SB Nation

Joe DePaolo | September 11, 2013

Pride of the city

When the FDNY's Bravest play the NYPD's Finest in baseball, it's more than a game.

The Finest

Jose Vazquez was on a cruise ship en route to Bermuda when he got the news he was hoping not to hear.

In only a few weeks, "the Finest," the NYPD baseball team, were scheduled to take on their archrivals from the Fire Department, "the Bravest," in the NYPD-FDNY Baseball Classic. But before that, Vazquez had to go on a trip to celebrate 25 years of marriage to his wife Rose. He had no choice. Although he served as the manager of the Finest, he was a husband first and Rose would not be denied a chance to commemorate their anniversary. And if that meant Vazquez would miss a few playoff games against the New York Bears in the opening round of the Westchester Wood Bat League playoffs, games the NYPD needed to prepare to play the FDNY, he was just going to have to deal with it.

Fortunately, Vazquez was able to extract a small concession from his wife. He was allowed to bring his cell phone, and check in periodically with Dennis O'Sullivan - a team captain who Vazquez designated to serve as manager in his absence.

The Finest split the first two games of their best-of-three series. But on the night of the deciding game, Jose and Rose Vazquez went to see a magic show on the cruise. In the middle of the performance, Jose got a text from O'Sullivan: The Finest lost 10-6 in 10 innings.

"Fuck! We just got fucking eliminated!" he said loud enough for his wife to hear - making a spectacle of himself during the show. Rose looked at Jose and she knew what was coming. She had been with him long enough to know that he was going to spend the rest of the trip mulling over the defeat, even though he was a thousand miles away. Her husband, who played amateur ball every summer for nearly 30 years, is a baseball lifer.

"It ruined my vacation," Jose admitted.

He'd had a feeling this was going to happen. Vazquez hadn't liked what he'd seen from his team before he left. In their last game before his departure, the Finest were anything but fine. It was hot and muggy, spirits were low, a lot of guys had worked an overnight, and starting pitcher R.J. O'Neill had come straight from a double shift. "My pitcher worked a double before the game," Vazquez said later. "I mean, it's the playoffs, and you're working a double the night before?"

It is the New York City equivalent to the Army-Navy game.

Nothing felt right. Archbishop Stepinac High School in White Plains, N.Y. - where the game was being played - wouldn't let the players spit sunflower seeds on the ground and had no outfield fences. Several times, the Finest hit shots that would have cleared the fences at a field that had them, but in White Plains, they were harmless fly ball outs. That loss had set the tone, and the defeat in the first round of the playoffs meant that now his team would have to take the field on Aug. 23 against the Bravest cold, not having played for weeks. Losing in the playoffs was bad enough, but losing to the Bravest would be far worse. That was the game that mattered. That was the season.

Although the New York police and fire departments have sporadically played baseball against each other for more than a hundred years, the current series has been played annually since 1999. In a sense - at least to those who play - it is the New York City equivalent to the Army-Navy game. In the 13 prior meetings, the Bravest of the FDNY held a 7-6 advantage - although the cops had taken four of the last five. This year presented a chance for the Finest to square the series.

A three-week hiatus going into the Classic certainly wasn't going to help their cause. Still, layoff or not, the NYPD believed they were better. Although both teams were talented, with many players who had starred in college or played in the minor leagues, the PD's roster was much younger and deeper than the FDNY squad. The Finest respected their rivals - but this was a game they felt they should win.

It isn't easy being Jose Vazquez. He'd taken over the Finest in 1999, and played through 2011, the same year he retired from the NYPD. The one-time infielder was never the most talented athlete on the roster, but he was incredibly passionate about the game, and perfectly suited for the manager's chair. He loves the job, but there are a lot of headaches, a lot of mundane, administrative tasks the players don't see, and a lot of egos to keep happy. But then again, it isn't easy being a cop either, and Vazquez, who spent 20 years on the force mostly in Street Narcotics and the Youth Division before retiring, certainly understood that. All of his players were still on active duty and that meant double shifts and line of duty injuries were things he had to deal with every game. Sometimes, he even lost a player who went undercover and couldn't be seen in public. For all their troubles, Joe Girardi and Terry Collins have never had to deal with anything like that. And even though 30 players were on Vazquez's roster, for most games only half could make it. If a guy had to work the occasional double, so be it. Vazquez could work around it.

