A New Ballgame

Moments after catcher Joe Reznick angrily wondered aloud why a runner failed to advance after the ball was bobbled in the outfield, a crowd gathers around shortstop Pat O'Donnell, who explains why Spiderman is his favorite superhero to those who question the giant tattoo on his left shoulder.

Mike Newbert jokes about his versatility, saying he is in left field tonight but plays all positions with equal inadequacy. Sunflower seeds make their way down the bench. The scenes are not that different from those on fields across America on a given summer night.

Others are.

Bill Beyer captures everyone's attention by explaining that a fellow firefighter severely burned his hand in a fire, a reminder of the daily danger. George Hopkins sits beside him and talks about the entire team coping with death.


"It's still overwhelming," Hopkins says. "We have a poster in our firehouse with pictures of all the guys lost on 9/11, and I still look at it, recognize a new face and say, `He was in there?' It's hard to believe a year went by."

These conversations cause players to deviate from their rapid banter. They slow down and speak with helplessness in their eyes as if still digging through the rubble at ground zero.

As much as this group of firefighters, the FDNY baseball team, is characterized by playfulness, it also is steadfastly resilient, powerful in mind and body. The desperation and heartache lingering from Sept. 11, 2001, is met with the simple joys of summer and the relationships that lend normalcy to lives turned upside down.

They look back - always - but have parlayed their dismay into energy to carry on. They have come together this summer, using the memory of two lost teammates as the driving force to form a team with players who share more than passion for the game.

Getting back to the game brings its own joy, too. This team was unlikely to exist even before Andre Fletcher and Michael Weinberg were killed on 9/11.

On this night, FDNY is about to play Game 1 of the Triboro Baseball League championship series against the Manhattan Knights at Taft High School in the Bronx. The team wears blue jerseys with FDNY in red letters across the front. The red numbers "343" are stitched across their left sleeves, representing the firefighters who died at the World Trade Center.

Fletcher, who was 37, was the team founder. Weinberg, 34, was the team's best player. Here on a field about a mile from Yankee Stadium, their spirit remains with teammates who felt they owed them this season. There is center fielder Tom Mandel, who remembers Fletcher giving him one of the few things missing in his life four years ago - baseball. There is Hopkins, who says Weinberg threw a baseball harder than anyone he had ever seen.

And there is always manager Scott Miller, also the cleanup hitter and first baseman, who stands in front of an American flag that dangles on the backstop and hits fly balls to his outfielders. Miller was just as disheartened as Fletcher when FDNY could not recruit enough players to field a team last season. Shortly after 9/11, Miller knew it would be up to him to re-establish the team and do Fletcher and the department proud. And now, less than two weeks from a Sept. 20 charity game against the NYPD before which Fletcher and Weinberg will be honored, he has.

Remembering Fletcher

Andre Fletcher was the type - even in a city the size of New York - whom friends would run into on the street. He was outgoing, energetic and on the move, traits that leave his father, Lunsford, with little wonder why Fletcher tossed self-preservation aside and rushed to the towers on 9/11.

"I know why he did what he did," Lunsford said from his house in Freeport, N.Y. "Other people mattered to him."

A memorial for Fletcher, one of eight firefighters who were lost from Rescue 5 in Staten Island, was held Oct. 13.

In his passing, Fletcher inspired. At the memorial service, Miller and Hopkins spoke of their friend and eventually about baseball, both agreeing a team had to be established in Fletcher's honor.

A few weeks later, Miller posted a message on an FDNY website:

Andre Fletcher ran the FDNY baseball team for three years and did a great job. He was a fantastic guy and very dedicated. He loved being a firefighter and I know he ran into the WTC without thinking about himself but for others. I will miss him this spring when it's time to play ball again but I will never forget him.

Scott Miller, Fellow Firefighter - Wednesday, November 7, 2001

Soon after, Miller was seeking players, something Fletcher found to be no easy task. Fletcher started the team in 1998. FDNY did not win a game in its first season and Fletcher's enthusiasm was not always matched. By the second season, the team was forfeiting games. They played on torn-up fields under bad lighting. Many times, only eight players would show. Those driving across the city questioned whether it was worth the time.

"One year, we had practice early in the season," Hopkins said. "It was just me and one other guy. I looked at him and said, `Well, let's play catch.'"

The team folded before the end of the third season. Last season was spent lamenting the team's demise, but also trying to spark hope for the future.

Fletcher and many of his teammates would lose touch, but never for long.

"Last time I saw him, he was walking down Queens Boulevard," Mandel said. "We talked about what was going on in our lives. Then we talked about getting the team back together and how nice it would be to play baseball again. We really fell apart. Andre was definitely going to give it another shot. He was really going to. I know he was going to try."

But he never got the chance. Instead, Miller assumed the duty.

"When I heard 9/11 took Andre, and we didn't have a team the year before, I knew someone had to get it going and do it right," Miller said. "It's definitely in honor of 9/11 and Andre and Mike. Andre started it and did the best he could. For some reason the poor guy couldn't always get a solid team together. We owed him that, and I think we've given that to him."

Too Many Reminders

Everywhere Morty Weinberg goes, he sees his son. Too many reminders in too many places.

"This is pure hell," Weinberg said from his cellphone while attending a 9/11 memorial service in New York on Saturday. "It's still hell. This really is hell on Earth. Pictures in my mind of my son haunt me."

Michael Weinberg was gifted, a handsome, athletic man, someone who packed a week of activities into a day.

"He was a boxer, a lifeguard, a physical trainer, he could dunk a basketball, he was a scratch golfer, he was a model," Morty said. "My son could do anything."

