Life after the shooting for the Stoneman Douglas baseball team

Jeff Passan
MLB columnist

PARKLAND, Fla. – About five minutes before the fire alarm blared and the pop-pop-pop of gunshots echoed and the fear seized him, John Rodriguez was thinking about baseball. Before the shooting, pretty much all he thought about was baseball. Rodriguez is the starting shortstop for the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Eagles, one of the best high school baseball programs in the country, and the team’s mediocre practice that Tuesday left Rodriguez daydreaming during his final-period math class how to be better Wednesday afternoon.

At 2:21 p.m., 39 minutes before practice was supposed to start Feb. 14, Nikolas Cruz pulled the fire alarm in what’s known as the freshman building on Stoneman Douglas’ sprawling, open campus. Rodriguez, in a catty-corner building, hooked a left out of his classroom to survey the situation. He walked past a bank of lockers and took another left, at which point he saw people running. He turned around. More people running. He pivoted back in the original direction, went to the end of the hall, descended half a bank of stairs and was told to go back up.

“There’s a shooter,” a teacher said.

By the time Rodriguez neared his classroom, Cruz fired his first three shots. Rodriguez ducked into the nearest door. This didn’t seem real. Rodriguez moved to Parkland less than two years earlier from Lawrence, Massachusetts, to play baseball and avoid the guns and violence that poisoned his hometown. Parkland was all gated communities and million-dollar homes and great schools.

“When I came here, I didn’t think anything happened,” he said. “I’ve seen dead bodies. I heard gunshots all the time. I was used to it. I’m used to things being wrong.”

Though the shooting stopped within minutes, Rodriguez hid in a corner for what felt like hours. His phone vibrated incessantly with people checking in. He answered when his parents called, only to be shushed off by classmates. Nobody knew that Cruz had allegedly killed 17 people. Confusion swirled. One message on Rodriguez’s phone said there was a bomb in the school. Another said there were four shooters.

Among all the unanswered messages, Rodriguez did take time to respond to one that read: “Text if you’re OK.” It was the Stoneman Douglas baseball-team group chat. One after one, the 19 varsity players said they were all right. Nobody on the JV team, which includes nine freshmen, was hurt, either.

In the following hours, days, weeks, Stoneman Douglas became the epicenter of the most meaningful gun-control effort in decades. Hundreds of thousands of people will descend on Washington, D.C., this Saturday for the student-organized March For Our Lives, and countless more in rallies around the country will protest the inaction of politicians to stem the wave of gun violence in schools. The players on the Stoneman Douglas baseball team look at their peers with equal parts awe and gratitude.

Marjory Stoneman Douglas became the epicenter of the most meaningful gun-control effort in decades. (Getty Images)

They share the burden of living through a mass shooting, an unspeakable tragedy with effects impossible to understand this soon. Somehow, amid the tangle of emotions, the choice in the immediate aftermath feels almost binary: do something to distract from the sadness, or let it consume you. So they put down their heads and plunge into something that even for a moment can help them forget, whether it’s activism or schoolwork or, in John Rodriguez’s case, baseball.

His decision to move here and live with a host family has paid off. He is almost certain to be chosen in the Major League Baseball amateur draft this June, perhaps in the top five rounds. If his instincts catch up to his raw talent, Stoneman Douglas coach Todd Fitz-Gerald said, “He’ll be an everyday shortstop in the big leagues.” Fitz-Gerald would know. He was the high school coach for All-Star first baseman Eric Hosmer and a number of current top prospects.

He leans on Rodriguez, and Rodriguez leans on him, and a web of similar relationships – among players and coaches, players and players, coaches and coaches – sustains them. Because as much as they may crave normalcy, as much as they may endeavor to know it again, life after a shooting inexorably alters one’s reality. There was before, and there is after, and though the hits still feel like hits and the wins still feel like wins, an imperceptible difference exists, and the battle is not figuring out how to get rid of it.

It’s learning to live with it.

***

Every day, it seems, somebody new comes to Stoneman Douglas baseball practice. On a recent afternoon, a man named Andy Castellanos, who sells a baseball-themed wristband, had brought game-used Honus Wagner and Johnny Evers bats to show the players. He asked Fitz-Gerald how the team was playing.

“Off to a good start since … ya know,” Fitz-Gerald said.

As Castellanos spoke to the team, four men slipped into a door on the near side of the dugout. “Was that Tannehill?” Fitz-Gerald asked. Indeed, Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill was there, along with long snapper John Denney and associate head coach Darren Rizzi, a friend of a Stoneman Douglas coach. When the players were done ogling Castellanos’ bats, it was Rizzi’s turn. He talked about making good decisions and moving forward. He called the shooting “the situation.” It was well-intentioned word soup, but then again, what exactly are the right words?

