- Associated Press - Friday, September 30, 2011

ARLINGTON, TEXAS (AP) - With 50,000 fans on their feet, many with tears in their eyes, 6-year-old Cooper Stone stood on the pitcher’s mound and tossed the ceremonial first pitch of the playoffs to his favorite player, Josh Hamilton.

Cooper is the boy who saw his firefighter father fall to his death while trying to catch a ball thrown to him by Hamilton during a Texas game on July 7. This was his first trip back to Rangers Ballpark, and it came at the center of a huge stage, with his widowed mother, Jenny, and Rangers president Nolan Ryan by his side.

Wearing a Rangers jersey featuring Hamilton’s No. 32, and “Cooper” between the shoulders, the boy threw the ball on a line to Hamilton, who was crouched like a catcher about halfway to home plate. The outfielder _ who has been through his share of personal struggles _ stood to catch it, then pumped his fist, smiling wide the whole time.

Then he went to the front of the mound to meet Cooper and Jenny for the first time.

Hamilton embraced the boy, then his mother. He held her for a while, speaking words that made it tough for her to control her emotions.

“I just asked her if they were believers in Christ and she said they were. I said, `Well, we know where your husband is right now. Make sure that the little one knows who his daddy was and what he stood for,’” Hamilton said.

Jenny Stone appeared to thank Hamilton. They hugged again, then Hamilton _ whose wife gave birth to their third daughter only a few weeks ago _ gave Cooper another hug, too. The reigning AL MVP started heading to the dugout, only to realize he still had the ball. So he reached back and gave it to Cooper.

A security guard met Cooper as he reached the dirt in front of the Texas dugout and gave him a fist bump. Nelson Cruz was the first of many Rangers waiting at the steps of the dugout to slap hands with the boy. His mother wiped tears as she walked away with Ryan.

“They have turned a difficult return to The Ballpark into a once-in-a-lifetime experience for Cooper,” Jenny Stone said in a statement issued by the team. “Nothing could be more exciting for a boy than throwing out the first pitch to his favorite player. We are glad and grateful to be here to see the Rangers start their march to the World Series.”

Cooper, his mom and six more in their group sat in front-row seats one section closer to home plate than Ryan. When Hamilton singled in his first at-bat, Cooper jumped up and down, twirling a red towel.

“We’re just honored that they were willing to come out and do that and share the day with us,” Ryan said.

Shannon Stone was reaching for the ball thrown by Hamilton when he fell headfirst about 20 feet, landing on concrete behind the outfield wall. Cooper was his only child, and the two were extremely close, with the nearly three-hour drive from their home in Brownwood to Rangers games among their favorite activities together.

The Rangers recently announced plans to build a statue of Shannon and Cooper Stone outside the home-plate entrance as a tribute to them, and to all fans. The team hopes to unveil it by opening day next season. The club also is planning to raise the railing throughout the stadium.

A memorial fund started by the team on the family’s behalf recently received more than $150,000 from an auction sponsored by Fox Sports Southwest, the team’s main broadcaster.

“I call (Jenny) periodically just to see how she’s doing and see if they have any needs that we might be able to assist with,” Ryan said. “It’s been ongoing since the accident.”

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