Pride And Purpose
Nearly Three Months After The Virginia Tech Massacre That Claimed 32 Lives,
VT Senior And Chatham A’s Slugger Sean O’Brien
Keeps The Memory Of Those Lost With Him At All Times

5 July 2007


CHATHAM — His midnight black pick-up truck sports an “In Remembrance” ribbon decal on the tailgate. His blue baseball cap has the date 4-16-07 inscribed across the back. And there’s no place he goes without wearing an article of maroon and burnt orange colored clothing. 

Welcome to the world of Chatham A’s slugger Sean O’Brien, a Virginia Tech senior whose talent on the baseball field is matched only by his sincere devotion to honor his fallen school mates in the wake of the worst shooting in U.S. history just two-and-a-half months ago. 

A-OK. O’Brien, delivering one of his three hits in Chatham’s 5-5 tie with Brewster on Friday, is hitting .302 for the A’s this season. ERIC ADLER PHOTOS

O’Brien is fully aware that his homage-spirited expressions draw attention to the fact he attends Virginia Tech, and while that often makes him the surrogate spokesman for the school – at least around these parts – it’s a role he’s content to play. 

“I expect the questions to be asked and it’s something I don’t mind talking about,” said O’Brien, a native of Chappaqua, N.Y. and a life-long summer resident of Chatham. All the VT décor, “reminds me of who I’m playing for everyday, and that they’re on my mind every time I step onto the field.” 

O’Brien wasn’t at Johnston or Norris Hall that infamous April day in Blacksburg, Va., when Seung-Hui Cho went from classroom to classroom on a senseless killing spree that claimed the lives of 27 students and five professors before he turned the gun on himself. But he wasn’t far away either. 

Nestled in his off-campus apartment, O’Brien, alongside his one-year old Black Lab “Chatham,” was getting ready to go to class when the first shots rang out.

As captain of Virginia Tech’s baseball team, his job was to phone his teammates, confirm their safety and ensure that wherever they were, they were behind a bolt lock. In between calls, he eyed the stream of TV reports, and tried to wrap his puzzled mind around the chaos that was happening at the scenic school, less than a mile away. 

“It was so surreal. At first I heard two people were killed, then the count went up to seven,” said O’Brien. “Then I came back from getting a drink of water and all of sudden the number went up to 32 people who had been taken from us.”

O’Brien didn’t personally know anyone involved in the massacre, but knew of a few students, including the teammate of his All-American softball-star girlfriend Angela Tincher. 

“As terrible as it was, and as much as I wish it hadn’t happened, it brought the community together.”

“She [Angela’s teammate] was in the building and stuck her head out the door and the shooter took a shot at her,” said O’Brien. “The bullet went right by her head. Nuts. It was just nuts when I heard that.”

For O’Brien and his fellow Hokies, baseball got put on the back burner. Candlelight vigils replaced hitting drills and crisis counselors took over for coaches in the mournful aftermath of a tragedy that turned a once independent student body into a united one. 

“As terrible as it was, and as much as I wish it hadn’t happened, it brought the community together,” said O’Brien, who, in a show of solidarity along with his teammates, placed a baseball on each of the 32 Hokie Stone Memorials. “We became Hokie nation.”

When play resumed five days later, the team, clad in commemorative patches, new-fangled black sleeves, and one black sock paired with their customary maroon one, was met by a record crowd of 3,132 fans and supporters at English Field. 

Hollywood would have scripted it so Virginia Tech beat the University of Miami on a walk-off home run, and while it didn’t end that way, it almost did.

Trailing 10-5 in the eighth inning, the Hokies mounted a furious rally and pulled within two runs with two outs in the ninth when Warren Schaeffer stepped to the plate. The senior clean-up hitter launched a towering shot that would’ve sent the game into extra innings, but left fielder Nick Freitas made a leaping catch at the wall to pull the rainbowed ball back into the park. 

“It was just a real emotional game the whole time,” recalled O’Brien. “Even after we lost, the fans showed their support and showed that they were proud to be a Hokie.”

Virginia Tech, 23-21 overall, went 6-11 following the campus shooting, but at that point, the act of playing outweighed the thrill of any victory and the agony of any defeat. 

“As athletes in season, we were fortunate enough to have distractions,” said O’Brien. “But it also put everything into perspective. It made you realize that having one bad game or one bad year in baseball isn’t all that bad, that things on the baseball field aren’t ever as bad as they seem.”