Still, before he left for Bermuda, Vazquez sensed his team was in trouble and tried to pump them up. He didn't yell and scream - a stocky 5' 8, he's not the most imposing figure - but he chewed them out just the same. What really bothered him was that his team was making excuses. They were still bitching about the lack of fences, and cops spend their whole careers listening to excuses that just don't fly.

"I don't want to hear it," he said. "They had to play with the same fences."

The players looked blankly at their manager. These guys didn't give up their nights and weekends to hear a lecture. If they wanted somebody to talk shit to them, they could go find a perp. These are tough guys who work a dangerous and difficult job. Their free time is precious and there isn't much of it. They played ball to blow off steam and have some fun.

But they did respect Vazquez, and they did want to beat the FDNY every bit as badly as their manager. They relied on chain of command at work and it was no different on the ball field. When their C.O. talked, they listened.

"These were kids today," Vazquez said of their opponents in the Wood Bat League.

Then the manager looked around and made sure he had the full attention of his players before he spoke again.

"What's gonna happen when we face FD?" he asked. "Those are men."

The Bravest

FDNY's roster might have been stocked with men, but there weren't very many of them. And like their counterparts from the NYPD, they were going to be rusty.

On Wednesday, Aug. 21, two days before the big game, the Bravest, out of dire necessity, got together for batting practice. A month before, after a scheduling dispute with their regular-season league, they dropped out and hadn't played together since. The Baseball Classic was important - everybody knew that - but still, only seven players could make the workout.

What has happened to the Bravest over the past few years is a microcosm of what has happened over the last five years to the FDNY at large. In 2008, a federal judge, after ruling that the department's hiring practices were unfair to minority candidates, imposed a hiring freeze. The restriction lasted until this past January, when the FDNY was finally allowed to swear in a new class of "probies," or new recruits. In the meantime, the department got older, and is still very much short-handed.

So is the baseball team. During the freeze, some older players retired and others had to work more OT to cover for the lack of manpower. While the Finest's roster includes several younger guys just out of the police academy, the Bravest's roster still included more than a few players over the age of 40.

One of those over-40 was player/manager and firefighter Scott Miller, who was preparing to play in his final NYPD-FDNY Classic. He still loved the game, but the first baseman/DH wanted to spend some more time with his family. Finding sponsors, organizing trips, purchasing uniforms, all these things took time and Miller wanted his weekends back.

"I've got a young daughter," Miller said. "I don't want to come (to a baseball field) at 10 o'clock (a.m.) on a Saturday - time I get outta here, it's one or two. I don't want to do it anymore."

Miller took over the squad after Andre Fletcher died along with another team member, Michael Weinberg, in the attacks on September 11, 2001. Weinberg, an outfielder who earned a baseball scholarship for St. John's and then played two seasons in the Detroit Tigers organization, was off duty that day and was preparing to play golf when he learned of the attacks and raced to Manhattan. He was killed in the collapse of the North Tower. Fletcher, the son of Jamaican immigrants whose twin brother Zackery is also a member of FDNY, was a graduate of Brooklyn Technical High School. He became a firefighter in 1994 and founded the existing Bravest baseball team four years later. Like Weinberg, like almost every other cop and firefighter, on the morning of September 11 he answered the call. His body was never found. On the FDNY team website, both men remain on the team roster.

After 9/11, the game took off, its symbolic value in the still healing city resonating with the public.

The following season, 2002, was a critical year for the team, and helped make the rivalry with the cops what it is today. Before 9/11, the NYPD-FDNY contests were small affairs, played at local colleges in front of practically no one - not even the players' families showed up. But after 9/11, the game took off, its symbolic value in the still healing city resonating with the public. Representatives from MCU Park in Coney Island, home of the Brooklyn Cyclones, a Class-A Mets affiliate, offered to host the game at the 7,500-seat minor-league ballpark. Members of both squads made television appearances to help promote the contest, including one high-profile spot on "Good Morning America." Tickets were sold and the proceeds were donated to police and fire related charities.

Miller credits NYPD for making sure the rivalry continued after 9/11. They pressed to keep playing after the Bravest lost Fletcher and Weinberg.

