Baseball, which for generations proudly proclaimed itself as "America's pastime," is no longer the most popular sport in our country. And it's been that way for many years.
But for those of us who grew up playing baseball and watching the "Game of the Week" on Saturday afternoons or Monday nights, it's a game which often brings fathers and sons together for some terrific quality time.
Many dads teach their boys to play ball at an early age, and those boys grow up to one day teach their own sons the game's fundamentals, too, each generation passing along their love and respect for the grand old game.
Going out in the yard or to the park to "have a catch" and getting out to the ballpark to watch a game together only serves to enhance that tremendous bonding experience as fathers and sons build memories that will last a lifetime — and beyond.
That's what makes the tragedy that took place a couple of days ago in Texas so terribly heartbreaking.
Shannon Stone, a 39-year-old fireman, was trying to catch a baseball in hopes of getting a souvenir for his son when Stone fell over a left-field railing at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington on Thursday night. Stone, who tumbled head-first and landed on a concrete surface some 20 feet below, was taken to a Fort Worth hospital where he later died.
Even more horrifying, Stone's 6-year-old son witnessed his father's fatal fall.
After the game, Texas outfielder Josh Hamilton told reporters that a fan had called out to him after a foul ball came the Rangers star's way earlier in the game.
"The first foul ball came down and I grabbed it and threw it to the ball girl," Hamilton said in an interview posted on ESPN.com. "And then behind me I heard somebody say, 'Hey, Hamilton, how 'bout the next one?' And I turned around and Mr. Stone was the first guy I saw, standing there with his son, and so I just gave him a nod.
"I got the next one and threw it in that direction. And I just remember it like it happened in slow motion. Obviously, as soon as it happened, I couldn't help but think about what was going on behind that fence."
Hamilton, the Rangers' organization and all of Major League Baseball were stunned and saddened by the fan's death.
After all, what baseball fan doesn't go to ballpark hoping he or she might get a chance to come home with a home run ball or a foul ball as a prized souvenir of their experience?
And who could ever imagine that such a seemingly harmless goal might wind up costing someone their life?
"After it initially happened ... I went over to the fence and asked how he was," Hamilton said. "They said he had a couple of hurt arms and head but he was asking about his son. So immediately I thought he was going to be OK, but then I found out after the game that he had passed on.
"It's just a shock. ... I can't imagine how his family is feeling. My heart and my sympathies and my prayers go out to them.
"... Hearing that little boy screaming for his daddy after he had fallen and then being home with my kids really hit home last night," Hamilton said somberly.
The irony in all this is amazingly difficult to come to grips with.
I mean, here's a man who puts his life on the line every day by fighting fires, and how does he die? By falling while trying to catch a baseball for his son? It's almost incomprehensible.
It's like the war veteran who spends two tours of duty in Iraq with nary a scratch, then comes home and dies from an allergic reaction after getting stung by a bee.
"You worry about him getting hurt fighting a fire, and I always worry about that with my guys," Del Albright, chief of the Brownwood Fire Department where Stone had served for 18 years, said in an ESPN.com story by Richard Durrett. "But this is something you don't expect.
"He was so dedicated to his son and family and a dedicated firefighter. Whenever he was off duty, he was with his son. We had officer meetings and I would ask him to come in on his day off to attend those, and nine out of 10 times he had his son with him. He was dependable. I left him in charge of many fires I went to because I knew he could handle it."
Unfortunately, this certainly isn't the first time — nor will it be the last time — that a fan dies at a sporting event.
Every year, it seems, one or two fans are killed at a baseball, football, basketball or soccer game after falling from an upper deck, a concourse, over a railing or from a staircase at a stadium.
Sometimes, fans are just drunk, stupid or careless and do idiotic things to try and impress their friends. At other times, over-zealous fans will risk life and limb for an opportunity to bring home a ball, a jersey, a wrist band, an autograph or some other silly souvenir from a ballgame.4 comments on this story
Mr. Stone was neither of these. He was a loving, responsible father who was simply trying to enhance his young boy's experience at the ballpark.
But in his effort to make it a more memorable time for the two of them, it instead became a horrible nightmare which his son will likely remember and relive for the rest of his life.
Fathers and their children should do all they can to build those lasting memories. But this tragedy serves as cautionary tale for us all to always try and be careful, be responsible and, above all else, be safe.