CASTLE HILL, the Bronx — An FDNY firefighter who perished on 9/11 dedicated, and lost, his life to his profession, which he'd viewed as a calling.
He was also one of the city's strongest devotees to the sports of stickball and baseball. The commitment that Firefighter Steve Mercado gave to both has lived on through the chosen career of one of the players on the pee wee team that Mercado coached through an unforgettable season, part of it posthumously.
"He was my mentor. He was my second father," said Luis Cruz, Jr., a probationary firefighter at Engine 64. "Along with my father, he's the one I look up to. He's the reason I became a firefighter, along with it being in my blood."
Cruz's father, Luis Cruz, Sr., is a retired firefighter. Cruz Senior and his wife were assistant coaches of a pee wee baseball league team. Mercado was head coach.
In September 2001, the team squeaked into the playoffs. Their first post season game was scheduled for September 12th.
Coach Mercado switched shifts with another firefighter so he could make the game. He ended up working on 9/11.
"Unfortunately, he never came back," said Cruz, Jr.
For weeks after the attacks, Cruz’s father searched for Mercado and his other fallen brothers in vain at Ground Zero. Meanwhile, his wife took over as a coach in the first playoff game, which went ahead as scheduled Sept. 12th.
"When we played that game, she gave all the kids ribbons" Cruz, Sr. told PIX11 News. "She said this is for him."
That's when something miraculous happened.
"So from then after, we started doing phenomenal," Cruz, Jr. said. " We did everything we were supposed to do, and eventually we won the championships, and we did it with his guidance."