Ball Field Heroes Pay Respects
Tom Giordano had looked forward to that moment since his childhood in Brooklyn, since the days when he'd go out in the street with his buddies and swing a broomstick at a rubber ball they'd cut in half, so the kid who was pitching could make the "ball" dive and hook.
That was 30 years ago. Giordano's uncle loved the Yankees, and the boy absorbed the passion. He didn't care that the team was going nowhere. He didn't care that Tom Seaver's New York Mets owned the spotlight and the glamour, out in Queens.
"Horace Clarke, Jake Gibbs, I made it through all those years," Giordano said, recalling not-so-famous Yankee mainstays of the time. He stuck with the Yanks when they were down, and he watched them slowly build to this newest dynasty, to this team of resilient grace now battling Seattle.
Ladder 101 Captain
Two weeks ago, three of those Yankees - including Derek Jeter - came unannounced to Giordano's place of work. He couldn't be there. He is fire captain for the "Red Hook Raiders" in Brooklyn, home to Ladder Company 101. When the Yankees walked in, shocking all the regulars, Giordano was at the home of Linda Maffeo.
"I was at the right place," Giordano said. "That's where I was supposed to be."
On Sept. 11, as the twin towers burned, Linda's husband, Joe, and six other Red Hook firefighters rushed to the World Trade Center. Giordano, off duty, was walking his dog. He learned of the attacks when he snapped on the radio.
Giordano sped to work, got his equipment and raced into Manhattan. The towers had collapsed. The city was lost in smoke.
"I find one of my guys, just a kid, sitting on the curb, covered with dust, just sitting there," Giordano said. "He's saying, over and over, "Cap. They're all gone."
Seven guys lost. Giordano went through their lockers at the firehouse. With the permission of the families, he made a little shrine. He started off with a Sal Calabro cigar, because Sal loved a good smoke, and he found small tools or photographs in the other lockers, and he kept going until he kept a piece of each of them.
Then, with his men, he started "visiting the wives," a routine that has continued every night for the last month. Giordano would eventually guide those women, as a group, through the rubble of "ground zero," the only place where they could fully comprehend why their husbands have not been found.
"Pretty tough," Giordano said. "I find myself coming to work and being angry. All these guys, and they aren't going to come back."
Two weeks ago, he was at the Maffeo house - comforting Joe's wife and playing with their 1-year-old son - when Derek Jeter, Tino Martinez and Gerald Williams walked in the firehouse door.
The startled Red Hook firefighters quickly called their captain.
"My guy calls and says, "Cap, I got someone who wants to talk to you,' and he puts on Jeter," Giordano said. "He gets on and he's calling me sir. He says, "This is Derek Jeter, sir," and I tell him (expletive) and he says, "No, sir, this is Derek Jeter." Calling me sir! What a gentleman! What a guy! You know he's got parents who brought him up right.
"I got tongue-tied. I didn't know what to say. I just told him to take a lot of pictures with the guys", and he said, "Yes, sir, and that was it."
That conversation means more than Giordano can explain. With these Yankees, October baseball has become almost routine. Last year brought the most electric New York series of them all, with the firehouse split between the Mets and the Yanks. Feelings were so intense that fans of the two teams watched the games in separate rooms.
At Red Hook, Giordano said, the sport is like religion. The ladder company softball team, the Red Hook Raiders, plays in a league based near Coney Island. Last summer, the Raiders went deep into the playoffs. Calabro, Tommy Kennedy and Patrick Byrne - three of the seven men lost at the twin towers - played important roles in that success.
At first, Giordano didn't want the team to play again. "Now I think next year, maybe (we play) and dedicate it to them," he said.
The three guys from the softball team were also Yankee fans. They would have loved to know how Jeter stopped by and called them "heroes." The captain takes comfort in that thought, when he can. Each new shift brings raw grief from 23 firefighters "who are more like my own kids," and then Giordano goes out to "visit with the wives," before he goes home and tries to smile for his family.
Amid all that, it's nice to know the Yanks are still alive.