WASHINGTON - A lot can happen in ten years. Just tell that to the Kelly family of Fredericksburg, Va. They lost their father and a loving husband who was killed in action in Iraq.
But on a special day, one Major League pitcher stepped in to make it one to remember, going back to one common bond that ties many of us together – baseball.
Paul Kelly and his younger brother JJ are on the field at Nationals Park for the first time on Tuesday. They are Washington fans, but are at the ballpark on this day as guests of Atlanta Braves relief pitcher Jason Grilli.
Baseball has always been a part of their lives for the Kelly family. The Kelly children grew up playing baseball with their dad. But nine years ago, those lives changed when their father, Army Colonel Paul Kelly, lost his life in a Black Hawk helicopter crash over Iraq. The younger Paul was 9 years old while JJ was only 5.
“He had an impact on a lot of people's lives,” Paul said of his father. “He was a great leader. People really looked up to him.”
“I remember a little bit of visiting him in his office,” said JJ. “It was pretty cool.”
The Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) helped make this visit to Nationals Park happen. It is a group that provides help to families of fallen service members.
The story of the Kelly family caught the attention of Grilli, whose nickname is "Grilled Cheese." On this day, which happens to be National Grilled Cheese Day, the veteran right-handed pitcher paid it forward.
"Baseball has a way of finding it into families and bringing special moments and kind of bridge the gap a little bit,” he said. “It pings on your heartstrings. I don't know how it can't, so to give them a good day at the ballpark in remembrance of their father, it's a good reason to have them out and share a special day with them."
This is where Grilli, who followed his own dad's footsteps to the majors, understands where days like this matter.
"Guys on the other side, they look at us with awestruck,” said Grilli. “But we’re just the same and to just try to share that a little bit with people and connect, baseball does that and I enjoy that part of it."
On this day, the Kelly boys and their mother, Maria, were treated to a gourmet grilled cheese lunch at Alta Strada in Mount Vernon Square. For chef Michael Schlow, he was happy to help the cause.
“The culinary industry, the restaurant industry, is called upon all of the time as are many industries,” said Schlow. “I don't know of another industry that gives back in its entirety in the way the culinary industry does."
But it was what happened after lunch that really made this day special. As her sons watched the Braves take batting practice, five foul balls found their way to Maria Kelly. She said there is a reason why.
“I think they're coming from my husband,” she said. “It just makes my day."
She added, "His spirit is with me wherever I go. I can feel it. Just a simple smile. I think it's coming from heaven. It's beautiful."