- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 21, 2007

BLACKSBURG, Va. — For 32 seconds of silence, one for each victim of Monday’s shooting, Virginia Tech center fielder Nate Parks stood shoulder to shoulder with his teammates on the third-base line at English Field, his head bowed under the afternoon sun.

The hat Parks held clasped in the hands behind his back had the date “04-16-07” inked in white above the brim. A slender switch hitter in a white uniform, pants ballooning above mismatched maroon and black knee socks, Parks shifted his weight slowly back and forth between his black Nikes.

Throughout the playing of the national anthem, through Virginia Tech professor Nikki Giovanni’s reading of her poetic response to Monday’s events, he thought about the crowd behind him, the support he and the rest of the team had felt from the entire country in the wake of disaster, before he turned and trotted back to the dugout.

“Some people have their out,” Parks said. “Mine is baseball. This is my release.”

Parks has been the leadoff hitter for Virginia Tech all season. First-year coach Pete Hughes likes him for his speed, his ability to make contact and beat the throw to first base, his talent for stealing bases. He has been successful on 30 of his 34 attempts to lead the ACC. And there’s something else appealing about the southwest Virginia native, a graduate of nearby Glenvar High School who turned down a football scholarship to James Madison to play baseball for the Hokies.

“There’s no one in our program who loves Virginia Tech more than that kid,” Hughes said during a Thursday afternoon practice. “And he loves Virginia Tech baseball.”

Last night, as a record crowd of 3,132 filtered in to watch the Hokies play conference rival Miami in the first athletic event on campus since the shootings, Parks waited on the bench.

He watched while starting pitcher Adam Redd gutted through a difficult first inning, walking the first Miami batter on a full count, ultimately giving up two hits and a run on a bases-loaded RBI single from right fielder Dennis Raben.

Having pitched a few innings in high school, Parks appreciates the difficulty of Redd’s particular skill. As a fellow student, he shared the troubling emotions that would conflict any pitcher.

“Baseball is actually a very emotional game,” Parks had said the day before, green eyes focused on his teammates as they went through the familiar motions of practice. “Especially for the pitchers — and when you’re in the box, trying to hit. Mainly for the pitchers, though. You’ve got to try to stay focused and contain your emotions.”

Redd battled back, earning two swinging outs and picking off the runner on second to bring the Hurricanes’ defense on.

Thick-thighed Miami starter Scott Maine trotted out to the mound, taking his warmup throws with catcher Richard O’Brien. Parks stepped out of the dugout, weighing his bat. He has known Maine since summer league his sophomore year, and as conference rivals, they face off several times a season.

They don’t stay in regular contact, but when the Miami starter heard about the Virginia Tech shooting, he worried about his old teammate and wished he had some way to check on him. When he didn’t hear anything about the baseball team in particular, Maine figured his friend was okay. And when the Hurricanes came to Blacksburg on Friday, it was with an extra off-duty state trooper for security, a $10,000 check for charity and black armbands for empathy. The pregame ceremonies alone were almost overwhelming for the visitor.

“It’s hard to be put in this situation,” Maine said. “It’s a hard question to answer. We’re going to come up here and try to win, but you’ve got to try to do it with class and respect.”

Maine fired his first pitch. Aware that Maine is capable of unleashing a fastball in the low 90s and that the lefty can locate his curveball, Parks chose to bunt.

“I took a deep breath, and I tried to use what God gave me,” Parks said. “I tried to use my legs.”

He made contact, but not as solid as he probably would have liked, and the ball bounced back toward Maine. The pitcher flipped the ball to first as Parks sprinted down the baseline.

“If that’s two or three feet further from the pitcher, then that’s a base hit,” Parks said. “And then that kind of sets the tone for the entire day.”

It wasn’t the way the lead hitter wanted to perform in his first at bat, wasting his speed on a routine out. But he had made contact. He had brought the crowd half out of their seats for a moment. He had started the long road to back to feeling normal again with a sprint.

And that was all his coach had expected.

“We’re going to play because we need to play, because we need to,” Hughes said before the 11-9 loss. “The community and the college need to feel alive again. As far as winning and losing, it’s not that important to us right now. We’re going to play hard and we’re going to compete, but we’re playing for so much more than that right now.”


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