A year ago today, Weinberg, once featured in a fire department calendar, was on vacation and in the clubhouse at Forest Park Golf Course in Queens, waiting for a 9:08 tee time he would never make. Instead, he jumped in his SUV and made it to the World Trade Center. His sister, Patricia, worked on the 72nd floor of the second tower hit. She made it out. Michael from Engine 1 did not. His body was recovered at ground zero on Sept. 12 and he was laid to rest Sept. 17.

"The last conversation I ever had with Michael was the day before he died," Morty Weinberg said. "I saw him driving around the city that morning. When I talked to him I said, `You're going through the streets too fast, Michael. You got to slow down. You're going to hit somebody, and you know how bad you would feel then.' He said, `OK, dad.' Then he said, `All right, I have to speed to the golf course.' What a wise guy."

Like boys everywhere, Weinberg started playing catch with his father at a young age. "I saw the talent," Morty Weinberg said, "and I told him we're going to get him a scholarship with that."

And that's how it worked. Weinberg went to St. John's, was named most outstanding player of the 1988 Big East Tournament and played two seasons in the minor leagues for the Detroit Tigers. Injuries shortened his baseball career, so Weinberg joined the fire department and played sporadically on the FDNY team, leaving many players in awe.

"Funny thing about him is you didn't know he played pro ball," Miller said. "He wasn't into showing off. He was such a good player, just incredible. He was quiet, but was always teaching the guys fundamentals and how to play the game. He certainly did it right."

FDNY Wins On, Off Field

So has this year's team. FDNY was 14-6 in the regular season and swept two playoff rounds to reach the championship.

Trying to cap it off, the players gather near third base as Game 1 is set to begin, join hands and part with a thunderous cheer: "Bravest!"

With no FDNY team last season, Miller played for the Manhattan Knights and is familiar with many of the players his team will be facing in the best-of-five series.

"That's why I know we're going to rock this pitcher," he says.

Miller, 35, is soft-spoken and mild-mannered, the "father figure of the team," as O'Donnell puts it. Miller admits he had doubts about rebuilding the team.

As Fletcher had done, Miller began to spread the word. He posted another message on a website looking for interested firefighters and thanked them in advance for keeping the spirit alive in the face of death.

For all that was taken by 9/11, it also instilled a new appreciation for what remained. If the FDNY wasn't the tightest brotherhood in the country before 9/11, it must be now. That is evident on many levels, and enthusiasm toward the baseball team proved no different.

Miller set three tryout dates, thinking it would be an initial gathering for what might not be enough players. But players funneled in from all boroughs.

"Unreal," Miller said. "Because of 9/11, they wanted to come. They wanted to be a part of it. Guys have said because of that, there is more of a common bond with us. After 9/11, we have that bond that can't be broken. I think a lot of guys said, `Life is short. Let's play ball.'"

About 30 players tried out and Miller had to cut the roster to 18.

"Beforehand, we were just taking guys that would show up," Miller said. "Andre came to a point where he'd make people come down. I remember once I had to work or something, but he called me and said, `We only have seven guys. You have to come down!' I said, `Seven? So, what am I, eight?' Some people just didn't care at times. They do now."

Firemen Are Fired Up

By the second inning, the mood on the third base side is grim as Manhattan takes a 2-0 lead. Equipment is thrown. Players are baffled by their inability to hit.

Newbert, the otherwise nonchalant left fielder, is overwhelmed with frustration. After striking out in the second inning, he is ready to burst. He kicks a cooler, sending ice and water in every direction.

Behind Newbert, Reznick finds the scene hilarious.

Reznick, 27, sets up behind the plate, wearing a dark blue mask with flames across the front. He is a screaming, swearing, spitting, maniacal team leader who is red in the face from the first pitch to the last.

He also is a rookie, and one of the keys to the formation of the team.

Miller got to know Tim Reznick, 23, the second baseman and Joe's younger brother who also had come out of the firefighters academy just before the season started. Tim got Miller in touch with Joe, who had connections. Having played high school ball against several from the academy, Joe took charge in the recruiting process.

Every infielder besides Miller is a probie (probationary firefighter).

"That's my infield," Reznick said. "As soon as I heard, I called guys up and said, `You're playing. I don't want to hear anything different out of you.'"

"When Joe says something, he means it," third baseman Paul Egan said. "I'm just glad I found out about this. There's a lot of pride involved."

Despite playing a sloppy game, FDNY wins, 4-2.

"You all have four days to hit the batting cage," Miller says. "Myself included. Man, did I stink."

"We were very lucky to win this one," Mandel said.

Reznick was not pleased either, but right now he's headed to his favorite postgame hangout with a few teammates - a Bronx gas station for beers in the parking lot.

Miller heads home with his wife, Lissette. Mandel is driving across Queens, still talking about having to play better the next time out. But the longer he drives, the further the conversation drifts from baseball. Mandel points out different firehouses and tells stories of friends who lost their lives.

Eventually, he starts talking again about baseball. FDNY completed its goal Tuesday, clinching the series with a 6-2 win over the Knights. The focus now is Sept. 20, when FDNY plays the NYPD at Keyspan Park in Brooklyn. The game is expected to draw about 5,000 fans and FDNY has framed jerseys to hand to family members in a ceremony for Fletcher and Weinberg.

Morty Weinberg doesn't know if he'll be there.

"I haven't followed the team at all this year," he said. "It hurts me too much. And I don't know if I can sit through something like that, because Michael should be on the field."

Those who do show will perhaps be looking for a sense of closure, something already partially achieved by the FDNY team.

"This whole season has been for the two guys we lost," Miller said. "It's been for them, and for the other 341 that were taken from us. It's our way of honoring them, and they've all helped carry us along the way."