"The cops said ‘We want to play you.' And we did, and it was great. And it was therapeutic and whatever," Miller said, talking about the 9/11 aftermath in the way tough guys always talk about emotional things, by hardly talking about them at all. They lived through 9/11; they don't need to talk about it to know that.

Lieutenant Joe Reznick, one of the seven firemen at the pregame workout, has been on both sides of the rivalry. He was a cop for four years, taking after his father, Joseph, an NYPD vet who's currently serving as a commanding officer in the Narcotics Division. The younger Joe, a rugged, well-built 6-footer - the type you'd want to pull you out of a burning building - even played ball for NYPD from 1999-2001. But during his time on the force, people from both inside the police department and out extolled the virtues of the FDNY. "In the police department, guys talk about ‘Making their 20,'" a reference to retirement. "You'll see them posting on Facebook, ‘One more year,' or ‘Two more years.' In the fire department, you never [see] that. Guys work 25, 30 [years]. They love the job. I love the job."

Reznick switched sides in 2002, spending his first several years with the FDNY stationed at a firehouse in Queens, then was promoted to Lieutenant and got sent to Engine 83 in the South Bronx. His squad is known as "Da Bums on Da Hill," due to the fact the firehouse sits on a hill, and they take pride in busting each other's balls and calling each other "da bums."

The fact that he's an officer doesn't impact his relationship with the other guys in his crew. Da bums see Joe Reznick as one of them - and that is how Reznick sees himself.

"The brotherhood thing ... it's legit," Reznick said of the camaraderie within the FDNY.

It is, perhaps, more legit for Reznick than anybody in the department. All three of the Reznick boys have taken their cue to serve from their father. Joe's brothers, Tim and Tom, are also firefighters and play for the Bravest. But despite the fact that the elder Reznick has three sons in the FDNY dugout, when he attends the Baseball Classic, he does so in full-dress, NYPD blue. And for the past few years, he's taken pride in the final score.

Miller, on the other hand, is sick of the losses. Last year's 13-4 rout, in particular, didn't sit well with the manager.

"It sucks to lose this game," he said. "It's not like a best-of-three series, or a best-of-five series. It's one game. And if you lose, you have to wait a whole year to play 'em again."

Miller looked out over the practice field, which, at that moment, had only six arthritic-looking men on it, and, by all rights, should've come to the conclusion that his squad was significantly outmanned once again. But just as he wouldn't run away from a five-alarmer, Miller wasn't about to back down from the challenge that the cops presented, and wasn't about to concede.

"We know they're good," he said, smiling. "But we'll see."

"I gotta coupla calls in," he said.

The Start

August 23 was a gorgeous evening for baseball in Coney Island. It was hot earlier, but now a slight ocean breeze canceled out the touch of humidity in the air. It was Friday night on the boardwalk, and it was packed. New Yorkers have long flocked here to ride the rickety, old Cyclone, eat Nathan's Famous hot dogs and fend off the carnival barkers looking to sucker them out of a paycheck. Coney Island has seen better days, but for local residents not up to the maddening drive to the Jersey Shore, it still holds some magic.

Maybe it was the fine weather, maybe it was the allure of the boardwalk, or maybe it was just that almost 12 years after 9/11, some people start to forget and move on. But by the start of the Classic, MCU Park was only half full. That, unfortunately, meant less money for this year's designated charitable cause, Hurricane Sandy relief efforts, but if it bothered the players they didn't let on. They'd played this game on empty sandlots before. Besides, this game was for them.

Before the start, the two teams mixed easily. These guys knew each other and liked each other, even as they joked back and forth and talked a little trash. It was obvious they respected one another a great deal.

“For three hours, they’re the enemy”

But just in case, Joe Reznick made sure the novices on his team didn't get the wrong idea. "For three hours, they're the enemy," he told them.

Despite the small crowd, the pregame ceremonies were professional and classy. When the lineups were announced, each man on the roster (26 for the Finest, 20 for the Bravest) trotted out and took a place along the foul line. The colors were then presented by six officers from each department, who marched out by first and third base, and a woman from FDNY sang the national anthem.

A moment of silence was called for to honor both the victims of Hurricane Sandy and the cops and firemen who'd died in the line of duty in the past year. The crowd was comprised largely of the men and women of the NYPD and FDNY, and their families, and no one made a sound.

