By Aaron McFarling
A CHILD DROPPED the baseball he'd brought to be autographed. It rolled a few feet, then came to a stop in front of a memorial stone, inscribed with the name of one of the 32 victims. The boy reached down to pick up the ball.
Two buses pulled up. "They're here!" someone said.
And the New York Yankees - first Derek Jeter, then Jorge Posada, then star after star after star - stepped off the bus es and onto the campus of Virginia Tech.
They were here to play a baseball game. But before they did, they wanted to honor the victims of April 16.
So each player stood in a semicircle, facing Burress Hall. After a short ceremony, the players boarded the buses again and headed to the field.
Was it a made-for-TV moment? Of course it was.
But for the dozens of us who were there Tuesday, the Yankees' simple presence at the memorial forced us to do something.
It forced us to look at the names.
They simply didn't have to do it. That's what strikes everybody as so unusual, so moving. When the Yankees wrote a check last year for $1 million, earmarked for the families of the 32 shooting victims, most of us thought that was generous.
But the Yankees, led by owner George Steinbrenner, wanted to do more. They wanted to come to Tech, play a game and help however they could.
What this day turned out to be was a special blend of remembrance, connection and fun. It was a signal that things have gotten better. It was a reward for students and especially the Tech baseball team, which stood on the athletic department's front lines after the tragedy.
In short, it was another positive milepost along Tech's recovery road.
They simply had to do it. That's what they remember most. As they pulled on their uniform s April 20, just four days after the most deadly campus shooting in U.S. history, the Virginia Tech baseball players felt an overwhelming sense of responsibility.
"Like I said then, that was a game I'll never forget," Tech leftfielder Jose Cueto said. "And now, almost a year later, I'll say it again: It's definitely something I will never forget. I will never forget the day we played Miami."
Nor will anyone who was there. The response from the community and campus was stirring, as a record crowd of 3,132 showed up to English Field.
"I just remember it was the hardest day of my coaching life," Tech coach Pete Hughes said. "To come out and actually play when you didn't want to play... just to get a community feeling right again. What an honor to do that."
Even then, you could tell it helped. But as Hughes spoke Tuesday, the Yankees were taking batting practice. The fans, 5,300 strong, were jamming into temporary bleachers to get ready for a game.
The difference between the two scenes was undeniable.
"I get asked a lot by people who know I go to school here, and I tell them it's back to where it should be," Tech infielder Matt Hacker said.
The Yankees could have assumed that and never visited. The fact that they did come helped us to see.
And the thoughts of most everyone were expressed in a sign a woman held at the memorial.
It read simply: "Thank you."