Updated: March 19, 2008, 2:34AM ET – ESPN.com
As 32 oversized orange balloons were released into the air, the storied team in its famous pinstripes watched right along with Virginia Tech players, fans and family members of victims from last year’s campus massacre.
And when the national anthem was finished and the players headed for their dugouts, it was time to play a game that was less about baseball than it was about healing.
Yankees manager Joe Girardi could feel it when 200 people were waiting as the team bus made its first stop at the memorial to 32 people slain last April, and in the first inning while Girardi was sitting in the stands with football coach Frank Beamer.
“A young lady came up to me and said her brother was one of the children killed, and her mother thanks us for being here,” Girardi said. “That really hit me hard.”
From beginning to end, the visit Yankees owner George Steinbrenner promised moments after seeing the tragedy unfolding on television last April 16 was one to remember.
The Yankees had made a $1 million contribution to the Hokie Spirit Memorial Fund, created to cover grief counseling, memorials and other costs for the victims and their families after Virginia Tech student Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 people in two campus buildings before committing suicide.
The Yankees presented the donation to school president Charles Steger last May in New York, but said the visit to Blacksburg was a key part of the assistance.
Rodriguez said starting out at the on-campus memorial was powerful.
“There are certain things that happen that are so devastating that time stops,” he said, comparing the shootings to the terrorists attacks in 2001. “For me, this is one of them. This is probably the proudest day I’ve ever [had] to wear a Yankee uniform.”
Hearing that, Hokies coach Pete Hughes said, “knocks you on your heels.”
Girardi looked at the 32 stones at the memorial and thought of the parents.
“To think of the anxious moments of all the parents who had students here and especially the ones who lost loved ones, how difficult that must have been,” he said.
Marcy Crevonis, a Virginia Tech student and lifelong Yankee fan, placed a Jeter T-shirt near the stone monument of her fiancé Mike Pohle. Pohle was one of the 32 killed last April.
Jeter posed for a picture with Crevonis in front of the stone that memorialized her fiance. His only request to her was that she smile, which she did.
Crevonis, who got Jeter’s autograph, told ESPN’s Bob Holtzman that “Mike was a Phillies fan but he’d be a Yankee fan today.”
Crevonis said she had “been looking forward to today since the day they announced the Yankees were coming.”
“It’s part of the reason that we’re here,” Jeter said. “People always ask, well, what can you do? How does this help? I really don’t know. If it just makes people smile or enjoy themselves for the three hours that we’re here, it’s all worthwhile.”
During batting practice, the Yankees wore caps in the Hokies’ orange and maroon, their ‘NY’ emblem on the front and a ‘VT’ logo on the side. Those were also the caps worn by Virginia Tech, while the Yankees switched to a Navy blue for the game, still with both emblems. All hats worn in the game will be auctioned, with the proceeds donated to charity.
The pregame ceremony also included presentations to the Yankees of four nameplates engraved in “Hokie stone,” the limestone building material of choice on campus.
As the balloons drifted high above and out of sight, chants of “Let’s go Hokies” broke out. But the cheers were just as loud for the Yankees.
Rodriguez batted in the first with the bases loaded, and hit the first pitch for a sacrifice fly to right. When Hokies starter Andrew Wells got Jason Giambi to ground into an inning-ending 4-6-3 double play, the Hokies bench emptied to greet him.
“Seeing how they were pumped to have little moments that will last the rest of their lives, to have the conversations of, ‘Remember when?’ That was neat,” Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said. “This was fun for them and fun for our guys.
“What we did puts everything else in a little more perspective.”
Rodriguez and Jeter and most of the starters came out in the fourth inning, and A-Rod strolled across the field with two bats and sat with the Hokies in their dugout.
“He was giving our guys trivia questions for his battings gloves and his bat,” the Hokies’ Hughes said. “He signed everything they threw at him.”
Jeff Karstens pitched four innings for the Yankees in their 11-0 victory, allowing both Virginia Tech hits and striking out two. Nine Hokies pitchers combined to walk 10 batters and allow 10 hits, but the score meant nothing.
“I think it was just the sort of thing we were looking for,” said Virginia Tech pitcher Rob Waskiewicz, who retired the side in order in the third. “We’ve been through some hard times, and people are starting to feel better, but I think this was a great thing.”
Second baseman Matt Hacker agreed.
“It was everything everybody wanted it to be,” he said.