While having dinner Thursday night at a local sports grill, I saw Josh Hamilton smiling and goofing and crushing baseballs with jaw-dropping ease.
One of the TVs behind the bar was showing a replay of the 2008 Home Run Derby, in which Hamilton belted a record 28 first-round homers at old Yankee Stadium.
I knew how it would end. I’d seen it all before. But I couldn’t keep from watching.
About the same time Thursday night, as I would learn a day later, the real-life, real-time Hamilton was having a far worse experience.
In the second inning of the Rangers’ game against the A’s, Hamilton grabbed a foul ball that had ricocheted into left field and tossed it to a man who hoped to secure a souvenir for his 6-year-old son.
Shannon Stone caught the ball Hamilton threw, but his momentum carried him over a left-field railing and onto a concrete walkway 20 feet below.
A little less than an hour later, after being rushed to a Fort Worth hospital, Stone died of blunt force trauma resulting from the fall.
Stone, a 39-year-old firefighter from Brownwood, Texas, took his son, Cooper, to the game Thursday hoping they’d snare a ball. He even stopped on the way to buy him a new glove.
Cooper happened to be “a big Josh Hamilton fan. Had his jersey,” Shannon Stone’s mother, Suzann, told The Associated Press.
You can see why Shannon Stone wanted that ball. You can see why Hamilton wanted to make sure he got it.
With an innocent, well-intended flick of the wrist Thursday night, the reigning AL MVP was forever linked to tragedy, adding another layer to Hamilton’s tangled baseball odyssey.
This is the same player who succumbed to drug and alcohol addictions early in his career. The same player who became one of baseball’s great inspirations when he overcame his past and blossomed into a perennial All-Star.
Hamilton told reporters Friday he could hear Cooper screaming for his dad after Shannon Stone went over the railing. He said when he got home Thursday night, he couldn’t stop thinking about “that little boy” and his family.
The entire Rangers organization swallowed hard.
The club flew flags at half-staff, had a moment of silence before Friday’s game and set up a memorial fund for the Stones, and players wore black ribbons on the front of their uniforms.
As for Hamilton, he went 1-for-5 with a run scored, refusing manager Ron Washington’s offer to have the night off.
I hope he will continue to play with the same joy as before, remembering Shannon Stone’s death was an accident.
Stone could have been any fan reaching for a ball to take home.
Hamilton could have been any player trying to give that fan a memory.