WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School baseball coach Todd Fitz-Gerald and his sons were guests of the Houston Astros for their spring opener against the Washington Nationals on Friday as Major League Baseball honoured victims of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, by having its teams wear caps with the school’s initials.
Fitz-Gerald said it was a “relief” to get back to the sport he loves and to stop thinking, at least for a moment, about the Valentine’s Day mass shooting that left 17 people dead and more than a dozen others wounded.
“You can’t put it into words,” he said, fighting back tears. “I think it’s great what Major League Baseball is doing to show support for our community and our school. It’s been a rough week and just being out here … (gives me) a sense of freedom.”
Teams had the option of wearing he caps, which are black with “SD” in block letters, during the game or only during warmups. Both the Astros and Nationals wore them during Friday’s game.
MLB ordered more than 2,500 of the caps from New Era, league spokesman Steven Arrocho said. Many teams will have players sign them, and they will be auctioned to benefit the victims and families affected by the shooting.
Stoneman Douglas, which won a state title in 2016, counts several MLB players as alumni, led by Cubs star Anthony Rizzo. He left camp in Arizona to return to Parkland the day after the shooting, gave an emotional speech at a candlelight vigil and later visited victims in the hospital. He wasn’t in the lineup for Chicago’s game on Friday, but wore the hat bearing his high school’s initials while working out.
Both Fitz-Gerald and his son Hunter, a junior, were on campus during the shooting, in which 14 students and three teachers were slain. The elder Fitz-Gerald wore a crisp white shirt that was adorned with the words “Douglas Strong” as he chatted with Astros manager A.J. Hinch and several other players and coaches during morning workouts. He and Hunter accompanied Houston general manager Jeff Luhnow on the field before the game to hoist the World Series trophy.
Down the road in Jupiter, Florida, the rest of the Stoneman Douglas baseball team as well as the school’s softball team were guests of the Marlins before their game against the St. Louis Cardinals.
“It’s helping us feel better and it shows that we are one big family,” Douglas centre fielder Ryan Shinko said. “It’s not just us.”
Douglas pitcher Connor Brian, a senior who will play baseball at Middle Tennessee State next season, had the names of all 17 victims written on the bill of his cap.
“It just gives me a remembrance when I’m pitching to do it for them,” Brian said.
Marlins players and staff wore maroon shirts that read “MSDSTRONG,” and CEO Derek Jeter mingled with the teams and posed for selfies with some players. The revered former New York Yankees shortstop drew on his experience in dealing with 9-11, telling players that they can help the community heal.
“When I was in New York playing after September 11, obviously you’ll never forget what happened, but at least for those three hours we gave people something they could cheer for,” Jeter said. “We appreciated that and we sort of took that and ran with it as an organization. I think a lot of times professional sports teams, sports teams in general, can help distract people, so to speak.”
Before the first pitch, the Marlins and Cardinals observed 17 seconds of silence in memory of the victims. Douglas players and coaches watched from seats behind home plate.
“In Parkland, there’s not a lot of smiles,” said Dustin Brian, Connor’s father and a former Douglas assistant coach. “That’s why I think this is so cool, getting them away from the community.”
At the New York Yankees’ opener against Detroit, both teams lined up along the foul lines for a moment of silence before the game. A flickering candle was shown on the left-field video board.
Back at Astros camp, Hinch said he hopes wearing the caps would let those affected by the shooting know that they’re thinking about them.
“The only thing we can do is bring some recognition and offer our support,” Hinch said. “I think around baseball we have heavy hearts that we even have to do this because of the tragedy that happened. For us to wear their hats, for us to tell them that we’re on their side is our way to kind of galvanize everybody, get everybody together in one setting and let them know they’re not alone.”
Nineteen-year-old Nikolas Cruz, a former student at the school, has been jailed on 17 counts of murder, and authorities said he has confessed to the shooting.
“We’re not going to let one individual define who we are,” Fitz-Gerald said. “That’s it. That’s the bottom line … our responsibility is to be strong for our community. And our baseball program has a long tradition of success and we owe it to the students, we owe it to the community to represent them and give them something to be proud about.”