The closest I came to catching a baseball at a major league stadium was the year SkyDome opened. I was 9. Mauro "Goose" Gozzo, a rookie pitcher for Toronto, was trolling around the outfield during batting practice when a man standing next to me shouted for him to throw him a ball for his son. Goose obliged and fired a strike. Emboldened, I asked Goose for a souvenir, too. His next throw didn't quite reach the stands, even with my lean over the rail. My mom extracted me before Goose could try again.
There is something magical about a baseball, a 5¼-ounce orb made of rubber, cork, yarn and leather, that excites grown men as much as it does children. People catch balls while holding babies, sacrifice $10 beers in pursuit of them, fight and claw for their possession. Everyone in the stands who catches a ball thrusts it into the air. It's a trophy. Sometimes the applause is polite. Other times the whole crowd cheers. The pursuit of a ball inside a stadium is noble.
Police officers and fans look over the railing where a Texas Rangers fan fell while trying to catch a ball tossed in the stands.
It's especially so when a father tries to fetch a ball for his child, like the man next to me at SkyDome did, and like a man at Rangers Ballpark did Thursday night. His name was Shannon Stone. He was a firefighter from Brownwood, nearly a three-hour drive from the stadium in Arlington. He wore a white T-shirt and a blue Texas Rangers hat. His 6-year-old son wore a red T-shirt and a red Rangers hat. They sat in the left-field bleachers together.
In the second inning, Oakland A's outfielder Conor Jackson(notes) hit a screaming foul ball down the left-field line. It caromed toward Josh Hamilton(notes), the Rangers' left fielder. Hamilton picked it up and threw the ball toward the stands. Players do this hundreds of times in a season. It's part of baseball's charm. Show up to a stadium, take home a piece of the game.
Hamilton's toss came in short. It didn't stop Shannon Stone from stretching to grab it. I'm almost certain, in fact, that the moment before Shannon Stone fell 20 feet and suffered injuries that would kill him, he was indescribably happy. He was going to grab a baseball from Josh Hamilton, a man who hauled himself from the depths of drug addiction to not only return to baseball but win the American League MVP award last season. Once Stone had that baseball, he was going to hand it to his son. And for the rest of his life, his son would have a story to tell about the time his daddy reached over a railing and snagged a bad throw from Josh Hamilton, one of the most talented players ever to wear a baseball uniform.
[Related blog: Man dies after falling out of stands at Rangers game)]
Instead, he watched his dad die. He saw Shannon Stone secure the ball in both hands but lose his balance in the process. The man next to Stone reached, in vain, to grab his leg. Stone fell head first 20 feet. When paramedics arrived to stabilize Stone and take him to a hospital, the relief pitchers in the A's bullpen overheard the conversation.
"Please check on my son," Stone said.
This is unfair. It's so very unfair. It's unfair to Josh Hamilton, a decent man and a father to three daughters. He tried to do a good deed. That's all he tried to do. It's unfair to Shannon Stone, a firefighter for 18 years who just wanted to make his kid's night. It's most unfair to that son. He will grow up without a father.
I have a son. He is 3. I've taken him to a few ballgames. He likes the hot dogs and fireworks. He wants to know the players' names. He asks who is nice and who is mean. And when I'm going down the scorecard, answering his questions, he interrupts me and asks to get ice cream.
One night on the walk back from the ice cream shop at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Mo., my son asked to sit in a seat down the right-field line. We moved to the front row. A foul ball ricocheted toward us. My son loves foul balls. When one goes into the upper deck, he'll crane his neck behind him in case it falls. He always asks me to get one for him, and I tell him I'll try, and here was my chance. Someone closer beat me to it. That always happens.
The next time we go to a stadium, I'll try again. Maybe for the first time in 30 years I'll get lucky and a ball will come toward me or a player will toss it in my direction. If I have to lean a little to grab it, so be it. When I pass it to my son, and he lifts his prize, and the crowd around us applauds, his smile will light up the stadium.
He'll know it was a gift from a dad who loves him more than anything, a gift fathers hand to their sons at ballparks every day. A gift Shannon Stone, a dad who caught a foul ball for his son, never got to give.
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