Alayna Adams was living a dream as she prepared to throw out the first pitch Thursday night before thousands of Tampa Bay Rays fans at Tropicana Field.
Her father, a lieutenant colonel stationed in Afghanistan for most of the past two years, appeared on the stadium video screen. He said hello and told his daughter he would see her soon.
The 9-year-old Dunedin girl launched the ball and watched it bounce across the turf toward home plate.
A man wearing a Rays uniform and a catcher's mask and pads squatted behind the plate. As the ball rolled toward him, he stepped forward and scooped the ball in his glove.
Alayna thought there was something odd about the way he caught the ball. It wasn't quite how a professional ballplayer would do it.
The man at the plate stood and lifted his mask. It was her father, Lt. Col. Will Adams.
She sprinted to him. He swept her into his arms.
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Hours earlier, Alayna thought she was in trouble. Her mother told her they had to leave early to meet with the principal of Westlake Christian School, where Alayna is in third grade.
Neither of them knew that the meeting was part of a well-orchestrated and secretive plan — a collaborative effort between the United Service Organizations and the Rays.
Later, they were told that they had been selected from among a number of military family members to throw the first pitch at Thursday night's game. And before the ball was tossed, they and the rest of the crowd watched a short video greeting from Lt. Col. Adams. He was due to come home Monday. He wished them well and said he would see them soon.
He didn't say just how soon.
Adams, 40, had arrived Wednesday at MacDill Air Force Base. Wednesday night he stayed in a hotel room, alone, awaiting the next day's surprise.
"That was the hardest part," he said later. "Being back home and not being able to see them."
• • •
From behind the catcher's mask, Adams eyed his little girl. She stood a little taller than she had when he last saw her, the day before Valentine's Day.
After he took off his mask and Alayna jumped into his arms, he held her tight for a full 30 seconds.
Dana Adams soon joined them. Usually not one to get emotional, she cried.
And the crowd roared.