Yanks play Va. Tech to ease pain of Hokies' tragedy

3/17/2008 - MLB New York Yankees

BLACKSBURG, Va. -- Like most major leaguers, the New York Yankees don't get too excited about Grapefruit League games, especially when a bus trip is involved.

Tuesday's spring training road trip will be different.

Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and the Yankees will board a bus at their Tampa, Fla., training complex to catch a flight to Virginia, then bus to Blacksburg for an exhibition game they all want to play. The Bronx Bombers vs. the Virginia Tech Hokies.

"All the players are looking forward to it," Jeter said Monday. "The players that can't go want to. I'm sure it will be emotional, especially for the student body."

It was 11 months ago this college town became the focus of a horrified nation after a gunman killed 32 people on campus, and then himself.

People around the world rallied behind Virginia Tech and the community, and the Yankees were among the organizations that offered overwhelming support, donating $1 million to the Hokie Spirit Memorial Fund and asking if they could come play a game.

They'll do it Tuesday afternoon in a stadium packed with 3,000 students who won a lottery for tickets, 1,000 faculty and staff, and victims of last April 16th.

Virginia Tech coach Peter Hughes still gets choked up when he thinks about that day, and the one coming.

"Everywhere in life we've got guys that talk and guys that do things," the second-year Hokies coach said. "And when the Yankees call and say, 'Hey, we want to help out. We've got to do something. Here's our idea: We want to come play and here's a million dollars.' How proactive is that? It blows you away, their generosity."

The Yankees have their own history with massive tragedy, playing in the same city where the attacks on the World Trade Towers claimed thousands of lives on Sept. 11, 2001.

"I really had a new appreciation for life after that," Jeter said. "I think it brings attention to how precious life is. You realize it's going to be a special trip and you can't take anything for granted. This really puts things in perspective."

The Yankees aren't just coming to the ballpark. The first stop their bus will make on campus will be at the memorial for the victims of the shootings.

"I think it's important for guys to see it," first-year manager Joe Girardi said. "I get emotional thinking about it. Wake up in the morning, it's a blessing."

The Hokies baseball team was the school's first team to play after the shootings on April 16.

Nearly a year later, Hughes said, the pain for many is still fresh and new.

"It's part of everybody's daily actions and thoughts," he said. "You know, you're looking at 32 victims, but you're looking at 32 times the sets of parents and children and friends and relatives. It's so encompassing, and to have the Yankees want to come be part of the healing process and do it on your campus, ... it's unbelievable."

That's surely how it will be for the Hokies players, too, getting to schmooze with and compete against some of the biggest names in the major leagues.

"It will be a lifetime memory," Hughes said. "They'll be leaning on the batting cage 2 feet away from Derek Jeter and A-Rod taking BP. You can't even make that up."

For Hughes, a Brockton, Mass., native and avid Red Sox fan, the lighter side of the day -- the game itself -- will present challenges, not the least of which is how to cope with the request by his Red Sox fan sons to be the bat boys for the visiting team.

"It's going to be hard," he admitted, "to root against the Yankees ever again."