That revelation has served O’Brien well during his summer stay with the A’s.

“The other day I was 0-for-4, but I made sure to leave the field with a smile on my face,” he said. 

It just so happens that particular hitless outing was an anomaly, as O’Brien, at the start of this week, is carrying a .302 average with a team-leading 10 RBIs in helping the A’s (7-6-2) keep pace in the tightly-contested East Division.

The 22-year-old left fielder made his presence felt from the get go. He smacked a two-run home run in Chatham’s 8-2 opening week victory over Orleans, and drove in a crucial run in the team’s 3-2 win over Wareham two days later. 

O’Brien has not only distinguished himself as a formidable number five hitter, but as someone who, unlike many of his Cape League contemporaries, can consistently hit with wood bats. That’s partially because he’s accustomed to hearing a crack upon contact. 

O’Brien first traded metal for maple his senior year at Horace Greely High School, when he won the Section I triple crown, batting .554 with 13 home runs and 48 RBIs. 

He further familiarized himself with timber as a member of the Danbury Westerners of the New England College Baseball League following his freshman year of college, then again last year during his seven-week stint with the Hyannis Mets. 

The final season stat sheet shows that O’Brien finished with a respectable .266 batting average (hitting anywhere over the Mendoza line in the Cape League is a reputable feat), but reveals nothing about how woefully he struggled at times. 

“At one point I had a 0-for-23 skid, and I’m not afraid to say that because it happens to everybody up here,” said O’Brien. “Well, maybe not to that extent, but everyone has a couple of 0-for-4 games. You have to know that it’s not the end of the world and know that tomorrow is another day, because if you dwell on it, you’re going to be in for a very long summer.”

Chatham A’s Field Manager John Schiffner is one who attests to O’Brien’s page-turning approach to every play.

“With Sean, you can’t tell if we’re winning or losing or if he just struck out or hit a home run and that’s a great attitude to have in this game,” said the 15-year Chatham skipper, who speaks effusively about O’Brien’s other qualities. 

“Sean has all the intangibles. He works extremely hard, he knows the game well, he can hit behind runners and is a good team player. He’s experienced in this league, he knows what it’s all about, and that’s been beneficial to us.”

But like any mushrooming MLB hopeful, there are flaws to his game, particularly a lack of patience at the plate. “Sometimes I get too over anxious and swing too early,” O’Brien admitted. “I’m at my best when I go deep in the count.”

That was plain to see in Thursday’s game against East Division leader Y-D, as O’Brien slapped a 2-1 offering to the opposite field for a double in his first at-bat. In the fourth, however, he popped up the first pitch he saw. 

Waiting for something worthwhile to hit boded well for O’Brien the next day against Brewster. He doubled a 1-2 fastball down the left field line in the second, and in the ninth, worked the count full before tripling as part of his 3-for-5 outing.

His patience was rewarded in a much larger way hours after the game when Schiffner called and offered O’Brien – a temporary player since day one – a full summer contract. 

“There was a lot of high-fiving once we heard that,” said John O’Brien, who spent many a summer’s day playing catch with his son at Chatham’s Veterans Field. His mom, Joan, was equally excited and “thrilled” she’ll get to see her boy in the A’s annual July fourth parade float. 

“Being able to wear that uniform I’ve seen so many others players wear when I was a kid is pretty cool, but,” said O’Brien with a proviso, “I realize I still have to go out and play.” 

Six more weeks in an A’s uniform gives O’Brien further exposure to pro scouts, which, if he continues to collect hits at such a prodigious pace, can only help his major league aspirations. Only O’Brien doesn’t concern himself with the pen and pad-toting men behind the chain-link fence, much less what next year holds. 

“I don’t have any goals,” he said. “I just go out there and play my game. I’m just relaxed and having fun.”

There are many collegians who swear with evangelical-like conviction they’ll make it to the bigs. O’Brien, by contrast, has a “que sera, sera” attitude. He’d like to play in the majors, but knows that in the ultra competitive world of professional sports, nothing is guaranteed.

And that’s OK by O’Brien. If recent events have taught him anything, it’s that life is bigger than highlight reel home runs, curtain calls, and the great game of baseball. 


by Eric Adler
Eric Adler 


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