ARLINGTON, Texas (AP) — Longtime Texas Rangers fan Robbie Parker grabbed former star catcher Ivan Rodriguez in a long embrace and didn't seem to want to let go.
A few months ago, Parker never would have imagined crying on the shoulder of one of his boyhood heroes. But a lot has happened since December and here he was, throwing out the ceremonial first pitch in honor of his 6-year-old daughter, Emilie, who was among the 26 killed in the mass school shooting in Newtown, Conn.
So when Parker tossed the ball all the way to the 14-time All-Star's glove — he'd spent the last few weeks worrying about making a good throw — he held on tight when he and Rodriguez met halfway between the mound and home plate, his wife and two daughters watching nearby and thousands standing and cheering at sold-out Rangers Ballpark in Arlington on Friday.
"It was really tough to try to keep my emotions under control there," Parker said a few minutes later, still fighting back tears. "It was pretty amazing."
Rodriguez offered more than just a hug — two, actually.
"He said, 'I just want you to know how much I love you,' and he just said your daughter is being a great example to so many people," Parker said. "And he just pointed to the crowd and said, 'All these people are here for you and they're here because of her.'"
Not long after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, a photo circulated of Parker and Emilie at Fenway Park in Boston last year, the girl holding a home run ball hit by the Rangers' David Murphy during batting practice. When Parker would watch his beloved Rangers on TV, Emilie would ask about "the guy who hit that ball."
Less than a year later, Murphy walked to the mound holding the hand of one of Emilie's sisters, gave Parker a hug and picked up one of the girls.
"They've got a game to play and they've got to focus and so I didn't want to be a distraction to anybody at all," Parker said. "But he's just a nice guy. That was really special that he was able to do that for us."
It was the second time in the past two years fans here have had tears in their eyes because of tragedy. In September 2011, 6-year-old Cooper Stone stood on the pitcher's mound and tossed the ceremonial first pitch of the playoffs two months after his firefighter father fell to his death while trying to catch a ball thrown to him by Josh Hamilton in the outfield.
Hamilton was the one sharing emotional hugs with the affected family back then. This time, he was with the rival Los Angeles Angels, watching Murphy perform the same duty.
"That was a very humbling experience," Murphy said. "I have three kids of my own. I can't imagine what that would be like. It definitely makes the game a little easier. We're worrying about winning and numbers. It makes you realize the insignificance of baseball."
Parker grew up a Rangers fan because he spent almost all of the first 10 years of his life in Arlington, not far from Rangers Ballpark. When his family moved back to Utah, where he was born, he made his mother promise they could go to one Rangers game a year.
When his brother got married, Parker took Emilie to her first Rangers game when she was 3 months old. His job as a physician's assistant has taken him to several cities, so they caught a game in Seattle when he was working there, and even went to see one of the Rangers' minor league teams in Albuquerque, N.M.
They went to last year's game in Boston when a family member was there to run the Boston Marathon.
When Rangers officials saw the photo from Boston, they reached out to Parker about the season's first ceremonial pitch before the home opener against the Angels. The Rangers say thousands of dollars have been raised in North Texas for the Emilie Parker Fund, started by two of Parker's high school friends to support the 26 families affected by the shootings. Parker's brother, Jeremie, still lives in the area.
Parker said it made sense to make the trip, and seemed glad he had. As a bonus, the family got to meet Rangers CEO Nolan Ryan, another great from Parker's years in Arlington, and former President George W. Bush and his wife, Laura.
"I guess there's a little room where the VIPs get to hang out and we were just invited to kind of hang out for a little," Parker said. "But that's definitely not where we belong. We belong in the $5 seats up top."
Not on a day that he and thousands of teary-eyed Rangers fans won't soon forget.