ARLINGTON, Texas - With 50,000 fans on their feet, many with tears in their eyes, six-year-old Cooper Stone stood on the pitcher's mound and tossed the ceremonial first pitch of the playoffs to his favourite player, Josh Hamilton.
Cooper is the boy who saw his firefighter father fall to his death while trying to catch a ball thrown to him by Hamilton during a Texas game on July 7. This was his first trip back to Rangers Ballpark, and it came at the centre of a huge stage, with his widowed mother, Jenny, and Rangers president Nolan Ryan by his side.
Wearing a Rangers jersey featuring Hamilton's No. 32, and "Cooper" between the shoulders, the boy threw the ball on a line to Hamilton, who was crouched like a catcher about halfway to home plate. The outfielder — who has been through his share of personal struggles — stood to catch it, then pumped his fist, smiling wide the whole time.
Then he went to the front of the mound to meet Cooper and Jenny for the first time.
Hamilton embraced the boy, then his mother. He held her for a while, speaking words that made it tough for her to control her emotions.
"I just asked her if they were believers in Christ and she said they were. I said, 'Well, we know where your husband is right now. Make sure that the little one knows who his daddy was and what he stood for,'" Hamilton said.
Jenny Stone appeared to thank Hamilton. They hugged again, then Hamilton — whose wife gave birth to their third daughter only a few weeks ago — gave Cooper another hug, too. The reigning AL MVP started heading to the dugout, only to realize he still had the ball. So he reached back and gave it to Cooper.
A security guard met Cooper as he reached the dirt in front of the Texas dugout and gave him a fist bump. Nelson Cruz was the first of many Rangers waiting at the steps of the dugout to slap hands with the boy. His mother wiped tears as she walked away with Ryan.
"They have turned a difficult return to The Ballpark into a once-in-a-lifetime experience for Cooper," Jenny Stone said in a statement issued by the team. "Nothing could be more exciting for a boy than throwing out the first pitch to his favourite player. We are glad and grateful to be here to see the Rangers start their march to the World Series."
Cooper, his mom and six more in their group sat in front-row seats one section closer to home plate than Ryan. When Hamilton singled in his first at-bat, Cooper jumped up and down, twirling a red towel.
"We're just honoured that they were willing to come out and do that and share the day with us," Ryan said.
Shannon Stone was reaching for the ball thrown by Hamilton when he fell headfirst about 20 feet, landing on concrete behind the outfield wall. Cooper was his only child, and the two were extremely close, with the nearly three-hour drive from their home in Brownwood to Rangers games among their favourite activities together.
The Rangers recently announced plans to build a statue of Shannon and Cooper Stone outside the home-plate entrance as a tribute to them, and to all fans. The team hopes to unveil it by opening day next season. The club also is planning to raise the railing throughout the stadium.
A memorial fund started by the team on the family's behalf recently received more than US$150,000 from an auction sponsored by Fox Sports Southwest, the team's main broadcaster.
"I call (Jenny) periodically just to see how she's doing and see if they have any needs that we might be able to assist with," Ryan said. "It's been ongoing since the accident."
Ryan also discussed with Jenny Stone the best time for Cooper to return to the stadium.
The boy wanted to come sooner, but Jenny "wasn't ready to deal with it," Ryan said. However, she realized that coming back "was in (Cooper's) best interests, because this is what he was wanting to do."
A few weeks ago, Ryan called to invite them for the final homestand. Knowing the playoffs were likely, he also invited them to not only come to the game, but to throw out the first pitch. The Rangers played the Tampa Bay Rays in Game 1 of their AL division series, which also happened to be the first game of the entire post-season.
"He represents what we believe we're about and he is a very dyed-in-the-wool Ranger fan," Ryan said.
Ryan also made sure Hamilton felt comfortable being part of this. Hamilton is a recovering substance abuser whose career nearly was derailed by his personal demons.
"I went to Josh before we decided anything and asked Josh how he felt about it, because I didn't want to put Josh in any awkward position," Ryan said.
Hamilton said he prayed to help steel himself for the moment, and to know what to say.
"The Lord gave me words at the right time," he said. "I'm not good with speeches. Not good with knowing what I'm going to say before. Because I rehearse it too much and it don't sound genuine. So I just kind of let it happen. It worked out good. ... You could tell she was really emotional about coming back to the park. The little one, he's young enough where he understands but at the same time it's not as emotional for him as it is mom."
Cooper and his family sat near the Rangers' on-deck circle, and Hamilton gladly caught the boy's eye several times. It was a nice counter to the scoreboard in a game the Rangers lost 9-0.
"Just to see the smile on his face and him enjoying himself," Hamilton said, "it was pretty special to see."