ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Her pitch bounced twice before rolling softly into a glove near home plate, a moment that began a reunion. Alayna Adams, 9, walked toward the batter’s box with a casual pace before a voice over Tropicana Field’s public-address system gave an introduction to remember.
“Catching today’s ceremonial first pitch, fresh back from Afghanistan, please welcome Lt. Col. Will Adams!”
The father had removed his catcher’s mask, and Alayna began a sprint toward his arms. The crowd’s roar grew with each second.
Soon, there were images that showed the bond between father and child, the power of presence and renewed love: A giant hug at home plate; Will lifting Alayna into his arms; Will’s wife, Dana, jogging from the mound after a meeting that became a surreal surprise.
“The house is not clean yet!” Dana said in a corridor shortly after the family walked off the field.
USO and the Tampa Bay Rays helped make the memory possible Thursday night, before the Rays’ series finale against the Boston Red Sox. Dana and Alayna had expected Will’s return to their Dunedin, Fla., home on Monday, following a year deployment to eastern Afghanistan. The four extra days are a gift.
“Be lazy,” Will said, when asked about early plans for his return. “Be back in the house after a year, take the dog for a run, hang out with the girls, take (Alayna) to school. A normal life sounds good.”
“I hope we have a beer instantly,” Dana said, to laughter.
There are similar stories throughout the country, of course. Service requires sacrifice, from the people who defend our nation and the loved ones left behind. Many of them go untold. Serving teaches patience — abroad and in homes absent a father or mother, a brother, a sister or friend. Sacrifices are hard.
Will said it took about a week’s notice to return him to the United States for the first-pitch ceremony. He arrived in the region on Wednesday night and stayed overnight at a hotel to preserve the surprise.
To him, that was the most difficult part of the experience: Knowing he was so close, yet still distant from the ones he loved.
“That was maybe the hardest part,” he said, “being back and having to wait even more.”
On Thursday evening, at Tropicana Field before the ceremony, there were a variety of nervous emotions — most of them from Will. He paced in the Rays dugout dressed in full catcher’s gear, thinking, “I hope I catch this pitch.”
Meanwhile, Dana had other thoughts: Worrying about wearing jeans with holes and that she wouldn’t be able to snap pictures of Alayna’s throw.
Later, mother and daughter stood near the first-base line. A taped greeting from Will played on the video board behind the right-field wall.
“I love you girls so much,” he said in the video. “Have fun today. Alayna, when you walk out there, remember: take a deep breath, focus and have fun, baby. Daddy loves you.”
Alayna approached the mound. She took a large stride with her left foot toward home plate and swung back her right arm. The ball sailed ahead, landing on the turf a little beyond halfway to home plate.
There was another bounce, a short roll. Then the big reveal.