The action of showing up mattered most, just as it did when Dwyane Wade visited Parkland. Sports aren’t just woven into the fabric of Parkland. They’re a wide swatch of the material. It was why two days after the shooting, Fitz-Gerald secured a nearby field and brought his team back to practice.

[Photos: MLB players honor Stoneman Douglas High School]

“I thought it was the best thing to get out there,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that it happened. Thank God that it wasn’t worse than it was. It was 17 too many. They mourned. We went to funerals. We paid our respects. But we had a job to do: get prepared for the season.”

Fitz-Gerald grew up in the area and went to high school at nearby American Heritage, where he later won a national title and coach-of-the-year award. He moved to Stoneman Douglas in 2012 and won another title two years ago. Fitz-Gerald teaches a science class called Earth Space, in which students study rocks, planets, solar systems, geography, geology, ecosystems, oceans, tides and weather. Fitz-Gerald’s interest in science goes well beyond the physical; he believes in string theory and parallel universes – that elsewhere in the cosmos, Nikolas Cruz didn’t kill 17 people at Stoneman Douglas.

Houston Astros manager A.J. Hinch talks with Stoneman Douglas High School baseball coach Todd Fitz-Gerald, center, and his son, Hunter Fitz-Gerald, left, last month. (AP)

Gruff and demanding, Fitz-Gerald often finds himself peeved during practice. On a recent afternoon, he implored a player: “Get your damn eyes on the right place. Quit socializing.” And he told another: “Want to be a star? You’ve got to give star effort.” Aphorisms are part of Fitz-Gerald’s playbook. A dry-erase board in the dugout reads, in all caps: NO ONE REMEMBERS THE LOSERS. Another maxim says:

Your *Attitude*
Not your Aptitude
Will determine
Your Altitude!

In one drill, Stoneman Douglas needs to record 21 consecutive outs on a variety of groundballs, flyballs and line drives. Every mishandled play resets the number to zero. The players would get to 10, 11, 12 and then fumble. Rodriguez, taking a day to rest after his back flared earlier in the week, tried from the dugout to nurture along his teammates.

“Focus!” he said. “Twenty-one outs! There’s nobody running! Take your time!”

Another error drew the ire of Fitz-Gerald, who ended the drill and sent the players running from home plate to the right-field pole to the left-field pole and back home. And then a second time. And a third time. And a fourth time. “If you give a half-ass effort,” he warned, “I’m gonna make you run more.”

When they returned to the field, Rodriguez encouraged every out. He spoke in English, Spanish and Rodriguez, the latter a sped-up Spanglish that reflects his effusiveness. As the outs piled up and finally grew to 21, the players loosened up, their happiness befitting a 79-degree day with a perfect sky. The palm trees in center field, the lush and verdant surroundings – it would’ve all been positively Rockwellian, if not for the flag near the scoreboard in center field that still hung at half-staff.

Those little reminders are everywhere, so omnipresent they blend into life and become the new normal. The sea of flowers in front of the school never seems to end. Affixed to nearly every curl of chain-link fencing around the school is a poster from another school around the country offering support. Even when Fitz-Gerald tried to avoid the shooting that afternoon in the quiet of his office, a player knocked on his door and poked his head in.

“Hey, Coach,” he said. “I’m going to the march on Washington from Thursday to Sunday. Is that OK?”

***

Charles Kean is 17 years old. He is not Emma Gonzalez or Cameron Kasky or David Hogg or Delaney Tarr, the Stoneman Douglas students at the heart of the #NeverAgain movement. He is not just a baseball player, either.

In the days after the shooting, when the March For Our Lives blossomed from an idea into a cause, a group led by former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, a victim of gun violence, sponsored a group of 100 Stoneman Douglas students to travel to Washington this weekend. Kean applied and was accepted.

“We need to make our voices heard to Congress,” he said.

He wasn’t sure how Fitz-Gerald would respond when he asked to go. “Sure,” Fitz-Gerald said, and that was that. He wasn’t going to stand in the way, even if Kean’s only prior thoughts on gun control were the same as so many others not directly affected. After 58 people were killed last October in Las Vegas, the worst mass shooting in modern American history, Kean wondered to himself how something like that could happen. And then he forgot about it.

During the shooting, Kean did not hide in a classroom like Rodriguez and so many of his other teammates. At first, he wondered if it was an active-shooter drill in which someone was firing blanks. When a teacher told him it was real and a security guard told him to leave, Kean started running. He sprinted off the campus and toward Westglades Middle School, which is next to Stoneman Douglas. He hopped a fence and kept going, more than a mile away to a CVS, where he called his mother. She picked him up and drove him home, where they sat in front of the TV, watching like the rest of the country – 14 children and three adults dead. Seventeen total, a number burned into America’s consciousness.

