Current and former New York Mets were at the 68th Street firehouse in Maspeth to try and lend a lighter touch to a somber day of remembrance.
They had been chatting, signing autographs and posing for pictures for the families of deceased firefighters for 10 minutes when a bell rang.
Then a tone sounded.
Then a loudspeaker called out “Squad 288 ...”
The firefighters put down their plates, excused themselves, donned their gear and climbed aboard their truck, leaving their guests and preparing for whatever awaited them at their destination.
The Mets organization has been close to Squad 288 and Hazmat 1 ever since they lost 19 men in the Sept. 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center, frequently furnishing player visits and having firefighters out to the ballpark.
Friday’s visit coincided with the end of Maspeth’s 10th annual ceremonies commemorating the Fallen 19, and six area residents who died in the twin towers.
Edgardo Alfonzo, the former All-Star second baseman, said a decade has not dimmed his memories of the days following 9/11.
“We came back from Pittsburgh,” he said, walking from the fire house to the monument “And there was still smoke coming from the World Trade Center.”
While President Bush encouraged the country to return to normal as soon as possible, it was another 10 days before baseball started up again in the city.
Discarding their normal caps with the orange NY in favor of those from the NYPD, FDNY and other first responder agencies, the Mets took on their archrival Atlanta Braves.
Alfonzo still smiles when recalling the late-inning home run by Mike Piazza that gave the team the lead for good, and the pandemonium that rocked Shea Stadium afterward.
“That was great, especially against the Braves,” he said. “But more because I think it let people forget about things and think about something else for a few hours.”
Alfonzo was joined by former players Robin Ventura, also of the 2001 team, John Olerud and Matt Franco.
“I wasn’t with the team then; I was having a bad year,” Franco said. “But I was in the city that day.”
Olerud also did not have to be asked twice to attend on Friday.
“I just admire what they do,” he said.
Two current players, pitchers Bobby Parnell and Tim Byrdak, also attended. Byrdak at one point traded his Mets cap for the helmet and turnout gear of firefighter Chris Lindberg of Hazmat 1.
Though he trudged upstairs, officers dissuaded him from sliding down the fire pole.
“How do you carry people out in this?” Byrdak asked Lindberg while weighed down under the gear outside the front entrance.
“You’re not done,” Lindberg said, handing the relief pitcher a radio, ax and a large, heavy pry bar.
“Now take a ladder off the truck, put it up to the second floor and start climbing,’ taunted bullpen mate Bobby Parnell, whose father, Bob, is a firefighter in his native North Carolina.
Parnell believes the visit to the firehouse and subsequent trip to the memorial across the street in Maspeth Memorial Park, hits closer to home for him than it could for other players.
“I grew up in a firehouse,” Parnell said. “I can’t tell your my earliest memory” he said. “I’d dress up in the gear and slide down the pole. There are so many.”
Parnell said even with firefighting in the family, he never had the experience of being startled when the home phone would ring just a little bit later at night or earlier in the morning than it should.
But he does remember how devastated Bob Parnell and his colleagues were when they learned that the collapse of the towers claimed the lives 343 firemen.
“It didn’t matter that it was in New York,” he said. “That affected the whole country. Then to be drafted by the Mets and come to New York and meet the people who were there was incredible.”
Parnell considered it a privilege to attend on Friday and talk to the firefighters and the families.
“I’ll thank them for their husbands, their sons and their service,” he said.