The opening ceremony concluded, and the Bravest, this year's designated home team, took the field. Firefighter Pat Smith took the mound for the FDNY. Although the Finest had a full bullpen at their disposal and Vazquez intended to use each pitcher for an inning or two, the Bravest didn't have that luxury. With only three relievers, they needed Smith - their best - to carry them on his back as deep into the game as he could.

Early on, however, it appeared that Smith wouldn't be able to take them very far at all. The game's first batter, Officer Mike Gagliardi, hit a routine grounder to second. But the throw was low, and Tom Reznick couldn't handle it. Smith recorded the next two outs, but then a base hit and a stolen base put two runners in scoring position for Officer Pete Kessler, the Finest's physically imposing DH. He bounced a ball to second, but once again Tom Reznick couldn't handle the throw. Both runners scored, and the Finest jumped out to a 2-0 lead. The crowd, about two-thirds of which supported the NYPD, let up a big cheer.

Tom Reznick was furious with himself on the way back to the dugout. "FUCK!" he screamed. His teammates kept their distance and allowed him to blow off steam.

Forty-two-year old firefighter Patty O'Donnell led off for the Bravest, a task that, despite his age, suited him perfectly. Small and wiry, wearing his socks high, O'Donnell never seemed to stop clapping his hands or cheering, talking up a teammate or pumping up the crowd. He was a player, and played with more joy than anybody else on the field.

He has the right. O'Donnell has been stationed at Engine 10 in lower Manhattan since January 2002, right across the street from Ground Zero. The "Ten House," as it has become known, lost five men in the 9/11 attacks, but if working there bothers O'Donnell, he doesn't let on. Living in the past just isn't an option for the men of the Ten House. They must look to the future.

This time, however, O'Donnell failed to provide the spark that the Bravest were looking for and headed back to the dugout after grounding out to second. Finest pitcher R.J. O'Neill recovered quite nicely in his first start since the double-shift debacle up in White Plains, retiring the side on only four pitches, and sending Pat Smith back to the mound almost before he has a chance to sit down. Both pitchers threw a scoreless second inning, and when the Bravest came to bat in the bottom of the third, the Finest still led, 2-0.

O'Donnell sprinted to the first base coach's box. He was due up later in the inning, but was taking himself out of the lineup. A teammate noticed.

"You all right?" he asked. O'Donnell nodded.

"There are a lot of guys here," he said. There were seven position players sitting on the FDNY bench, and no guarantee that all of them would see action. No one asked him to, but O'Donnell voluntarily gave up his spot in the lineup so that one of the other guys could take his place and have the chance to play.

O'Donnell loved to play baseball. But he loved his teammates, and being a member of the team, even more.

The Job

One of the joys the men on the NYPD and FDNY baseball teams get out of participating in the Classic is that for one night they get to feel like big leaguers. They get to play in front of a crowd in a ballpark with fences with vendors selling hot dogs and beer. Their names are called over the public address system while their pictures are put up on the big screen. And, most flattering of all, they get asked for their autographs.

for one night they get to feel like big leaguers.

Kids spend the whole game rushing to the front rows and passing baseballs down to each dugout. Unlike the professionals, these guys never turn down a request. They sign the balls collectively, carefully passing them back and forth and then back up to the kids, who react like they're getting balls signed by Derek Jeter and David Wright, not Jose Vazquez and Joe Reznick. It's a kick, and the guys on both teams appreciate it.

Still, even though the Baseball Classic can properly be deemed a family-friendly event, this doesn't mean the guys don't play to win. And playing to win sometimes means using language that - no matter how the close the kids are - would make Quentin Tarantino blush. Joe Reznick was the guiltiest offender on the FDNY side. The picture of intensity, he marched up and down the dugout almost the entire game, keeping his guys motivated.

"WAKE THE FUCK UP! LET'S GO!" Reznick said, clapping his hands prior to the FDNY's turn at-bat in the fourth inning.

It seemed to work, as the Bravest loaded the bases on a hit and two walks. Firefighter Jerry Geigle then stepped up for the Bravest. Geigle, a recipient of one of Scott Miller's mysterious phone calls earlier in the week, hadn't played with the FDNY squad in several years. But he'd been a star player at Fordham University almost two decades before, cracking 17 doubles and scoring 55 runs in 1995, and for this game it was all hands on deck. Now the ringer paid dividends for the Bravest, hitting a sacrifice fly to left to put the FDNY on the board, and cut the NYPD lead in half.