On Friday, he’ll go to a press conference at the Capitol and head to the Dirksen Senate Office Building and attend a morning meeting. At 5 p.m., he’ll eat pizza while making posters in a space at his hotel designated the Parkland Lounge. The group expects to march with their signs from noon to 4 p.m. on Saturday, ending at the National Education Association.

Miami Marlins outfielder Lewis Brinson and the rest of MLB showed their support following February’s tragedy. (AP)

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing,” Kean said. “I think this is history we’re making. There’s never been this much noise and publicity. I really believe we’re going to do something real. We’ve already got the gun age up to 21 in Florida.”

These are baby steps, he realizes, though they represent evolutionary leaps in Florida, a state whose politicians historically have been besotted with the NRA. Kean wants them to know his voice matters, as do those of the 99 others on his trip and those that will be behind microphone and bullhorns and that of Garrett Knobel, another Stoneman Douglas baseball player who plans on marching in Washington.

The 18-year-old Knobel is classmates with a number of the most prominent activists from Stoneman Douglas. One day last year, Gonzalez, the face of the march, walked into class with her head shaved for the first time. Knobel said he asked her what she’d done. Her response, he said: “What are you talking about?” That, Knobel said, embodies Gonzalez and the movement writ large: passing off big transformations like they’re nothing.

“We’ve had these incidents before. We’ve never had this attention,” Knobel said. “This March For Our Lives is going to change America for a long time.”

***

As Fitz-Gerald seethed during the 21-outs drill, junior-varsity practice, held in a batting cage beyond the right-field fence, ended. Players cleaned up their gear, put it away in a shed and goofed off on their way back to the parking lot. One player sat on a bench, tapping at his phone, waiting for his dad to come pick him up.

D.J. Glasgow, 15, is a freshman at Stoneman Douglas. He was in the room closest to the door of the freshman building that Nikolas Cruz entered. Cruz walked right past it.

“I don’t know why he didn’t shoot in our classroom,” Glasgow said.

He doesn’t know how to process it – the whims of an accused murderer, the reason assigned to an illogical act, the horror of thinking something is a dream and being unable to blink yourself awake. Five of Glasgow’s friends died. There were too many funerals, too much anguish.

“Thank God I still have baseball,” Glasgow said. “Thank God I still have something to look forward to. It’s just that – baseball’s been helping me. It’s been helping me a lot.”

Maybe this is healthy, and maybe it’s not, but it’s a truism among Stoneman Douglas baseball players that the game, as Knobel said, “is a refuge” – that it takes a unique focus and energy to play, which in turn drains the mental resources that might be expended otherwise. Or, at very least, pushes to the background any temptation to be swallowed by grief.

Rodriguez fills his days with baseball and homework and constant social interaction. At 6-foot-2, 180 pounds, he strides with a big-man-on-3,300-student-campus confidence and flits from baseball practice to volleyball game to lacrosse game to see people and be seen. Teachers ask him how his grades are (straight A’s) and where he’s going to college (Florida International, on scholarship, provided he doesn’t sign with a major league team). Parents say hi. Kids nod. Parkland is like that, a place a Dominican kid from Massachusetts, the son of a chef and day-care owner, can make a home.

Marjory Stoneman Douglas baseball player Connor Brian holds a hat with the names of the victims of the shootings at the school. (AP)

“My own little world,” Rodriguez said.

It’s what Fitz-Gerald wants his to players create. Not a safe space but a path forward. He was there during the shooting, as was his son Hunter. He sees no reason to dwell.

“I’m over it, man,” Fitz-Gerald said. “I’m ready to move on. I’m tired of it. I don’t like talking about it. I don’t want to talk about it. It is what it is. You can’t look back. You’ve got to look ahead. Nothing we can do about it. Nothing we’re going to do is going to take it away. You can’t bring them back. They’re not coming back. They’re in God’s hands and that’s it. Life’s got to go on. As insensitive as that may sound – it’s not – these kids have their lives they’ve got to live, too.”

And yet as much as he tries to live in this new reality, to inure himself and his players, to make baseball the axis around which their worlds spin, to celebrate the Eagles winning their first game back and lament them losing their next three and swell with pride at their current four-game winning streak, he can’t fully get away from it, not now, not ever. Because every time Todd Fitz-Gerald slips on his jersey, the reminder is on his back, the same uniform number he has worn for more than a quarter century, dating back to when he pitched in college: 17.