"His life was short," Brian Cope said, holding back tears. "But that memory. … It's tough being back here. Bittersweet."
Lifelong Cardinals fans, the Copes regularly made three-hour pilgrimages to Busch, often for the biggest moments. They attended the 2006 and 2011 World Series, the 2009 All-Star Game, the annual Winter Warmup. Their return this week came at the hosting of Adam Wainwright but without Preston, who was 15 when he was killed in January after a fellow student opened fire at his school.
Two students died and 18 were injured in the shooting, which came just weeks before another gunman killed 17 at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.
"If we can protect our airports and our government buildings, why can't we protect our kids?" Brian Cope said, standing with his wife, Teresa, and Preston's younger brother, Maddox, on the Busch Stadium warning track Tuesday. "They are the most important thing in this world."
Shortly before the shooting in Parkland, members of the Benton community reached out to Wainwright, asking if he could travel to Kentucky to speak to the survivors.
"Can y'all make it to me?" Wainwright replied.
With the help of his foundation, Big League Impact, Wainwright covered the travel and lodging for nearly 40 members of the Benton community to attend the final two games of this week's series with the Brewers. The Cardinals donated 800 tickets for Wednesday's matinee, which they officially dedicated to Preston and Bailey Nicole Holt, the shooting's other victim. Maddox, 11, threw out the ceremonial first pitch, and Marshall High was scheduled to played an exhibition game afterward, the beneficiaries of unseasonably sunny weather.
"As an athlete, what we get an opportunity to do is perform. We are entertainers by trade," Wainwright said. "If we can host some people every now and then and bring a smile to their face who are going through a tough trial in their lives, that's what we want to do. There will be countless people sitting in the stands tonight that want to break away from work or home or whatever it is, and our job is to make them smile."
Wainwright met the Copes prior to Tuesday's 5-3 win, and sported the orange and blue cap of Marshall High during batting practice. He heard the story of Mason Cosner, a 16-year-old who survived a shot to the jaw. Cosner made the trip from Benton, and upon arriving at Busch, set off the metal detectors at the stadium's entrance. A bullet remains lodged in his neck.
"I don't really have words for that," Wainwright said. "That is something he'll think about for the rest of his life because it's not going anywhere. Hopefully, once he gets through the gates, he can forget about it for a few hours and have fun at a baseball game."