Geigle's teammates congratulated him on his way to the dugout. "Do a job," they said as they embraced him with hugs and high-fives and pats on the back. The phrase "Do a job" is frequently used by both squads when a member of either team successfully executes a sacrifice bunt or sac fly, or moves a runner along. To them, it carries a special meaning. After all, being a New York City police officer or fireman is, fundamentally, about sacrifice, and few understand the concept better than they do. Whether it's on the beat or in the firehouse or on the field, there's no act more noble than giving yourself up for one of your brothers, to "do a job," because, really, that's what the job is.

Two runners remained on base for Miller, who in his last game found himself with a real chance to impact the outcome. He crushed the first pitch, and hit it a long way, opposite field to right. The Finest's right fielder got turned around by the ball, but recovered and was able to put it away just shy of the warning track. Fans that rose to their feet settled back down.

Miller gave it a ride, but it wasn't quite enough. Asked if it would've been a homer in his heyday, he chuckled and said, "Maybe five years ago."

All Even

By the fifth inning, Pat Smith was sucking air. The first inning had taken its toll on the starter and he'd been forced to throw a lot of pitches. And after the first two men in the fifth reached for the NYPD, Joe Reznick, who was handling most of the managerial duties while Miller was in the lineup, made a trip out to the mound to talk things over. Thirty seconds later, Reznick returned, evidently satisfied by what he'd heard.

Shortly afterwards, Smith threw a wild pitch and, in an effort to pick the runner off third, the ball was thrown away. The run scored, putting the Finest up 3-1.

there is no such thing as a pitch count. You just keep going.

"One more inning," Reznick said to Smith when he returned to the dugout.

The Bravest got the run back in the bottom half, cutting NYPD's the lead to 3-2. But now Smith was going to have to deal with some big sticks for the cops in the sixth - including the dangerous Pete Kessler (for whom the Classic was a true home game. He works in the 60th precinct, just around the corner from MCU Park). But Smith got Kessler to pop up to second, and he got out of the inning after yielding one harmless single.

"One more inning," Reznick said again to Smith before the seventh, but this time with more intensity. Smith was tired, but just as there's no time clock at a fire, when it comes to pitching against the NYPD, there is no such thing as a pitch count. You just keep going.

And he did. Despite giving up a hard base hit, Reznick and Miller kept the faith. Smith didn't let them down and got his final hitter to pop up to end the inning.

The team greeted Smith with high-fives on his way back to the dugout. He'd hung tough and done his job, and his seven-inning, three-run performance had given the Bravest a chance. Now they had to pick him up, and go win it.

Scott Miller stepped to the plate in the bottom of the seventh knowing it was going to be his last at bat. In the event that Miller got on, Joe Reznick advised the bench that a pinch runner was going to be used. And in the last at-bat of his distinguished career in the NYPD-FDNY Classic, Miller did his job, too.

He was hit by a pitch.

A fastball caught Miller right on the elbow, and he trotted toward first. Reznick sent out the pinch runner, and Miller left, writhing in pain while rubbing his elbow, to a standing ovation.

"That's how you'll always be remembered," Tom Reznick said to Miller, who smiled while wincing in pain.

Unfortunately for Miller, his contribution went for naught. A double play ended the FDNY's mild rally.

FDNY's reluctance to go to the bullpen became clear in the top half of the eighth inning. Bobby Magnuson entered the game and the Finest tacked on an insurance run, extending their lead to 4-2.

The Finest then called on Officer Julio LaSalle, from the 40th precinct in the South Bronx, to deliver them to the ninth. The big Brooklyn native, who was drafted by the Dodgers in 2002 and played several years in the minors, threw hard but straight, and the Bravest suddenly started to get their timing. They began the inning with three consecutive hits - the last a double which knocked in their third run, putting runners on second and third with nobody out. The small, but vocal, FDNY cheering section was going berserk.

After an out, Tom Reznick was intentionally walked to load the bases. Then LaSalle threw a wild pitch. The Bravest, who had been playing from behind all night, finally evened the score, 4-4.

LaSalle managed to get the second out without surrendering the go-ahead run, but Jose Vazquez decided he could wait no longer. The game was slipping away. He had one last move to make, and now was the time. Vazquez motioned to the outfield, and 10 seconds later, Detective Kevin Gieras, his ace, emerged from the left field bullpen and trotted toward the mound.

