National News

Santa Fe High’s Baseball Team Takes the Field, Shadowed by Tragedy

Posted May 20, 2018 9:42 p.m. EDT
Updated May 20, 2018 9:58 p.m. EDT

DEER PARK, Texas — By the fifth inning, the eye black the players had smeared on their faces was smudging from the sweat. They usually painted straight black lines to cut the glare from the sun and stadium lights, but for this game the shape on their cheeks was a cross.

The Santa Fe High School baseball team, the Indians, played the Kingwood Park Panthers on Saturday night. On Friday morning, the Santa Fe players had fled classrooms and hallways that echoed with gunfire as a gunman killed 10 people at their school; the next night, they put on their green uniforms, stepped onto the diamond in nearby Deer Park and played seven innings in a regional quarterfinal.

Rome Shubert, 16, one of Santa Fe’s pitchers, sat on a metal folding chair near the dugout for the opening pitch. He had been grazed in the back of the head by a bullet on Friday. Trenton Beazley, 15, a catcher also injured by gunfire, stood near him with his arm in a sling. Other players had been close enough to hear the gunshots or to huddle in classroom closets for several panicked minutes as the gunman, identified by authorities as a 17-year-old student named Dimitrios Pagourtzis, opened fire with a shotgun and handgun.

They did not have to be here.

The players, their parents and their coaches gathered for a meeting on Friday, hours after the shooting. Their playoff game that night had already been canceled, but their game on Saturday was still a question mark. All of the adults eventually stepped outside the meeting, leaving the boys on the team to debate among themselves whether to postpone Saturday’s game.

“We walked out, and told them they can decide whatever they want to do,” said Ronnie Wulf, the head baseball coach. “We said, ‘Whatever your decision is, we’re going with it. And if you don’t want to play, I’m good with that.’ They were in there for a little bit, and then they came out and said they wanted to play.”

Sporting events have often been places to come together in times of communal tragedy. Eleven days after a mass shooting in February that left 17 people dead at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, the school hockey team won a state championship.

In the ballgame on Saturday night, Kingwood Park scored early in the game and kept scoring. Tyler Fountain, 18, who pitched for Santa Fe, said later it was the hardest game he had ever played.

“I tried to do my best,” said Fountain, a senior. “Knowing that everybody’s relying on you, your community. It was very hard.”

The players had trouble focusing. Wulf said he could see it. There were reminders of what had happened everywhere they looked.

On the flagpole behind the wall at center field at Jim Kethan Field, the U.S. and Texas flags were at half-staff. The stadium was packed, and among those in the stands was Santa Fe High School’s principal, Rachel Blundell. People held signs reading “We are with you” and “Get well soon, Rome!” Their T-shirts said “Santa Fe Strong.”

People from Deer Park, Kingwood and other towns in this part of southeast Texas wore green and gold, Santa Fe’s colors. In the stands it looked as if everyone was from Santa Fe. Many of the fans said that was the message they wanted to send to the players.

“They’re here to help lift the town a little bit, and of course the town’s backing them,” said Ryan Krenek, 30, an oil-refinery worker who lives in nearby Hitchcock and who stood in front of the stands behind home plate. “After 9/11, they had the big Yankees game with Bush throwing out the first pitch. Through history, sports kind of brings people back.”

The Santa Fe Indians lost by a score of 7-0, eliminating them from the playoffs and ending their season.

After the game, the players gathered between the pitcher’s mound and second base while the media and fans kept their distance. They took a knee as the coaches talked to them. Then they hugged one another, and the Kingwood Park High School players returned to the field. The two teams and their coaches formed a circle and bowed their heads in prayer.

The Santa Fe players lingered there for a long time in the lights, posing for pictures and talking with relatives and fellow students. “Anything you need, bro,” one Kingwood Park player told a Santa Fe player as the two hugged near the pitcher’s mound. “You got my number.”

Wulf was asked by reporters how he got his players through the game. He paused. “I don’t know if I have an answer for that,” he said. “There’s a lot of emotion. And you can’t really fix that. It’s just part of it.”

The coach showed the white tape wrapped tightly around his wrist. It was the students’ idea: In black marker, they had drawn a large cross on the tape and written the initials of the eight students and two teachers who were killed.

The players wore them, too. They had swung the bat and thrown the ball with the weight of C.T., K.V., J.B., C.G., A.P., A.R., S.S., S.F., C.S. and K.M. on their wrists.