Friday's baseball game, the first sporting event at Virginia Tech since Monday's tragedy, draws a record crowd eager to smile, laugh and cheer.
Friday was game night for Virginia Tech's baseball team, a blessed, starry and somber game night unlike any other.But before these young men competed against the Miami Hurricanes, before they attracted a record crowd to English Field and brought welcome diversion to a grieving community, they took a walk.
It was 3:20 p.m., more than three hours before first pitch, when the Hokies, in uniform, strolled across Virginia Tech's sun-drenched Drill Field to pay respects to the 32 victims of Monday's campus shootings. At a makeshift memorial -- 32 pieces of Hokie Stone splashed with flowers and notes, and arranged in a semi-circle -- the players knelt and prayed and left a pristine baseball at each stone.
After a few moments, the players and coach Peter Hughes huddled and recited the Lord's Prayer.
"Let's play for them," one player said quietly.
"Hokies on three," said another.
In unison: "One, two, three, Hokies."
It was not loud or boisterous, and dozens of other mourners -- all dressed in Hokies' maroon and orange on this national day of remembrance -- applauded politely as the team walked away, Hughes hand-in-hand with his 10-year-old son Thomas.
"That's when it sunk in to me that it really happened," junior outfielder Jose Cueto said later. "You don't really feel it until you go there."
Solemnity and sadness seemed to lift at the game, the first on-campus sporting event since Monday, even as the Hokies fell behind 10-5. Families, students, graduates, townsfolk and more than a few puppies filled the stands and lined the hill behind the third-base dugout, producing record attendance of 3,132.
People laughed and smiled and cheered. They lined up 20 deep to buy peanuts, hot dogs and Cracker Jack at the lone concession stand.
And when pinch-hitter Anthony Sosnoskie smacked a three-run, pinch-hit double to bring the Hokies within 10-8 in the bottom of the eighth inning, the familiar refrain of "Let's go Hokies" echoed in the chill.
"I've never heard that at one of our games," senior shortstop Warren Schaeffer said.
Alas, there would be no storybook comeback. With Tech trailing 11-9 and down to its last out in the ninth, Miami left fielder Nick Freitas made a leaping catch at the wall to deny Schaeffer's bid for a tying two-run homer.
"Our victory tonight was walking down the hill and getting the guys on the field," Hughes said, "and that's the biggest victory they'll have in their lives. ... It was a badge of honor for us to play for the (victims) and their families."
Prior to the game, fans observed a 32-second moment-of-silence, and Miami presented Virginia Tech with a $10,000 check for the Hokie Spirit Memorial Fund to aid the victims' families. Then the public-address system replayed English professor Nikki Giovanni's stem-winder of a poem from Tuesday's memorial service, entitled "We are Virginia Tech."
During the seventh-inning stretch, fans heard "Forever Changed Virginia Tech," a song by a band called The Season and led by Kurtis Parks, a 2003 Tech graduate and a brother of Hokies' outfielder Nate Parks.
"God send your mercy this way," the lyrics said. "We're all Hokies today."
Jose Vazquez agreed. He wore a maroon shirt, "VT" button and Miami cap. His son, Ben, a freshman catcher for the Hurricanes, asked his parents to be here because of the event's emotions.
"We need to grieve with (the Hokies)," said Jose, who flew from Miami to Washington, D.C. and drove three hours to Blacksburg. "Today we're going to root for both teams."
Chuck and Andi Parron needed to be here, too. They drove from their York County home Friday.
"We just felt this was the place we wanted to be," said Chuck, a 1978 Tech graduate and a football season-ticket holder since 1989. "Even if it's just for a couple of hours, the Tech family needs a sense of normalcy."
Lewis and Darleene Padgett traveled from Lynchburg to watch their son Luke play for Tech, a distraction they welcomed.
"If these boys were not here tonight playing baseball, the shooter would be cheating them," Darleene said. "They can't be constantly victimized."
That's precisely why Tech athletic director Jim Weaver decided to resume events this weekend, even as the international media horde continued to flock around campus -- they were perched on the dugout roofs Friday -- and Blacksburg.
"To see all these people on this beautiful night, it seems right," Weaver said.
Especially to the players.
"We played our hearts out," Cueto said, "even when we were down five. You can never count us out -- tonight and forever." *