Miller saw it coming. Gieras' name had crossed his lips several times during the batting practice session two days before. He'd vexed the FDNY hitters for years. He'd been All-New England twice while pitching in college at Eastern Connecticut State and then pitched well for a few years in Independent League ball before joining the NYPD. In 2003 and 2008, he'd been named Classic MVP. He'd also picked up the win in last year's game, when he started and went five innings. Gieras, who looks and throws a little bit like Mike Mussina, had owned the Bravest for the better part of a decade. This year, however, elbow trouble put him in the bullpen.

Still, Gieras was tough. Miller simply hoped his guys could somehow scratch a run across the plate. Jose Vazquez's assembly line of pitchers was over. Kevin Gieras was going to be in for the duration.

Engine 158's Mike Molinini, the pride of St. Francis College, where he'd been a star a decade earlier before playing professionally in Italy, got the first shot at him. After falling behind in the count 0-2, he worked a walk. That brought up Geigle, Miller's ringer. But with a chance to put the FDNY on top, all he could manage was a fly ball to center. Gieras and the Finest escaped.

The stressful eighth inning was followed up by a relatively tranquil top of the ninth. Ed Morrisey played the role of pitching fireman perfectly and retired the side in order.

With that, the Bravest, clear underdogs, were about to come to bat with a chance to win.

Fireworks

And then came the fireworks.

Each Friday during the summer, no matter what, there is a fireworks display on the Coney Island boardwalk that lasts for about 15 minutes. It starts at 10 p.m. on the dot without fail, regardless of whether or not a game is being played.

This was no surprise to the players. The Classic has rarely ended before 10 p.m., and according to the FDNY, the fireworks have always seemed to happen while they were at the plate. Batting while fireworks are blasting overhead did not make the firefighters happy.

In fact, when the first explosion was heard beyond the centerfield fence, and the multicolored pyrotechnics illuminated the Coney Island sky, the players in the FDNY dugout were pissed. It was the bottom of the ninth. It was their turn at bat and Gieras was on the mound - as if he needed the help. For this to happen in a lopsided affair was one thing. But for it to happen during the ninth inning of a tie game was quite another.

Gieras seemed wise enough to use the unusual distraction to his advantage, throwing mostly fastballs, forcing hitters to try to catch up to his pitches before a backdrop of exploding color. The pitches approached 90 miles per hour, and the Bravest may as well have been facing Mussina himself. With the game on the line, Gieras struck out the side.

The NYPD cheering section responded by coming to life and starting a chant. Order had been restored to the proceedings. They simply weren't going to lose with Kevin Gieras on the hill.

From the 9th to the 11th

As the fireworks continued, the 10th inning came and went with neither side threatening. Then, as the 11th inning started, the celebration finally ceased and the sound of baseball replaced the booming echoes of the Roman candles. Kessler led off with a base hit, but the Finest could not capitalize. A double play erased the threat and the Bravest came to bat in the bottom half.

After nearly three and half hours of baseball and the fireworks over, a few fans trickled out. But those who remained now hung on every pitch. So did every player in each dugout.

Joe Reznick decided to shake things up, just because he thought it might bring them luck. He told O'Donnell, still coaching first, to coach third instead. O'Donnell was thrilled and sprinted across the diamond like a little leaguer. Reznick shook his head and laughed.

"He might be the only asshole in the world to get pumped up about coaching third base at 42 years old."

"This his last game?" a teammate asked.

"I hope so," said Reznick.

O'Donnell might have been too pumped up about his new assignment, and it very nearly cost the Bravest the game. With two out and the bases empty, and no fireworks to distract him, Molinini drove a Gieras fastball to deep right. As Molinini rounded second, O'Donnell, still full of adrenaline, kept waving him around to third. A strong throw from right beat the runner to the base by five feet, but it came in on a hop, and was mishandled by the third baseman. Molinini was safe.

The safe call sent a charge through the FDNY dugout and their cheering section. It had taken 11 batters, but they'd finally broken through against Gieras. The man who had beaten them time and time again for a decade was, in fact, human.

