PHOENIX — The firefighter was a Dodgers fan. His wife’s family are Dodgers fans. His nephew is named after Vin Scully.
Perhaps it only made sense that Andrew Ashcraft’s survivors would seek a moment of peace at a Dodgers game.
Barely a week ago, Ashcraft was one of the 19 elite wildlife firefighters from Prescott, Ariz., who perished in the Yarnell Hill blaze.
On Monday, several dozen of his family members climbed into a bus supplied by the Arizona Diamondbacks and rode it 125 miles south to Chase Field to watch the Diamondbacks play the Dodgers.
When the grounds crew pulled off the tarp to show the large No. 19 that had been painted into the field, his widow Juliann Ashcraft broke down in sobs.
After players from both teams met with the family during batting practice, brother Jake and Juliann tearfully hugged behind the batting cage.
After Scully met with the family upstairs and openly shared his personal tragedies, they wept in awe of his kindness.
But then, when Juliann and her four young children walked out in front of home plate to throw out the first pitch, the tears stopped. The crowd roared. The toss from 4-year-old Shiloh was a strike. The crowd roared even louder.
“I was suddenly at complete peace, I felt completely safe,” Juliann said later. “I realized that, you know, people get it. They understand that my husband made the ultimate sacrifice. They love us.”
For all its problems, baseball still has the capacity to bring out that love, to reveal that community, to give strength to those in need. As Monday again proved, baseball is still America’s family game, still the game most shared by generations, still the game that make people feel safe at home.
Even though they grew up in Prescott, Juliann’s large family was Dodgers fans because her grandfather, a former university professor from Torrance, was a former Dodgers season ticket-holder. That Andrew was also a Dodgers fan make their marriage even more perfect.
“Andrew wore Dodger caps, Dodger shirts, and talked all kinds of great trash,” Juliann said.
The funeral for Ashcraft, 29, is not until Wednesday, but after a week of mourning, his survivors were desperate for a fresh breath, so they called the phone number listed on the Diamondbacks’ website.
“We thought, you know, let’s go see the Dodgers,” said brother Jonathan, whose 2-year-old son is named Vin.
The Diamondbacks organization, which has already honored the fallen firefighters with everything from fundraising to a jersey patch, quickly arranged for a bus and seats in the owner’s suite and a place on the field.
“We understand our social responsibility and have the power to make a positive impact with the help of our fans and players,” said Derrick Hall, the Diamonbacks’ chief executive. “I applaud the Dodgers for joining us in our efforts. We may be rivals on the field, but championing together off the field in times of need is what makes our sport so unique.”
The Dodgers were quick to join the effort when they saw the Ashcraft family standing behind the batting cage during batting practice. Matt Kemp even offered 6-year-old Ryder Ashcraft his cap.
“But he said it was sweaty so he didn’t want it,” Juliann said with a laugh. “I know Andrew would have been saying, ‘Take it!’ ”
Then, most important to the family, Scully offered his time. Scully met with several family members in the press box, including his 2-year-old namesake, and candidly talked about his own losses, including losing his father at a young age.
“It was amazing, he made us feel like he knew us,” Jonathan said of Scully. “He was like our grandfather, giving us advice, comforting us.”
Scully said he was just working from his heart.
“I felt completely inadequate, I did the best I could,” Scully said. “I just shared some of my painful stories, talked about the tragedies of my life, and reminded them that there is no making sense of any of it.”
Scully reminded the family of the four biggest reasons to forge again.
“Those four beautiful children, those are the reasons,” he said. “I’ve been through things like this, and I know, all you can do is hope.”
When the meeting ended and the family settled in to watch a baseball game, Jonathan’s wife, Jill, made an admission.
“She told me, after meeting him, she will always be fine with us naming our son Vin,” he said.
A couple of hours later, the Dodgers won. Or did the Diamondbacks win? Or did it matter? On a day flush with fleeting grace, baseball won.