After Parkland Tragedy, a Team Heals Together

Brandon Sneed@@brandonsneedWriter-at-Large, B/R MagMarch 30, 2018

Patricia Padauy, right, passes a handwritten note to her friend Sharamy Angarita, as they clean and sort out items at the memorial site of Padauy's son Joaquin Oliver in Parkland, Fla., Wednesday, March 28, 2018. Volunteers, students and parents were sorting items left at the memorial sited for the 17 students and faculty killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Valentine's Day. Flowers and plants will be composted while all other items will catalogued and saved. (AP Photo/Marta Lavandier)
B/R

Coach Todd Fitz-Gerald was in the first base dugout when he realized what was happening that day. He'd been working in his clubhouse office, preparing for one of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Eagles' last baseball practices before their season opener. Fitz—as everyone knows him—stepped into the dugout to check on the field.

He looked for the groundskeeper, Jeff Heinrich, but he was nowhere in sight. Normally, Heinrich, a police sergeant who just worked the field for fun on his off days, could be found tending to the crisp, bright green grass and freshly dragged amber-red dirt. What Fitz saw, instead, was a sea of students pouring from the school's gray buildings in the distance. He heard the fire alarm and the swelling chorus of sirens drawing close. And then he heard "active shooter" on his radio. 

Soon, Heinrich reappeared with a boy who'd been shot in the leg and had a bad limp. Fitz and Heinrich took him into the clubhouse, where they found a medical kit and treated his wound. Paramedics came soon, and the boy would live. "Worst thing I've ever seen," Fitz recalled to me later. The hole in the boy's leg was bigger than two baseballs. "Wide-open. Wide-ass open. Looked like hamburger meat, man."


The Stoneman Douglas campus shut down for weeks after that. Baseball field included. Season opener, canceled. And with Parkland activists renewing the calls for gun control and against gun violence, Fitz knew some would question the need to get back to baseball. How can you even care about a game after all this? How could baseball possibly matter now? 

"F--k that," Fitz said. His players were hurting too. They lost friends, and they lost two giants of the athletic department whom most Stoneman Douglas baseball players knew and loved: assistant football coach Aaron Feis and athletic director Chris Hixon. Like Heinrich, Feis and Hixon ran toward the shooting to try to save people. Unlike Heinrich, they died doing so—Feis, as a shield; Hixon, trying to disarm the shooter. 

Among Fitz's reasons for moving forward with the season is that Stoneman Douglas is a powerhouse. The team won the state and national championships just two seasons ago, in 2016. Studs such as Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo and top prospects Jesus Luzardo (a pitcher with the Oakland A's) and Colorado Rockies third baseman Colton Welker are among its notable alumni. By Fitz's accounting, this year's team, before the shooting, had the chance to be the best in school history. 

The Stoneman Douglas baseball field
The Stoneman Douglas baseball fieldPhoto by Brandon Sneed

The team's star is John Rodriguez, a senior shortstop. Though committed to Florida International, he's a legitimate draft prospect—he's a lanky 6'2" with strength and room to grow. Six more players have scholarships to various colleges. Fitz's son, Hunter, is a junior third baseman who just grew six inches in the past year, suddenly a 6'4", 210-pound slugger. 

And Fitz, for his part, has a few national coach of the year awards to boot. (In 2008, he earned the honor from Baseball America, USA Today and the ABCA, and again in 2016 from MaxPreps.) He is a stoic man who used to pitch at the Division II level. He stands about 6'0," with blue eyes, a shaved head and goatee. 

But as nice as a potential national championship might be, pushing forward is about more. "These kids have been playing baseball since they were four years old," Dave Taylor, an assistant coach, said. "We're going to stop because some jackass shot up the school? Naw. This is how you cope. Hit in a cage. Throw a ball. Hard as you can."

Fitz admitted that he didn't know exactly what to do. "There's no manual for this," he said. "There's no script. You just want your kids to be OK."

So he drew on what had worked for him in tragedies past: He got to work. His mother, Judy Fitz-Gerald, died in September after battling breast cancer for 18 months. (Fitz's players carried her casket.) The next day, the team met for practice. 

The day after the shooting, Fitz called a team meeting at DC Baseball, a vast indoor training facility where the team worked out a few times a month. It has eight full-sized batting cages, an artificial turf infield and a color palette dominated by neon green. The infield, in the center of the place, is surrounded by nets keeping unexpected flying objects from causing harm. They gathered there. 

The players and coaches hugged and cried. They had pizza and soda. Then they all sat in a circle on the infield as Fitz took the floor. "There are two ways we can go forward," he said. "We can put our head between our legs, or we can lift our heads, be strong for each other, and persevere. We're not gonna let the act of one cowardly individual define who we are."

And, he added: "You have a responsibility. Be strong for the school. Be strong for the 17 families. Some people are going to be activists. That's good. We are baseball players. That's also good. Do what you're best at, as well as you can. Through that, we can give these people something to be happy about." 

The boys agreed. Although Fitz had intended for this to be merely a social gathering, many of the players insisted on working out. They took batting practice, and threw, and fielded ground balls. "Just to forget what happened," Rodriguez said. "For a little bit." 


They practiced for real the very next day, even though the Stoneman Douglas field was still closed. The police were conducting a post-shooting investigation on campus, and the carnage needed to be cleaned up. It would all take about two weeks. We can't practice here? Fitz remembered thinking. We're going to go practice somewhere else.

