AUG. 7, 2009 -- Pittsburgh Pirates first base coach Perry Hill (8) and Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols (left) come to the aid of a fan who tried to retrieve a foul ball during the seventh inning of a game in Pittsburgh.(AP)
He lay on his back in the dirt of the Pittsburgh ballpark. His neck hurt. Striking his face on the crushed rock along the first-base side felt like breaking through glass. He was bloodied. And the foul ball was gone. He had missed it, missed his one chance to grab a game ball for his son on the boy's 21st birthday.
Tim Tepas, a retired schoolteacher, wanted only to climb over the short railing and sit back down next to his son. Disappear. Forget the whole thing. But the television cameras were on him. The stadium seemed to gasp in unison at his fall along the sidelines of that Pirates-Cardinals game in early August.
Tepas struggled to stand. He heard a voice behind him, felt hands on his back.
Please lie down, sir. Don't try to get up, sir.
The hands, huge meaty mitts, eased him to the ground, held him still.
Don't try to get up, sir.
Tepas was struck by the voice, its confidence, its calm, the way he was called "sir" again and again.
He looked up at the sky and struggled to focus on the face above him. He studied the man's ballcap. He could make out the number 5 written under the bill.
Albert Pujols. The father just knew. This is Albert Pujols.
Two strangers, one a fan and the other a superstar athlete, both fathers of children with Down syndrome.
Some say it was coincidence. Others call it fate.
Whatever caused that accidental meeting there along the edges of the ballgame that night outlived anything that happened on the field. During the entire 8½-minute ordeal on the field, Pujols stayed with Tepas. TV and radio announcers were mystified. Fans talked of witnessing a moment of pure concern.
But to truly understand what occurred — to understand what, in some small way, drove Tepas to reach for that foul ball — you have to know about Tepas and his son Keith.
And you have to know about the letter, the one Tepas wrote to Pujols long before the game, but never sent. A letter about doubt and acceptance and the parable of the bumblebee.
When Tepas fell, the letter sat forgotten in a white tote bag under his seat just a few feet away.
Father and son had driven down from Buffalo, N.Y., in Tepas' Hyundai. They loaded up on Gatorade and music for the 3½-hour trip on Friday, Aug. 7.
They both wore Cardinals T-shirts. Keith wore a red Cardinals cap. He plays on the Cardinals in a softball league for disabled adults. He sleeps on Cardinals bedsheets at home.
The father liked Pujols — more as a person than a player. Tepas recalled reading about Pujols and his 11-year-old daughter, Isabella, who has Down syndrome. She was 3 months old when Pujols met her mom, his future wife. Pujols became an advocate for Down syndrome children with his charitable foundation.
For Keith's birthday, Tepas at first planned to take his son to a minor league game in Buffalo. They have season tickets. Keith can name players who years ago played there. In Pittsburgh, he would point to right field and note that the Cardinals' Ryan Ludwick used to play for the Bisons.
But the Bisons were out of town. So Tepas, an impulsive and gregarious 63-year-old with gray hair and a mustache, aimed for something grander.
Tepas splurged on tickets for the Pirates game — $224 for the pair. Section 7, right along the field.
He figured it was an important milestone for Keith. It was an important milestone for Tepas, too. He had spent years battling his own doubts, worrying about his son, wondering what would become of him as he grew older.
The doctors warned Tepas and his wife there would be delays with Down syndrome, a genetic condition that causes developmental disabilities and distinctive physical features. Keith would lag behind children his age. It wore on the father. Watching other kids walk. Other kids talk. Wondering when it would be Keith's turn.
"During the first three years, you're like, what's wrong with this kid? When is he going to blossom?" Tepas says.
He adds: "It's been challenging, I'll be honest with you. I heard that when you have a special needs child, as many as 90 percent of those parents end up divorced."
Tepas was divorced after one year. His former wife got custody of Keith. But Tepas stayed in the boy's life. Saw him four days a week, sometimes more. Attended his therapy sessions, his sporting events, his Boy Scout meetings.
Tepas remembers when he began to see his son in a new way. Keith was 7. Father and son were running side by side in a county park. They tossed a blue-and-yellow foam football back and forth. It felt so ordinary, so simple, this staple of fathers and sons.
The father told himself: OK, Tim, you can stop worrying.
"I consider him a real blessing in my life," Tepas says now.
He can rattle off his son's achievements, apologizing as he goes for sounding boastful. Two years ago, Keith became an Eagle Scout. He graduated high school this summer, his father buying him a custom-fit suit for the occasion. He's good at spelling. And miniature golf. He does not talk much, preferring to telegraph his speech through simple words or gestures. But his father can glean more than enough from one of his son's gleeful thumbs-ups.
"It's kind of neat in a way, because of his innocence, I don't think he's ever going to change much," Tepas says. "He'll still hug me when he's 30 or 40 or 50. He's uninhibited that way."
The relationship between father and son developed its own routines. Keith loves routine. In recent years, one routine has centered on playing baseball, starting in the spring and lasting until it gets too cold.
Three days a week, Tepas picks up Keith and they head to a little league field. Tepas pitches from a box of old balls. Keith wields the bat. The father keeps stats, tracking the progress of his son like he is a major league prospect. The father notes with precision how many balls Keith hits over the fence, how far they travel. He walks off the distances to be sure.
