It was a shocking tragedy, born of an innocent act: a big leaguer tossing a baseball into the stands so that a dad could give a gift to his son. On July 7, Texas Rangers center fielder Josh Hamilton lobbed a foul ball into the crowd at Rangers Ballpark. He left it a tad short. Shannon Stone, a firefighter from Brownwood, Texas, whose young son was seated next to him, leaned over to snag it, only to fall over a railing, down 20 ft., headfirst, onto concrete behind the outfield wall.
At first, Stone was conscious, and before being taken to the hospital, he even asked that someone check on Cooper, his 6-year-old son. But soon after, Stone, 39, went into cardiac arrest on the way to the hospital. He died within an hour, of blunt-force trauma.
In the aftermath of the deadly accident, there seemed lots of blame could go around. Blame the Rangers: on two previous occasions, fans had fallen over railings and broken bones. The railings should be higher (and, indeed, after the World Series, the team will raise the barriers). Blame Hamilton, a man who has already battled alcohol and drug abuse, and now had to cope with this guilt. He should have put more mustard on that throw. And yes, maybe Stone could have been more careful.
But instead of threatening the Rangers with litigation, which would have been an understandable response, the Stones did something unusual: they tried to comfort them. Stone’s widow Jenny and his mother Suzann sent handwritten notes to both Hamilton and the Texas team’s president Nolan Ryan. “I thanked them for their kindness to our family,” says Suzann. “But I especially wanted to write to Josh Hamilton and tell him not to feel like it was his fault in any way. I said, ‘You know, what you did, you were just trying to make a memory for his little boy.'”
“At one point they talked about not letting them throw the ball into the stands,” Suzann says. “I said, ‘Please don’t do that. Please keep throwing those balls.’ Because, you know, that will be such a memory.”
The Texas Rangers, who enter Saturday night’s Game 3 of the World Series tied with the St. Louis Cardinals at 1-1, are still playing ball with heavy hearts. But if the Stones aren’t holding a grudge against the organization, how can anyone else? And even if you fault the Rangers for the tragedy, you can’t deny their class in the aftermath.
In August, with the blessing of the Stone family, the Rangers announced that they will build a bronze statue in Shannon’s honor. The statue will depict Shannon and Cooper at a game, and stand outside Rangers Ballpark. “I just got to thinking about what we can do to memorialize Shannon,” Ryan told TIME from his St. Louis hotel room a few hours before the start of Game 1 of the World Series. “We didn’t want this accident to just pass. The statue, to me, represents what we strive for as an organization — families and sharing memories.”
See how baseball is avoiding other sports’ labor woes. Before the team’s first playoff game, against the Tampa Bay Rays, Cooper threw out the first pitch. Hamilton, Cooper’s favorite player, caught it: Hamilton shared emotional embraces with both Cooper and Jenny.
The Rangers also established a memorial fund in Shannon’s honor (the team says the Stone family will largely determine how the funds are used). Others have extended generosity: the Brownwood Fire Department also set up a memorial fund; Fox Sports Southwest, the team’s local television network, held an online auction and raised over $150,000. Shannon’s parents have received over 100 letters of support, from as far away as Minnesota and Alaska, and perfect strangers have sent contributions. “Knowing how tight the economy is, people digging into their pockets, even if it’s just a dollar — I know it meant something to them,” says Shannon’s father Al, a retired police officer. “We just can’t express how much more it means to us knowing that they would do that for a total stranger.”
Suzann says that Cooper, who just started first grade, is doing well under the tough circumstances (Jenny declined to be interviewed. “She’s a very, very private person,” says Suzann). He’s staying busy with sports, and Brownwood firefighters occasionally stop by Cooper’s school to eat lunch with him, just as his dad used to do. The two were inseparable. “Cooper talks about this dad, but it’s not like a crying or sad type,” Suzann says. “He’ll say, ‘My dad used to do that,’ or ‘My dad bought me those baseballs.’ But Jenny has said that they have trouble at night. I can only imagine.”
Shannon and Cooper loved the Rangers. They went to a World Series game last year, when the Rangers lost to the San Francisco Giants in five games. A friend commented that, given the expense of World Series tickets, Shannon would never shell out all that money to take a 5-year-old. “I said, ‘Oh, no, you don’t understand,'” says Suzann, “‘that’s his buddy. He wasn’t about to do it without Cooper.'” Suzann struggles to hold back tears. “Cooper is just like him,” she says, getting more emotional. “He’s just like him. He’s so much like his daddy, you look at his little face, and you can just see an image of his daddy again.”
Hamilton, who was distraught after the accident, also declined an interview request. “I think Josh, who has experienced so much in his personal life, is very strong,” says Ryan. Hamilton’s drug and alcohol addictions nearly ruined his career: he bounced back to win the MVP award last season and hit 25 home runs this year. “He’s very strong,” says Ryan, “and his spiritual thoughts have helped him through this.” Ryan still checks in with Jenny periodically and has extended an open invitation to take Cooper to any Rangers game. Ryan says he hasn’t heard if the Stones plan to attend the World Series. “I don’t want to put her in a position where it feels like an obligation to come,” says Ryan.
You may have no rooting interest in this World Series. But given what unfolded this summer, leaning toward Texas seems natural. Just this week, Suzann mailed a note to Cooper, who did well on his first report card. She had a feeling, she wrote, that the Rangers would pull of the World Series, that his father was a “special angel” for them. Even if the Rangers fall short on the field, they’ve been winners in how they’ve handled the crushing sadness off of it.
Gregory is a staff writer at TIME. Keeping Score, his sports column for TIME.com, appears on Fridays. Find him on Twitter at @seanmgregory. You can also continue the discussion on TIME‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.