White Sox tip their hats to NIU
Autographed items to be auctioned for charity
TUCSON, Ariz. -- You're a senior in college, maybe 21 or 22 years old.
Time of your life, right? The biggest cares or concerns on your mind, outside of finishing up strong with good grades, might deal with buying a suit for that first job interview or picking a vacation locale for that final spring break excursion.
Dealing with the mortality of friends and classmates should be the furthest removed worry for young men and women about to leave four years of higher education. And dealing with the death of those same friends and classmates through a tragic on-campus shooting ...
Well, nobody from ages 18 to 80 should ever have to live through such an ordeal.
But there were three members of the Northern Illinois University baseball team, along with head coach Ed Mathey, standing on the Tucson Electric Park field prior to Wednesday's Cactus League opener between the White Sox and Rockies. And there was Trever Feeney, throwing out the first pitch as a representative of the entire NIU campus and the ongoing grieving process following an inexplicable shooting on Feb. 14, which took the lives of five students and wounded 16 more.
Of course, the team occupying the home dugout can't be overlooked in this on-field show of human support and togetherness. The White Sox sported NIU hats to honor the victims, and the players autographed those hats following the Rockies' 7-3 victory. Those hats will be auctioned off to benefit NIU's February 14th Student Scholarship Fund, with the fund awarding five scholarships in memory of the victims.
If a standing ovation could be given to an entire organization for a show of class, then White Sox fans around the country were applauding on Wednesday.
"It was a cool thing," said White Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski of wearing the NIU hats. "It's one of those things, working in the state of Illinois, playing in the state of Illinois, it's a tough thing. It's a tragedy that no one wants to go through.
"The autographed hats are going to charity, so hopefully it will help them cope with things a little bit. It was nice to meet their baseball coach and see they're down here dealing with it the best that they can."
NIU's baseball team was in Arizona for some Division I competition, thanks to the assistance of Arizona State baseball coach Pat Murphy and Mark Coronado, the director of recreational services for the city of Surprise, Ariz. The Huskies' first weekend of baseball was cancelled due to the tragedy, and rightfully so, but the team was in a scramble to find some games.
So, the Huskies will be traveling three hours to Surprise from Tucson, in order to play games against Portland and Hawaii on Thursday. The team returns home this weekend to play at Southern Illinois University.
Along with the scheduling and travel support, Mathey spoke of the outpouring of emotion coming from across the country to the city of DeKalb, where the campus is located. It has brought the campus closer together than it ever has been before.
"I've seen the positives. The entire community has come together," Mathey said. "Our sister cities, Sycamore and DeKalb, have just a huge outpouring of support. And as the baseball coach, the support we've received throughout the country, just in wishes and e-mails and thoughts and prayers, those are all positives for me. It just gives you some perspective where you're at.
"I'm the baseball coach, and my e-mail box has been full. And I can only imagine what our president's office is feeling and experiencing. There were a good five-to-six days where we had some mourning to get through. And last Sunday we had a university-wide memorial and that was the official point that the healing has started.
That healing brought a smile to the faces of these three players, who had a chance to meet and mingle with some of the White Sox players before the game. Matt Jernstad and Dave Nykiel, both senior pitchers, also were on the mound in the pregame ceremony and spoke afterward of fulfilling a dream by meeting baseball heroes the Illinois natives and White Sox fans had followed their entire lives.
This meeting seemed to be just as important to the White Sox, who were more than willing to lend a collective hand from across the country. This latest line of senseless attacks involving guns on unsuspecting victims truly resonated with White Sox individuals who have families of their own.
"Besides Chicago, stories like that didn't really hit me until I had a kid," White Sox first baseman Paul Konerko said. "Once you have a child, you realize, OK, fast forward 20 years from now and he's in college and something like that happens. I never really thought about it but you can't imagine. You are supposed to outlive your kids. You think about the parents left behind, that's what I think of anyhow."
"I know how those parents feel, we know how the schools feels, we know how Illinois and Chicago and all over the United States, people feel about those scenarios," White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen added. "You're not invisible. You're always out there and you never know what's going to happen. You just pray every day hopefully it doesn't happen to one of your family members or friends."
During a chat with the media after the first pitch, Mathey explained how the White Sox kind actions could lead to an NIU game played at U.S. Cellular Field. But Mathey and his charges also spoke about that fateful Valentine's Day in DeKalb before the interview was complete.
The team was at its practice facility when the word came down, and all the players had to be collected during lockdown. The building quickly was secured with softball, tennis and baseball players alike. Cell phone opportunities were knocked out by major cell traffic, leaving parents and family to worry if their respective son or daughter was involved.
Jernstad also spoke of a friend of a friend, whom he had hung out with previously, who took a shotgun blast to the back. This friend survived, and the same can be said for NIU as a whole, with a little help from their many friends, such as the White Sox.
"The White Sox are doing a lot for our school, showing real character by helping us out," Jernstad said.
"I can't thank the White Sox enough, and ASU and the Royals [who train in Surprise]," Nykiel added. "The tragic events that happened can't really be put into words. It's one of those things you never thought could ever happen. Unfortunately, it did, but the university has come together great."
"They all seem like they are having a good time," added White Sox pitcher John Danks of the NIU players. "That's all we can really do for them."
Scott Merkin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.