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Posted July 13, 2011 | comments Leave a comment

Tragedy and triumph at the ballpark

Verdillo-Matt-7-6-11.jpg
Matt Verdillo

By Matthew Verdillo - Strasburg Express

Recently, a very tragic accident occurred at the Texas Rangers' ballpark in Arlington, Texas. During the second inning of a game on July 7, 2011, Ranger fan Shannon Stone lost his balance when stretching to catch a ball tossed by Ranger's centerfielder Josh Hamilton. Stone fell 20 feet to the concrete below. He remained conscious after impact long enough to call to the fans above urging them to take care of his 6-year-old son. His death was pronounced at the hospital before the game even ended.

This is truly a tragic event, especially since it happened at a baseball park, which are often regarded as nearly sacred places where no bad can happen. These beautiful places get to host America's National Pastime, which has been bringing people together and raising spirits for more than a century. Even more than that, going to a baseball game has been a quintessential American father-son bonding experience for scores of years. It just seems so impossible that something so heartbreaking could happen at such a pleasant place during such a great game. Baseball games are occasions of joy and events to look forward to, especially for a young boy and his father who had waited weeks for this game. Originally, the game had been postponed due to rain, so obviously the anticipation had really been growing. The young son had even purchased a new glove in hopes of snagging a ball.

Even though he did not experience as much emotional pain as the Stone family, Hamilton hurt too. He said he seemed to watch the fall in slow motion and could hardly fathom what had occurred. It's not easy having the accidental death of a young child's father weighing on one's mind, especially when it's caused by such a harmless, simple and common gesture. Hamilton was heavy hearted and left with the screams of the young son replaying in his mind, but he also said that "there's nothing I can do by not playing" and managed the courage to play the following day.

Oddly enough, a moment of pure exuberance occurred at another game that same night. In Cleveland, the bases were loaded in the bottom of the ninth with one out. The Indians trailed 4-1. Travis Hafner, the Cleveland Indians best power hitter, stepped up to the plate to face rookie left-handed reliever Luis Perez of the Toronto Blue Jays with one out. On the first pitch he saw from Perez, Hafner unleashed a furious swing that delivered the pitch deep into the right field bleachers. It was a walk-off grand slam that sent the Indians home as 5-4 winners that night. It is truly an unbelievable way to win a baseball game. Not often is the stage set to allow a walk-off grand slam and even when the opportunity arises, it is exceptionally difficult to capitalize on the circumstances in such a manner. Brooks Conrad actually accomplished the feat last year for the Braves, but other than those two, there have only been 23 other instances of walk-off grand slams, according to my research. Roger Connor was the first to do it back on Sept. 10, 1881.

It is amazing that a moment of such despair, quite possibly the saddest moment of the season, was coupled with such a rare, exciting phenomenon, possibly one of the highest moments of the season. I guess that is just the way of the world, unpredictable and nearly unbelievable. One players' potential greatest career moment may now always be associated with, or at least remembered alongside, one of the more tragic moments in baseball history and certainly the most tragic for that family. I guess that is also part of the allure of sports, tragedy and triumph together.

Whether it's the greatest victory, such as Hafner's heroics, or the impenetrable spirit of the 1980 U.S. men's hockey team that carried them to gold, the toughest loss, such as the loss of a great fan and father or losing the Super Bowl by a mere yard - just ask the Titans, you can always count on surreal victories and heartbreaking defeats. There will always be moments of great highs that untie and inspire people as well as moments of great lows that seemingly do the same.

When tragedy and triumph are tied together, you have the recipe for the most memorable and meaningful sports moments as well as a big reason for the pervasiveness of athletics in American culture. Some excellent examples that come to mind are those following 9/11. Mike Piazza of the New York Mets hit the first home run in the first game following the event, sparking great cheers and many tears. Also, baseball legend Jack Buck delivered an emotional speech during a pre-game patriotic ceremony in St. Louis, which probably brought everyone to tears. It may have lost some of its luster, but at the time it could not have been more powerful. Also, I may have only been 3 years old, but I am very aware of the power of Jimmy Valvano's 1993 ESPY speech. He was a sports icon and with that speech that cemented his legacy, he will be in the hearts of sports fans forever.

I would also like to point to that unforgettable track and field moment of the 1992 Olympics when Great Britain sprinter Derek Redmond, who seemed to have an injury curse, went down halfway through the 400-meter semi-finals. He attempted to hobble to the finish, but struggled. Luckily, his father came to his side and guided him to the end. The anguish and misery became apparent when he broke down on his father's shoulder. It was clear how emotionally invested Redmond was in this one race. However, one athlete's most tragic moment became defined by the triumph of love and the human spirit.

I know I have probably written too much, but I want to end on a baseball note. That would be Lou Gehrig, one the most influential and inspirational icons across all sports throughout history. He was a man of excellence, passion, and seemed to embody all things good, but was met with a tragic exit from this world. However, his legacy lives on stronger than ever. These are all triumphant characters who faced tragic moments and events, but approached them with great resolve, which made for meaningful, enduring memories that make us realize why sports are so very special to us.

Lou Gehrig's speech

Jack Buck's poem

Jimmy Valvano's speech

Derek Redmond


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