Yanks' visit 'means the world' to VT
Friendship forged with donation reaches peak with exhibition
BLACKSBURG, Va. -- For Andrew Wells, a sixth-year Virginia Tech senior whose collegiate career was interrupted by Tommy John ligament replacement surgery, facing the New York Yankees at English Field on Tuesday might have been a mismatch. It actually was a no-lose situation.
There were no anxious moments spent lying awake, pondering how to pitch to the likes of Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Jorge Posada. Though, give the left-hander and team captain credit -- he did recognize that A-Rod can hit the ball an awfully long way and that it was probably best to pitch away from the reigning American League Most Valuable Player.
"It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," Wells said. "I just want to go out, enjoy it and throw strikes. There's no way I can fail. If I face the first nine and they all hit home runs, I can say I faced nine Yankees and walk off and enjoy it."
Wells fared better than that, holding the Major Leagues' most potent lineup from a year ago to one unearned run over one inning. By all accounts, the Yankees' charity exhibition at Virginia Tech -- an 11-0 New York victory -- went off without a hitch, less than one year after 32 lives were tragically lost in the shootings of April 16, 2007.
"It was definitely moving to be in the process of healing," Yankees first baseman Jason Giambi said. "They were excited we were here. That definitely makes the whole trip worth it."
The Yankees brought their "A" lineup behind starter Jeff Karstens for the seven-inning exhibition, departing sunny Florida on an early-morning flight and returning to their Spring Training routine the same evening. The regulars played for three innings before resuming their roles as ambassadors, and it was a detour for a good cause -- one that no member of the organization particularly would mind.
"This is something that affected everybody in this country," said Yankees general partner Hal Steinbrenner, who traveled with the club from Florida. "Our hearts went out to these people. I'm just happy and proud to be here and extremely excited we were able to make this happen."
It wasn't the prettiest of games, played under gray skies and marked by errors, wind-blown fly balls and run-scoring wild pitches. Jeter, who finished the game with one RBI, reached in the first inning on a cue shot through first baseman Sean O'Brien's legs, and the Virginia Tech infield recorded an unorthodox fielder's choice in the second inning, when nobody could find Shelley Duncan's routine popup, leaving a forceout at second base as the only viable option.
But there were moments to remember. Wells and the Hokies found their way out of the first inning on a particularly swiftly turned double play on Giambi, as second baseman Matt Hacker looked like a big leaguer, spinning and whipping a feed to shortstop Ty Hohman. Two Hokies pitchers even recorded strikeouts.
It may have been a benefit game, but flexing in the on-deck circle before his at-bats, A-Rod, who had two RBIs in the game, made it clear he was taking Tuesday's exhibition seriously despite the competition and venue.
"People in New York ask 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. It makes you realize -- makes you think about -- how fragile life can be."
The Yankees and Virginia Tech do not have a long-standing relationship in the traditional sense -- in fact, only one Hokies alum has suited up for the Yankees, former catcher Johnny Oates. But the nature of last April's events drew the Yankees to help in any way possible, donating $1 million to the Hokie Spirit Memorial Fund in late May.
"We all had to rally around these brave people," said Yankees team president Randy Levine. "The relationship grows from there. It's the human factor."
With the energy and atmosphere that only a collegiate house can produce, fans were packed in early to watch the Yankees take batting practice, getting ready for the season chills to come.
"It went extremely well," Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said. "Our guys were excited to come up, and we had a chance to interact with the community. There were a lot of smiles in the stands, on both benches and both coaching staffs. It's what it was intended to be. I'm really glad we did this."
Mother Nature's wind may have kept great power displays from showing up in the cage, and it also robbed Giambi of a home run later, but the Yankees' past reputations spoke well for their presence. At one point, the entire Hokies roster surrounded Rodriguez near home plate, clamoring for autographs. Rodriguez later spent an inning in Virginia Tech's dugout chatting.
"As Yankees fans, it's a dream come true," said Kyle Chichy, a 19-year-old right-hander from Vineland, N.J. "You grow up watching these guys, and now you can stand here and watch BP. You want to be with these guys your whole life and to rub shoulders and talk to them. It's amazing."
The fans got their turn as well, crowding into a facility originally intended to hold much fewer than the 5,500 that were expected on Tuesday. English Field was constructed with an intended capacity of about 1,500, but the university expanded seating for Tuesday's game, adding temporary bleachers down the right-field line and expanding a berm area in left field.
Many of the tickets were offered to students or faculty who were involved in last April's events, as well as to first responders who were on the scene. Amid that crowd, Yankees players found an avalanche of caps, balls and T-shirts to be signed, as well as hundreds of cell phone camera photos to pose for, and other paraphernalia.
"Jason ... Derek ... and Johnny?" one fan yelled. "My dream has come true."
Baseball, as A-Rod said, often has the ability to help people forget about their troubles for three or four hours at a time. As with 9/11 in New York, baseball was part of the healing process at Virginia Tech -- the Friday evening after the shootings, the Hokies baseball team was the first to return to action, drawing a crowd to English Field and providing an outlet for that emotion.
"We're here to enjoy the day and enjoy the game of baseball, but we've got to remember why we're here and why the Yankees committed to coming," said Wells.
Wells said he was in an academic room between the shooter's dormitory room and the building where the shootings took place.
"It was a shock," Wells said. "Just think, you were right there in the middle of it, not really aware of what was going on."
It is that feeling that still seems raw on campus. Before Tuesday's game, a moment of silence was observed before 32 orange balloons were released to the sky, each signifying a person who lost a life last April 16. The United States flag, fluttering in left-center field, was accompanied by a black flag bearing an orange ribbon and the Virginia Tech logo.
Teresa Walsh, a former Virginia Tech softball player, was on campus that morning and was fired upon by the gunman, though she was not hit.
Now currently working in the Blacksburg area, the Binghamton, N.Y., native said that the Yankees' visit "means the world" to the campus, but nothing can ever return to the way it was before life changed forever at Virginia Tech.
"I don't think it will ever be normal," Walsh said. "There will just be a new state of normalcy. You have to learn to get to a different normal."
For their efforts in helping Virginia Tech, Steinbrenner, Levine and Cashman were all presented with desk nameplates crafted out of Hokie stone, the same distinctive material featured on many of the school's buildings.
"Obviously it was a moving experience, going through what we went through today," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "To see the excitement of Virginia Tech players slapping high fives coming off the field, baseball was a game again."
One day after the Yankees and Red Sox filled the rafters at Legends Field, 11,000 strong, to celebrate baseball's most heated rivalry, the Yankees' gestures of goodwill on Tuesday were enough to permanently sway at least one native New Englander.
"I look at the Yankees differently after today, and I always will," said Virginia Tech head coach Pete Hughes. "I grew up my whole life hating the Yankees -- I mean, just hating them -- and I brought up my kids with that mentality. Now, I'll look at them differently."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.