North Broward Prep, a high school across town, offered its field. 

Lewis Brinson of the Marlins speaks to Stoneman Douglas team.
Lewis Brinson of the Marlins speaks to Stoneman Douglas team.Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

Major league teams kicked in too. The Astros invited Fitz and his players to spring training's opening day. As a gesture of solidarity, all 30 MLB teams wore "SD" hats in place of their own. The Red Sox sent a box of hats signed by every member of the team. Lewis Brinson and Justin Bour from the Marlins came to a Stoneman Douglas practice, hit ground balls and talked with the team. The Marlins invited the Eagles to spend a day at their facilities, and the boys met Derek Jeter, the Florida franchise's newly minted CEO. They smiled all that day and took a million pictures. 

Jeter told the boys that baseball could help them heal. He was uniquely suited to empathize with their situation; after 9/11, his New York Yankees returned to the field to help quell the emotions of the city and the nation. The way forward, he said, wasn't just in playing, but also in thinking of what they gave others by doing so. "We knew, playing in New York, that we couldn't change the events that occurred," Jeter explained to reporters. "We looked at it as we were distracting the fans three hours a day."

The future Hall of Famer later informed the Eagles that they would play their game against Coral Springs High at the Marlins' stadium on April 4. He'd charter buses for them, the locker rooms would be theirs for the day, and they could take batting practice on the field before the game. "Derek just wanted to give the boys a distraction," a Marlins rep said. "Something to look forward to."

The outpouring of love didn't stop there: Ryan Tannehill showed up to practice unannounced one day. Jesus Luzardo started a memorial fund for the family of Chris Hixon. Dwyane Wade, upon learning that a victim was buried wearing his Heat jersey, spoke to the students. Numerous schools, companies and individuals sent banners, jerseys, hats, gifts. Even cupcakes. 

Brandon Auerbach, a senior second baseman for Stoneman Douglas who will play at South Alabama in the fall, told me that the attention was moving. "Makes us feel seen," he said. It was also inspirational. Some days, Auerbach would tell his coach: "We're not going to lose because of this. We're going to win in spite of it." 


Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

On March 2, the Stoneman Douglas Eagles finally played their first game. "[It] felt like a playoff game," Rodriguez said. The stands overflowed, the crowd swelled around the fences, and they were loud. A dozen scouts were there by the dugout. Jonathan Strauss, a senior outfielder heading to Queens College on scholarship in the fall, sensed a victory. "We just knew we were going to win," he said. 

And they did. 

But one victory didn't make coping with the tragedy any easier. Some, like Rodriguez, managed to compartmentalize the emotional weight of what happened, separating it from what happened on the field. "You'll hear music in the clubhouse, and you'll practice," he told me. "And you can forget about everything else. You have to. You gotta focus up." 

But for many of the players, not all days were so good. Some would burst into tears on the field. For others, the concept of "play" lost all meaning, felt unnatural. 

The coaches had their own struggles. Taylor, who normally patrols the school as a security monitor, has been replaying the day of the shooting in his head, wondering what he might have done differently. After another monitor radioed him about a suspicious kid heading his way, Taylor locked eyes with the shooter as he entered the building. "Keep seeing that stupid kid's face," he told me. 

The shooter ducked through another door, and Taylor doubled back to the second floor to try to head him off another way. But when the shooting began, he panicked and locked himself in a maintenance closet. He radioed in what he'd seen and heard. Texted his family, telling them he loved them. When an officer guided Taylor out of the building, he saw Feis on the ground.

This isn't real, a voice in his head said. Feis ain't down.  

Taylor told me that, guilt-ridden, he has lost sleep in the days since the shooting. He's even yelled at players. One day at practice, Taylor chewed out Rodriguez for throwing slightly wide to first. He quickly snapped out of it, shaking his head. "I'm sorry," he said. "C'mere, buddy." He spread his arms and hugged Rodriguez. "You know I love you," Taylor said. 

The ups and downs continued after the season opener. The team won some and lost some. After a particularly ugly outing—a 10-0 loss that ended early by mercy rule—Fitz reminded the kids that the diamond could be cathartic. "It's the best therapy," Fitz insisted. He said they could come to the field as much as they wanted, even on Saturdays. He'd be there for hours—to hit ground balls and throw batting practice to whoever wanted some. "You're never going to forget what happened," he said. "But out here, you can, for a moment."

Soon after that, the team rebounded. The Eagles won their next five games by mercy rule. After one of those mercy games, Fitz invited me to join him and Taylor at a friend's house. The two drank beer and confided how moved they were by the resiliency of their players. "We've got some good, tough boys, Fitzy," Taylor said. "Can't believe it sometimes. I'm a grown-ass man and this s--t's tearin' me up. Can't imagine dealin' with that at that age." 

"Kids are more resilient than adults, lotta times," Fitz replied. 

"They're like us. They take no s--t." 

Fitz nodded. "We take no s--t." 

                     

Brandon Sneed is a writer-at-large for B/R Mag and the author of Head In The Game: The Mental Engineering of the World's Elite Athletes. His writing has previously appeared in Outside, ESPN The Magazine and more, and has received mention in The Best American Sports Writing. Follow him on Twitter: @brandonsneed.

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