Now was the time for that phone call by Scott Miller to pay off. Geigle came to bat with the winning run 90 feet away. He'd already done a job by driving in a run back in the fifth inning. This time, however, a fly ball wouldn't be enough. With two outs it would take a hit to plate the game winner. But all of a sudden, that seemed possible.

Across the way, the Finest were suddenly tense. Their man was on the hill and they felt like they'd been in control the whole game, but one swing from Molinini had changed everything. It was up to Gieras now. It was his game.

The pitcher started Geigle low and away. Ball one. The FD side got loud and tried to rattle the pitcher. Several players waved towels, encouraging their supporters to get even noisier. The PD side, on the other hand, was silent. The Finest lined the top step of the dugout - some of them clutching the dugout rail as tightly as they would a nightstick.

Gieras had the luxury of having two open bases to work with. Knowing this, he refused to give in to Geigle, knifing the inside corner for a strike to level the count at 1-1. The NYPD partisans briefly exhaled.

In the midst of this, the kids behind the FDNY dugout, oblivious to the moment, continued to pass baseballs down for the players to autograph. The firemen, riveted by the action, continued to sign, trying to keep their eyes on the field.

The third pitch was again low and away, and now Gieras was behind 2-1. With the count in his favor, Geigle figured he was going to get a good pitch to hit. Then again, there were those open bases. Miller knew that the sound baseball move here was to put Geigle on, with weaker hitters behind him.

But Jose Vazquez and Kevin Gieras had never heard of Geigle, and had no way of knowing that he was somebody who should be pitched around. "If they knew who he was, they would've walked him," Miller said later.

Geigle stepped back in the box. At 39 years old, he wasn't going to get many more chances like this. Although he still played regularly in an adult league, now he was batting in front of several thousand people in a minor-league ballpark, against an archrival in a game that meant more than just winning or losing. This was why he'd answered Miller's call.

Gieras stared in for the sign. His catcher put down one finger. Gieras nodded, and, pitching from the stretch with the man on third, he wound up and threw.

It was heat, and it was right down the middle. And Geigle was waiting for it. He smacked a line drive to center. The outfielder started back ... and the ball sailed out of reach, then kissed the grass untouched, a base hit, and the FDNY fans in the crowd erupted. As Geigle touched first and turned to look for his teammates, Molinini sprinted home to score the game-winning run. Final score, Bravest 5, Finest 4.

Right on cue, The Doors' "Light My Fire" blasted over the stadium PA as the Bravest hopped the dugout fence, rushed the field, and jumped around en masse behind the pitcher's mound. Gieras walked off, alone, head down. The Finest cleared the field as quickly as they could, their disbelief as obvious as the firefighters' joy.

in the end, they were not enemies, but friends, somehow members of the same side, standing together, for something.

The celebration lasted for a couple of minutes before the combatants formed two lines by home plate and began to exchange hugs and handshakes. They'd battled for 11 long, intense innings, and in the end, they were not enemies, but friends, somehow members of the same side, standing together, for something.

The Finest stayed around for the trophy presentation, politely clapped for their rivals, then slowly began to make their exit, wishing there was another inning still to play.

Geigle, meanwhile, sat on the dugout bench with the MVP trophy on his lap when O'Donnell came by holding a baseball.

"No joke, the police sent this over," O'Donnell said, as he handed the baseball to Geigle. "This is the ball."

Geigle smiled. Thanks to New York's Finest, classy in defeat, he would forever possess a keepsake from his signature baseball moment, maybe the last of his career.

Finally, the stadium lights dimmed, and only a few players remained in the dugout. Scott Miller dutifully packed up the last of the FDNY's equipment as he let the victory soak in. Once more a winner against the NYPD, he could retire knowing that he had helped the Bravest maintain their all-time series lead over the Finest. His team, and this game, had been a huge part of his life. But at 46 years old, Miller knew deep down that it was time.

He would never forget. None of them would.

The manager waved goodbye to one of the remaining stragglers, gave a quick thumbs-up, and disappeared inside the clubhouse.

Summer's End

Every year Jose Vazquez runs the Anthony G. Vazquez Memorial Baseball Tournament, funding a scholarship in honor of his son, who was killed in a shooting accident in 2003. Police and fire department teams from near and far are invited to participate in the tournament, which concluded this year at Provident Bank Park, home of the CanAm League Rockland Boulders, about 25 miles north of New York City.

