Yankees' visit makes for a memorable day for all
By Jimmy Robertson
March 18, 2008
As New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter stood at the April 16th memorial in front of Burruss Hall, looking at the 32 stones that honor the victims of those who lost their lives and contemplating the tragedy that took place, he found himself approached by a young student who lost her fiancé on that fateful and regrettable day.

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The young woman simply wanted to take a picture of Jeter at her fiancé's stone and she quietly and politely made her request of the Yankees' superstar.

Rather than offer some words of condolence, or stumble over trying to find just the exact right words to say to her, Jeter - in perhaps a way that only he could - made a rather bold stipulation of her request considering the circumstances.

"Only if you smile," he said.

She, indeed, smiled.

And that was the theme of the day, as the Yankees came to Blacksburg for a much-anticipated exhibition game with the Tech baseball team.

This idea wasn't the brainstorm of Tech president Charles Steger or Tech AD Jim Weaver. They, nor Hokie Nation, asked for pity after what transpired last April. Instead, at the time, they only asked for thoughts and prayers.

No, instead the Boss - Yankees owner George Steinbrenner - hatched this idea. Probably like the rest of the nation on that day, he saw the events unfold on television. And probably like the rest of the nation, he was affected to his core.

As only the Boss can do, he told those under him to make sure $1 million found its way into the Hokie Spirit Memorial Fund. Then he told them to organize an exhibition game. He wanted his team, the most famous in all of sports, to play Tech's baseball team, and not simply to make his organization look good, but rather to help a community heal.

"Four minutes, maybe five minutes," said Randy Levine, the Yankees' president, when asked how long it took Steinbrenner to come up with the idea. "The Boss called and said 'Get in touch with them and tell them we want to donate $1 million and come to the stadium and do an event. We want to play a spring training game there, if they'll have us.' That's literally what he said. It was all of about four minutes."

And an idea that took four minutes to conceive became a reality 11 months later.

For a campus that mourned so deeply in the hours, days, weeks and months following that day nearly a year ago, the Yankees' visit offered yet another step in the healing process. The mere thoughts of that day will always evoke tears. But on this cold, overcast day, what was noticeably visible were the smiles.

"That's part of the reason we're here," Jeter said. "This reminds me of Sept. 11th when we were in New York and had the opportunity to visit with the families. People always ask, 'What can you do? How does this help?' I really don't know. But if it [the game] makes people smile for the three hours we're here, then it's all worthwhile."

People were smiling over the Yankees simply being in town. They smiled during the starting lineups and the national anthem. They smiled when Tech starting pitcher Andrew Wells walked the bases loaded to open the game.

Then they roared when he got Alex Rodriguez to lift a lazy, short fly ball to right field for an out. And they roared even more when he got Jason Giambi to ground into a double play to end the inning.

The decibel level rose again in the top of the third when Rob Waskiewicz retired the Yankees in succession - Robinson Cano, Jorge Posada and Shelley Duncan. And it reached a crescendo when redshirt freshman Brandon Fisher from tiny Craig County, Va., calmly and smoothly fanned Jason Lane and Morgan Ensberg in succession in the fourth inning.

As expected, the game ultimately belonged to the guys in blue pinstripes - the Yankees won 11-0. But the day belonged to the orange and maroon.

Yet, the Yankees insisted they got quite a bit out of this trip to the southwest Virginia mountains, too. Rodriguez went out of his way to befriend Tech's players, spending the better part of three innings in the Hokies' dugout, handing out gear and chatting about baseball and life.

"I wanted to get up close and be one of the guys," he said. "I wanted to look them in the eye and have a dialogue with them, and I wanted them to feel worthy of hanging out with us.

"This means a lot. We're honored to be here and it's a great pleasure. People in New York often ask 'Is this the most important game of the year?' A playoff game or World Series or whatever. Arguably this is the most important game I've played in my Yankee career because it makes you realize important things about life and how fragile life can be. We're all proud to be here."

"Yes, we're here to play at baseball game, but we're also here for a different reason and that's to bring attention to the tragedy that happened here last year," Jeter said. "I've been with the Yankees for a long time and this [the game] definitely is up there in terms of memorable moments."

After talking with Jeter, you get the feeling that he likes to keep things light. In addition to coercing a smile from the young woman mentioned earlier, he also delivered a few barbs at the expense of some of his teammates, including Mariano Rivera, the Yankees' closer who did not make the trip.

"Mariano's getting a little older," he joked. "He can't pitch in cold weather."

It was, for sure, that kind of day. It was one of healing. It was also one of rejoicing.

More importantly, it was one of fun. And it was what this campus community needed because, after all, who knows what the next second, minute or hour brings.

"What I take from it [the tragedy] is that you should give your best every day and give back every day because you never know what tomorrow is about," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "When you're trying to do something as a club, like winning a championship, it should move you to do everything you can to reach your goals. You never know what tomorrow is going to hold for any of us. I think this is something our players will talk about for a long time."

So will Tech's players and coaches.

So will Tech's fans.

So will Hokie Nation.

And they'll do so with a smile.