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Rays rookie Daniel Robertson follows the faith of his father

Tampa Bay Rays shortstop Daniel Robertson (29) hugs his mom, Julie Robertson, before the game between the New York Yankees and the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla. on Tuesday, April 4, 2017.
Published Apr. 6, 2017

ST. PETERSBURG — There is nothing small about your first major-league game.

"It's one of those moments," Rays rookie Daniel Robertson said.

One of those moments where you feel nervous, but a good nervous.

One of those moments when the first time you race to first base, you can hardly feel your legs under you.

One of those moments when you think of your mom in the stands. And you just know your dad is watching, too.

"Always," Robertson said.

Tuesday at the Trop wasn't everything the 23-year-old Robertson had dreamed of for his big-league debut. The Rays were shut out by the Yankees. Robertson started at designated hitter and went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts.

His final strikeout ended the game. He swung hard and missed a fastball from Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman, one of the game's hardest throwers. The bat sailed from Robertson's hands and traveled a hundred feet or so. Welcome to the majors.

Still …

"I gave him a tough at-bat," Robertson said. "I fouled off a couple of pitches. I saw the ball well. It was coming in hot. I guess off that guy I shouldn't have tried to swing that hard."

He smiled.

"That bat had some carry on it."

In his first big-league plate appearance, Robertson nearly beat out a ground ball off a pitch from Yankees starter CC Sabathia. He was called safe, but it went to replay and was reversed. Scratch that first hit.

"It was close," Robertson said.

Tuesday was special no matter what. His mother, Julie, was in from the Robertson home in Upland, Calif., along with Daniel's brother Jarrod and a couple of Daniel's buddies going all the way back to Little League.

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Julie stood on the field at the Trop before the game in her No. 29 Robertson Rays jersey. Julie bubbles. She said Tuesday meant so much. Then she talked about her husband, Don, who died in September 2013 after a long battle with lung cancer.

Don meant everything to Daniel and his three brothers. Daniel has a large tattoo on his upper right arm in the name of his father. There are the initials DRR, for Donald Ray Robertson, and a cross and heavenly clouds and doves.

"My dad loved doves," Daniel said.

And there are the words "Believe You Belong."

"He always told me that," Daniel said.

Don managed a Mercedes dealership. Julie said Don played baseball, even signed with a Phillies scout team out of high school, but a bad shoulder did him in.

"Don was just a good guy," Julie said. "He was very giving, very generous. ... And he was always there for his kids."

Don wasn't a smoker, so his diagnosis in 2010 was a shock.

"He lived three years instead of the six months like they said," Julie said. "He was just strong and strapping."

Daniel kept worrying about his father as he played baseball in Wisconsin. He kept wanting to be with his dad. Near the end, Julie told him to hurry.

"Don't call Daniel home," Don told Julie. "Don't you dare — he needs to play baseball."

Daniel came home. Don was happy.

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That last day, a Sunday in September, Don was watching football games from his hospital bed. Suddenly he began to ask Julie where the boys were. They got there as fast as they could. Don called them over, one by one, to hug them. He told each one, "I love you, son." He passed away that night. He was 50.

Daniel Robertson played his first game in the majors Tuesday.

Nothing could take away from it, least of all an 0-for-4 and a flying bat. Robertson even got on the field, playing shortstop in the ninth inning. He handled two chances, a grounder and a liner. The jitters were long gone.

"I know I belong here," Robertson said.

His dad always told him.

Contact Martin Fennelly at mfennelly@tampabay.com or (813) 731-8029. Follow @mjfennelly.

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