A few years before, Vazquez had been forced to cancel the tournament when he couldn't get enough teams to play, and only four teams committed in 2013. But one of those teams was the FDNY. And as it happened, the championship game, held on Saturday, Aug. 31, pitted the rivals against each other one more time. It was actually their third meeting in eight days, as the Finest had already avenged their loss in Coney Island, by knocking off the Bravest 12-6 in the opening game of the tournament. This contest served as the rubber match - although everybody knew the Bravest had already won the only game that really counted.

This time they played before only about 30 people, and no one asked for an autograph. With the stands practically empty, they played for the love of the game - and each other.

At the top row of the stands behind home plate, Vazquez, in street clothes, sat back and enjoyed the action. He let his captains manage the game while he helped keep the scorebook. Asked if he still had the scorecard from last week's game, he opened a binder, flipped through the pages, and reluctantly took it out.

"I shoulda burned it," he said, shaking his head.

In the fourth inning, Joe Reznick, who took a week off just to play in the tournament, stepped up to the plate with the bases loaded.

"Let's go, Joe," shouted Patty O'Donnell from the third base coach's box, clapping his hands. "This is why you're still playing. For this."

"I don't know why you're still playing," one of the Finest shot back, to laughter.

Reznick dug in, staring at Gieras, pitching again for the Finest, focused and determined. Then he failed to do his job as he popped up to the infield and left the runners stranded.

"FUCKING KIDDING ME!" he shouted, slamming his bat to the ground. "SHIT!"

When he arrived in the dugout, he threw his helmet against the wall.

The Finest won this time, 8-2, and afterwards there was another round of handshakes and hugs. Vazquez handed the runner-up plaque to the FDNY. Then Reznick, in mock frustration, snatched the first-place trophy from Vazquez, and proceeded to rub it on his crotch, causing everyone on the field to crack up. NYPD still hoisted the hardware proudly, then assembled for a team photo.

Several of the Finest planned to stay for that night's Boulders game, and hung around the ballpark. The Bravest, on the other hand, headed toward the parking lot for a celebratory beer, despite the fact that the final score left them with nothing much to celebrate.

As the two teams separated, Jose Vazquez made sure he found Joe Reznick, and they shared a quiet moment. Reznick knew why he was there, and so did Vazquez. "Thank you for coming," he said. Reznick just nodded - nothing more needed to be said. His boys were there for the Finest - it was that simple, because Joe Reznick and the rest of the Bravest knew that if the circumstances were reversed, the Finest would be there for them, too.

* * *

The parking lot of Provident Bank Park sits on a hill that offers a magnificent view of the Ramapo Mountains above and Rockland County below - a peaceful and picturesque place to share a beer. The Bravest gathered around an SUV, and as the last hours of August and summer gave way to September and the fall, they emptied a cooler and told each other lies. It was a long drive back to the five boroughs. Nobody appeared too anxious to make it, to exchange a baseball uniform for another kind.

As it turned out, Patty O'Donnell had it wrong. The reason Joe Reznick was still playing baseball at age 37 was not for the occasional chance to bat with the bases loaded. He was still playing for the same reason they all did, for moments like these - hanging out in a parking lot after a game, drinking beer, the late August sun heavy on their shoulders. Though in reality it was only 30 miles away from the South Bronx, it felt more like a million. He was with his brothers - Pat Smith and Patty O'Donnell in body, Andre Fletcher, Michael Weinberg and so many others in spirit. Joe Reznick was just one of da bums on da hill. And that was all he really wanted, all any of them wanted. To be together.

Monday morning, he returned to Engine 83 to do a job.

Erin Maher contributed to the reporting of this story.

Designer: Josh Laincz | Producer: Chris Mottram | Editor: Glenn Stout | Copy Editor: Kevin Fixler | Photos: Erin Maher

About the Author

Joe DePaolo has written for The New York Times, The Boston Globe Magazine, the Associated Press, ESPN.com, and a host of other notable print and Internet outlets. He is also the producer of the syndicated radio program "America Weekend with Rob Carson." His three previous features, "Pride of the City," "No Finish Line," and "The Importance of Being Francesa," have been cited by a number of longform curators, and his work can be found on Byliner.com, Longreads.com and Longform.org. He lives in New York City, and can be followed on Twitter at @joe_depaolo.

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