Yanks ease VT back toward normalcy
Pride restored to college community as one-year mark nears
BLACKSBURG, Va. -- To get to the Virginia Polytechnic Institute, follow the highway until it becomes a four-lane road, then follow that until it's a two-lane road, then drive a little while longer.
It's not the type of place that is used to being the center of attention -- or the center of anything, really.
But on Tuesday afternoon, the most famous franchise in sports brought its nine-ring circus to town -- a celebration of spring, baseball and normalcy.
The Yankees were celebrated by the school not for their $1 million donation, but for the simple act of being here. Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez found their way into the Appalachian mountains, and the whole Yankees team gave the 5,500 students and faculty at Virginia Tech a day they'll never forget.
"This is the biggest thing to ever happen to Blacksburg," catcher Anthony Sosnoskie said. "Everything is back to normalcy. We'll never forget the people we lost, but this is a fun day."
Baseball coach Pete Hughes agreed, saying that after a trying 2007 season in which the team played through tragedy, "our guys are finally back to being college baseball players again."
And the students lucky enough to score free tickets were ready to be fans again.
"What do you say to somebody in that
On April 16, 2007, Marcy Crevonis lost her fiance, Mike Pohle, in the shooting that took 31 other lives on the Virginia Tech campus.
Crevonis is a Yankees fan, and she joined the players as they toured the campus memorial. When Jeter and Rodriguez reached Pohle's memorial stone, Crevonis asked the players if she could take their picture near it. She was shaking with nerves as she approached the superstars, but their hearts were beating just as fast.
"What do you say to somebody in that situation?" Rodriguez asked. "She asked me to sign his picture, which was on her T-shirt. It's a very sad situation, and my prayers go out to all their families."
Jeter told Crevonis that he was happy to see her smiling, and he added to reporters that situations like that are why the team visited Blacksburg.
"People ask, 'How does a visit like this help?'" Jeter said. "I really don't know, but people are smiling and enjoying themselves for the few hours we're here.
"It would have been easy just to send a check and wish the school well, but I think it was very important for us to be here and go that extra mile. Baseball for a lot of people can be a medicine and be very therapeutic. It fixes a lot of things for a short time."
Before the game, the victims were memorialized with a 32-balloon release. For participating, Yankees officials were presented with blocks of "Hokie Stone," the rock that the campuses buildings are made out of.
"I'm not a Yankees hater today. Maybe
Tech coach Pete Hughes spent his whole life in Boston, including a coaching stint at Boston College, before moving to Blacksburg. The lifelong Red Sox fan got a text message on Tuesday morning from Boston manager Terry Francona.
"Good luck," it read. "Pound Jeter inside. Go get 'em."
Hughes laughed but added that the Yankees' outreach changes how he feels about them.
"I grew up my whole life just hating the Yankees. I mean just hating them," he said. "Now, I'll look at them differently. We'll all look at them differently."
First baseman Sean O'Brien grew up a Red Sox fan but brought his digital camera along to take a picture with Jeter.
"I'll definitely take some crap for that," O'Brien said. "But it's worth it. This is really awesome."
The crowd felt similarly, giving the visitors a loud ovation at every opportunity and at the end of the game. Despite cold weather, the fans stayed to the very last out.
"During the game, people were in the stands talking to me, thanking us for being here and telling us how much it meant to them," Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said. "This was an opportunity for us to let Blacksburg know that there's a lot of people out there who care."
"We hope it's no worse than 40-0."
Sophomore Brandon Connor, along with his companions, didn't hold out much hope for the Virginia Tech team itself.
"I'm guessing the Yankees will score about 36 runs," he said. "It depends how quickly the rain moves in."
The Hokies lost, 11-0, in a game that included some impressive pitching performances. Brandon Fisher, throwing for the first time this season, struck out two in the fourth inning.
It was a laid-back game, with Yankees manager Joe Girardi leaving his post for an inning to talk to legendary Virginia Tech football coach Frank Beamer.
"I think he's got a great message for the athletes here," Girardi said. "Even with all the success he's had, he's down to earth and so humble."
Yankees first baseman Jason Giambi mentioned that he wouldn't mind coming back for a football game in the fall.
"This is probably the proudest I've been to
wear a Yankees uniform."
The Virginia Tech football team has a metal lunch pail that it carries around to practices and games. It symbolizes the blue-collar mentality of the team and the area.
The Yankees, wearing the immaculate pinstripes and playing in the city that never sleeps, would seem to be at odds with that mentality.
But the players emphasized their shared humanity, comparing last April's shooting with the events of 9/11, saying they were honored to be a part of the healing.
"People ask me what's the most important game of the year -- playoffs, World Series, whatever," Rodriguez said. "To me, this is the most important game of my Yankees career, because it makes you realize how fragile life can be. This is probably the proudest I've been to wear a Yankees uniform."
As Virginia Tech approaches the one-year anniversary of the shooting and a return to normalcy, the community was happy to have the Yankees on hand to move on with them.
"Everyone is back on campus now," O'Brien said. "We're back to Hokie Nation, and there's a greater sense of pride than ever. This has really brought us together."
Michael Phillips is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.