Torn by tragedy and wilted under the unsparing klieg lights of the national and international media, Virginia Tech finally showed herself on a grassy hillside along the third base line of English Field. Hundreds of families, college students, and local little leaguers sat on blankets, ate hot dogs, drank Diet Coke, and cheered the Virginia Tech Hokies as they took on the University of Miami in a Friday night baseball game. It was the first sporting event since the Monday murders.
Before Seung-Hui Cho's seething inner life erupted in public violence, Virginia Tech was quietly, perfectly all about this: sports and spirit. A freshly cut lawn. Maroon baseball hats and orange t-shirts. Applause and high-fives for a baseball team that doesn't always win, but always plays hard.
In all, there were an estimated 3,000 spectators both in the stands and on the grass, far greater than the usual turnout.
Before the game, the loudspeaker played a recording of Nikki Giovanni's now-iconic poem from Wednesday's convocation, "We are Virginia Tech." The home team players huddled and said a prayer. The University of Miami coach presented a $10,000 check for a memorial fund. The check got a rousing applause from the crowd, but it also seemed like a preemptive apology from Miami for what turned out to be a 11-9 victory against Tech. As Robert McDaniel, one of University of Miami team managers, told me before the game, "Once the umpire says 'play ball,' you gotta play."
The game came after a somber day on the Drill Field, the grassy expanse a quarter-mile away that forms the heart of this campus. Friday was the official day of mourning for the dead, both in Virginia and around the country. On the Drill Field at noon, thousands had gathered to write messages of love and remembrance on easels and light candles in the chapel. But even amid public acts of mourning, stoicism reigned. Rob Yanskie, a childhood friend of Caitlin Millar Hammaren, who was killed in Norris Hall, bent down to touch a stone to be dedicated in her name, one of 32 arranged in a half-circle on the grass. He had driven from New York with another of Hammaren's friends to say goodbye. They did not weep. "Basically we've decided to celebrate her life instead of mourning," he said.
At the baseball game, athletic Director Jim Weaver said the game was the first chance for the students to "not think about Monday, not watch the same thing over and over again on TV. It's a positive thing."
On the hillside, VT students and alumni and a gaggle local little leaguers began arranging themselves to create the letters VT on the hill. A cheer went up from the adjacent stands. The Hokie Bird mascot, basically an oversized turkey, trundled up the hill, carrying his VT staff, the same one he always carries, only today it had the names of the dead written on it. The bird gave the dads high-fives, mussed the kids' hair and gave a fist pump to no one in particular.
If Cho's rampage was an orgy of hate, then here, in this oversized purple turkey clowning for a crowd of students and kids, was the perfect antidote: a wanton display of innocence.
With reporting by Bill Kovarik/Blacksburg