.”
While back in New York, Riggan and the Mets did their part in helping out the victims of the attacks.
“We got to be part of the relief. Shea Stadium was a food hub so I was fortunate to go there and help, go down and talk to people who were in those buildings before they collapsed. … They were counting their blessings they were alive. They were weeping for their buddies. They had a lot of resolve.”
Riggan visited Ground Zero within a few days of being back in the city.
“I got down there and at that time it was pretty chaotic. You go down there and see pictures of hundreds, thousands on the wall. ‘Have you seen my brother?’ or ‘Have you seen my son?’ It was really heart-wrenching.”
The city’s personality underwent a drastic change after the towers went down, he says.
“In New York City it seems like everybody hates you, doesn’t want to look at you. But the next few weeks it was kind of a peaceful dread. Everybody was basically in shock. It was just like a total 180-degree turn. … New York City is like chaos, but you would go down there and it was just quiet. It was weird.”
The Mets returned to Pittsburgh on Sept. 17 and immediately started a winning streak. They swept the Pirates, with Riggan even picking up a win on Sept. 18 by throwing 1 1/3 innings of relief.
Not that he remembers any of it. He says it was all a blur, except for one game that has gone down as one of the most memorable moments in baseball history.
The Mets returned to Shea Stadium on Sept. 21 to play the first major sporting event in New York since the attacks. The game turned into a star-studded celebration of America and New York — Marc Anthony sang the national anthem, Diana Ross took on “God Bless America,” and Liza Minnelli performed a rousing rendition of “New York, New York” during the seventh-inning stretch.
Riggan says there was “a lot of pressure” on the Mets in that series against the Atlanta Braves — not only because they trailed the Braves by 5 1/2 games for the National League East Division lead, but because they were representing a city that had been deflated by 9/11.
They came through.
Down 2-1 in the bottom of the eighth inning, team leader Piazza hammered a towering home run to the camera tower in left-center field, putting the Mets ahead 3-2.
The Shea Stadium crowd erupted. The Mets themselves went crazy on the field.
Riggan saw it all from the bullpen.
“I’ll never forget that feeling, just that we did it. It kinda felt like you had everybody watching you. A lot of baseball guys are tough guys, don’t show emotion, but every one of the guys was crying when he hit that ball.
“It was pandemonium on the field afterwards. In our clubhouse it was amazing, there were probably 500 media and 25 players. We didn’t care. It was kind of America binding together, saying we’re going back to business.”
Riggan says Piazza, with whom he had developed a friendship during the season, instantly became the toast of the town.
“He was like King Kong. He changed things for the whole city at that point. It changed him.”
The Mets eventually finished second in the division to the Braves. Riggan posted an impressive 3-3 record and 3.40 earned run average, but he was shipped to the Cleveland Indians in the offseason in an eight-player trade that sent future Hall of Famer Roberto Alomar to the Mets.
“When I left (the Anaheim Angels franchise in 1998) and New York signed me, I was so proud to be in New York City. I can’t explain it. I was just a proud person to be there. When I got traded to Cleveland it was like my balloon was deflated. At that time I thought I was going to be a Met forever. My heart just sunk (when I was traded), and I jinxed myself from then on.”
Riggan struggled in Cleveland and was made a free agent in 2003. He signed with the Mets twice more, in 2003 and 2005, but never made it back to the majors.
“I haven’t been back (to New York) since 2001 or 2002, but it’s always going to be my home away from home. The Mets are the team I want to always be associated with. It’s a real special place.”
Now 37, Riggan is back in Brewster, coaching the high school baseball team for which he once starred in the spring and spending his summers as the pitching coach of the Alaska Goldpanners of Fairbanks in the Alaska Baseball League. He and Jennifer have four kids — sons Turk (9), Moxon (5) and Jace (3), and six-month-old daughter Lila — who were all born after 9/11. He says he wants them to realize the impact 9/11 had on him and the country they live in.
“I never really thought about (what I’d do 10 years after 9/11). These questions are making me swell up, and it will probably hit me if I start thinking about it — and I should start thinking about it. I realize 10 years ago my son wasn’t alive when it happened. I want to teach them the history from a first-person perspective.
“It was a time you felt a lot of United States pride. It gave you a new look on things that were more important than baseball. You find out things are bigger than yourself. It definitely changed my life. I was fortunate to be there. It’s weird saying that, but I’m really glad I was.”
Brent Stecker: 661-5222