Long before the baseball that was the catalyst to his accidental death at Rangers Ballpark, Shannon Stone grabbed another souvenir in Arlington.
This one — a foul ball caught in 1983 off the bat of his favorite player, Buddy Bell — perished when his parents' house in Johnson County burned to the ground. On October 16, 2010, while Stone and his son Cooper attended the Rangers' victory over the New York Yankees in Game 2 of the American League Championship Series, the house of Suzann and Al Stone caught fire because of an electrical short in a garage refrigerator.
By the time Stone, a Brownwood firefighter, got the news and hurried to the house between Cleburne and Joshua, flames had engulfed the property and destroyed his cherished ball but, fortunately, spared his parents.
"He was so sad," Stone's mother, Suzann, said last week while fighting back tears and simultaneously cheering on the Rangers' 7-3 victory over their rival Anaheim Angels. "That ball meant a lot to him. Buddy Bell was his favorite player. Just like Josh Hamilton is Cooper's favorite."
With help from Stone, off-duty firemen and their local church, the Stones' home was rebuilt. But after what happened at Rangers Ballpark on July 7, no amount of love, faith or fellowship can ever fully repair Stone's family. In an attempt to snag a ball from his 6-year-old son's baseball hero — like his father, Al, had done for him 28 years ago — Stone leaned over a railing in left field during the Rangers-A's game, caught the ball flipped toward him by Hamilton, lost his balance in the process and tumbled headfirst 20 feet to his death.
"We're a close family, and we have faith that God has a purpose for all of us in this," Suzann said. "But right now it's hard for us to find the point. Some days it's just real hard."
Losing Dad is never easy, especially when he's only 39 and in the prime of a life dedicated to serving others.
Stone grew up in Cleburne, one of the special souls who knew early on he only wanted to do two things in life: Catch fly balls and put out fires. He was one of the good ones, a boy who kept out of trouble and grew into a man who kept everyone else safe.
"He could charm the panties off a nun," joked family friend Reba Henry, who babysat Stone for Al, a police officer, and Suzann, a clerk in the county courthouse. "He had those dancing blue eyes and that crooked smile. Even before he could walk he was crawling off to check on fires."
Said Stone's mother, "If he wasn't my son I'd want him to be my friend. He will always be my hero."
The healing will be slow, and eternally incomplete. Stone's wife, Jenny, who declined an interview request, is preparing to return to her job as a diagnostician for the Brownwood Independent School District. Cooper, a lefty like his idol, Hamilton, is back to playing baseball and already tugging on his mom's sleeves to return to Rangers Ballpark. The family does plan to attend a game before the end of the season and come playoff time, I smell a perfect, inspirational first-pitch candidate.
Kids are resilient, and Stone's firemen buddies, nicknamed "Happy," "Woody," "Thug" and "Weasel," have assured the family that Cooper will never eat lunch alone at school. Nonetheless, the first-grader is in therapy to help him deal with life after watching his father fall to his death.
"I don't know if any of us will ever be able to sort it out," Suzann said.
The overwhelming support from family, firefighters, celebrities, local media and anonymous strangers is helping the Stones put one foot in front of the other. The Rangers immediately established a Shannon Stone Memorial Fund. Brownwood firefighters did the same. In Dallas, noted Rangers blogger Jamey Newberg, Dallas Morning News baseball beat writer Evan Grant and radio station KRLD-FM 105.3 The Fan held fundraising events. ESPN's Erin Andrews contributed to Stone's fund, auctioning a Major League Baseball All-Star Game jersey signed by The Jonas Brothers and Joe Torre.
"The kindness and generosity have been amazing," Suzann said. "Little notes from people we don't even know in New York and Minnesota. I have crying spells quite often. I broke down in Hobby Lobby the other day buying a frame for a picture of Shannon. But we're a blessed family. All this support is lifting us back up."
Part of the family's psychological rehabilitation has been forgiveness. Both Suzann and Jenny sent handwritten notes to team President Nolan Ryan and to Hamilton, hoping to ease his conscience.
"I just wanted Josh to know that no one in our family blames him for anything," Suzann said. "And I asked him to please, please, please keep throwing balls into the stands for the boys and their dads."
What will apparently not be a part of the Stone saga is litigation. A week after the tragedy the Rangers announced new safety guidelines at the park including higher railings and posted warning signs. But Henry said the family is at peace, convinced Shannon's death was nothing more than a freak accident.
"There will be no lawsuit," Henry said. "Nobody's at fault. Just one of those things that's terrible and sad, but impossible to explain. A father trying to make a good memory for his son."
Whether divine intervention or merely a good father making a bad decision in a moment of overzealous carelessness, Stone's fatal fall will be part of a permanent legacy on display at the home-plate entrance to Rangers Ballpark. Ryan announced last week that the team would erect a life-sized, bronze statue of Shannon and Cooper in the spirit of "Rangers Fans."
"I absolutely love it," Suzann said. "What better depicts the essence of baseball than Daddy and his little boy at a game?"
Added Al, "For his whole life Cooper is going to be proud of it."
The statue, however, is polarizing.
Critics predict it won't be viewed as an honor to Stone, but merely a reminder of a tragic accident. They say it will be morbid, walking enthusiastically into a Rangers game only to be jolted by, well, death. Others say, callously, that Stone doesn't warrant being honored via statue for his accident because there are more positive influences in the organization more deserving of being canonized such as former broadcaster Mark Holtz or popular and productive player Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez. Perhaps a missing seat in left field would be more fitting, or maybe a modest plaque in not such a prominent place?
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The Rangers' hearts are in the right place, even if the statue might be a tad misplaced.
"First time I see it there I'll break into tears," Henry said. "But eventually it will bring a smile to me and other fans."
Pursuing his love of the game Shannon Stone lost first his sacred souvenir, then his life. It will be years before Cooper finds the meaning of his statue.
These days he simply clings onto something more valuable — the baseball flipped to his dad by his hero.