With the number of home runs, the father can see his son's growth. Keith is not tall, standing just under 5 feet 2. But he has a slugger's swing. Two home runs the first year, eight the next, then 26, 53, 97 and 94 so far into their private season.
And every visit to the ballpark ends the same way. A private celebration modeled on the Friday night fireworks at Bisons games. They huddle together and rest one hand on top of the other in the middle. They shout "1,2,3, fireworks!" Their hands shoot skyward in imitation of the pyrotechnics.
Only then is the game truly over.
In Pittsburgh, during the middle of the seventh inning, with the game tied 4-4, Tepas considered leaving. They faced a long drive home. Tepas reminded himself to remove the homemade orange-and-white "Happy 21st Keith" sign taped atop the railing.
But they stuck around.
The Pirates were at bat. Chris Carpenter was on the mound. One out. Two runners on base. Garrett Jones, a lefty, at the plate. Carpenter's first pitch was outside. His next pitch was low. But Jones reached for it, striking the ball straight-armed, like he was hitting a sand wedge. The ball spun into foul territory toward the stands.
This is going to be easy, Tepas thought.
The bouncing ball appeared to be headed straight for him. He stood up, reached out with his left hand. He planted his right hand on the railing. But his view changed as he stood. The ball appeared farther off to his left. Difficult to backhand. He extended his right hand. He flipped over the railing. His body launched downward, his arms offering no protection, his legs thrown high above. His face slammed to the ground.
The ball caromed off the railing and scooted into right field.
"Man down," said a Pittsburgh TV announcer.
"Wow," added the play-by-play man.
"Wow. Oh my goodness."
Pujols, playing first base about 40 feet away, reached Tepas first. He knelt beside him. He urged him to lie down.
Pirates first base coach Perry Hill arrived next. He grabbed Tepas' feet. Hill had never seen a fan suffer a fall like that. Stadium staff ran over. Trainers from both teams and paramedics crowded around Tepas. Pujols still knelt by his head.
Hill glanced over his shoulder at Tepas' son. He had noticed the pair earlier in the game. Now he picked up Pujols' mitt and walked over to Keith, still in the stands. He asked Keith whether he would like to touch Pujols' glove. They talked about the handmade "Happy 21st Keith" sign. Hill tried to position himself to block the son's view. Hill looked back at the field, saw Pujols still there.
"The way he landed so awkwardly on his neck," said Cardinals TV play-by-play man Dan McLaughlin, reacting to a replay. "His neck was bent. It's not so much the cut on the forehead that you saw, but I'm sure they're very concerned about his neck area and his back."
Lying on the ground, Tepas was annoyed to hear Pujols tell the trainers he did not like the way he landed on his neck. Tepas felt fine. Woozy, battered, but fine. Yet he was not going to fight them. They asked him to wiggle his fingers and his toes. He did. They asked about tingling, about radiating pain. He felt none.
Minutes ticked by as they strapped Tepas to a board and secured his neck with foam blocks. And still Pujols was there, in the thick of it.
"I'm almost wondering if this is a friend of Albert's," said Al Hrabrosky on the Cardinals TV broadcast.
Mike Shannon, doing the Cardinals radio show, sounded incredulous.
"Look at Albert, he's right in there! He's going to help lift the stretcher. Better get Albert out of there," Shannon said, laughing. "Move him out of there! We know he has a lot of compassion, but we don't need him hurting his back lifting him up."
Pujols let the paramedics wheel Tepas out on a stretcher through the right field fence. Pujols stood, hitched up his pants and walked over to Keith, who now sat on a small ballpark utility vehicle, about to follow his father. Keith sat facing away from the medical drama. He tugged on the bill of his red Cardinals cap as he scanned the diamond. Pujols leaned over and tapped Keith on the shoulder, spoke to him. Pujols smiled. Made sure Keith had gotten the foul ball his father wanted for him.
Tepas was released from the hospital after midnight. As he left, the hospital staff teased Tepas that he was famous, his fall already appearing on ESPN and YouTube. His neck was sore. His face was bruised. But he had no serious injuries. Tepas wanted only to get home, where in a few days a Pujols autographed baseball would arrive for Keith. They drove through the night. The father asked his son whether he had been scared by what happened on the field. The son said simply, "No."
And in the back of the car sat the tote bag with the letter.
Tepas was not sure why he had written it. Pujols did not need to hear from him. But Tepas needed to share his son's story, wanted another father to know what he knows, what he took so long to learn. About his son. About the bumblebee, too.
The letter, after a short introduction, starts with a note: "According to the laws of aerodynamics, the bumblebee can't fly. But the bumblebee doesn't know that. So it flies." The letter details in numbers and statistics Keith's hitting prowess and his off-the-field achievements.
And it ends like this: "He is a blessing in my life and I thank the Lord for putting him in my life. Like the bumblebee, he doesn't know that he's not supposed to fly."
This weekend, Tepas and Keith are driving back to Pittsburgh for a series with the Cardinals, attending at the Pirates' invitation.
No need to bring the letter. Tepas finally mailed it last week.