NEW YORK (AP) — Christian Lopez was at the bottom of several piles during his days playing football at small St. Lawrence University.
So, finding himself buried under a hoard of Yankee Stadium fans Saturday wasn’t exactly a new experience.
What was different, however, was that instead of cradling a fumbled pigskin in his arms, the 6-foot-5 former lineman happened to be clutching Derek Jeter’s 3,000th career hit after the New York star homered in the third inning off Tampa Bay’s David Price.
The specially marked ball landed in the first row of Section 236 in the left-field bleachers, avidly pursued by a dozen other fans. Lucky to land the prize, Lopez was happy to give it back to Jeter for season tickets and several other goodies.
“I was taking a picture, hoping he would hit it, and the next thing I know, it’s in the air and I see my dad diving across a crowd of people,” Lopez said after a whirlwind series of in-game interviews with the media and a postgame meeting with Jeter and several other Yankees. “My dad missed it, because he has awful hands. The next thing I know, I just saw the ball roll in front of me and I jumped on it. It was instinct.”
The 23-year-old Lopez, from Highland Mills, N.Y., a town just outside West Point, got his $65 tickets a few days ago through StubHub as a birthday present from his girlfriend, Tara Johnson, 22, also from Highland Mills.
Johnson, his father, Raul, and two family friends all were in the first row of raised bleachers, hoping to see history. According to Johnson, Lopez actually thought he might be part of it.
“My boyfriend said, ‘If the ball comes over here, I’m going to get it,'” Johnson said. “So when it was hit, I said, ‘Christian, I think it’s really coming here.'”
When the ball reached the stands, Lopez bent down to retrieve it and engulfed as though he was recovering a fumble. His father, wearing a No. 5 Joe DiMaggio jersey, draped himself across his son’s back while others in the section tried to pry away the prized possession.
“I was worried about getting out of there alive,” Christian Lopez said during an in-game interview that the Yankees showed on the big video board in center field.
The crowd cheered when Lopez said he would give the ball back to Jeter.
“When I saw the ball went to him, I covered him,” Raul Lopez said. “I knew it would be crazy, because I saw the Barry Bonds thing. You know it’s going to be crazy because it’s history.”
Once he emerged, Christian Lopez told a different tale.
“I think he’s telling the story that he was trying to protect me,” Christian Lopez said. “But I think he was the one who punched me in the ribs. I was glad I got to share with him. This is a good time.”
Moments after Lopez grabbed the ball, Yankees officials hustled him to the Steinbrenner family luxury box.
“Security was right there in a second,” Lopez said. “They were dragging me up the stairs, and I’m a large man to drag up stairs. They were saying, ‘Come with us.’ The whole reason for me to come to the game was for history. And to actually be part of it now, it’s crazy. It was surreal.”
It became even more exciting when he met Jeter and presented him with the ball. Lopez also met several other Yankees stars, including Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson.
“I had an opportunity to meet him a little while ago,” Jeter said after getting the ball from Lopez. “He got his tickets from his girlfriend, so he owes her quite a bit. He’s going to be paying her back for quite some time.”
Lopez can pay her back, in part, with some of the bounty he received from the Yankees. He was rewarded with four front-row Legends seats for the remainder of the 2011 season, including the postseason, along with three bats and three balls signed by Jeter, plus two jerseys autographed by Jeter.
Lopez was asked if he ever thought of demanding $1 million or more for the ball, as some fans have after catching milestone home runs.
“It didn’t cross my mind until they asked me what I wanted,” he said. “The only thing I could think of was a few signed balls would be nice, and to meet him. It wasn’t about the money. It was about a milestone and I wasn’t going to take that away from him. Money’s cool and all, but I’m only 23 years old. I have a lot of time to make that.”
“Mr. Jeter deserved it,” Lopez said. “It’s all his.”
Lopez, who sells cell phones for a living, already was receiving calls from friends and co-workers.
“My boss actually talked to me today,” he said. “She said, ‘You’re going to keep the ball from me? You’re fired.'”
While 48,102 other fans were fortunate enough to see Jeter’s 5-for-5 performance and milestone hit in a 5-4 Yankees win, thousands more who held tickets to Friday night’s rainout waited dejectedly in long lines at ticket windows before the game, hoping to exchange their rain checks for seats on Saturday.
No such luck.
Electronic signs ringing the stadium indicated the game was sold out, and that those in line most likely were waiting in vain. But the majority of fans, many of whom were from out of town and who had been on line for as long as 2 hours, still hoped for a mini-miracle.
“My 10-year-old is a really big Yankees fan who’s never been to a major league baseball game. This will be a first if we make it,” said David Demmon of Albuquerque, N.M. “We bought these tickets a month in advance. We thought this was great and we were really looking forward to it, but it doesn’t look as if we’re going to get in today.”
John Verbeek made train trips down from Connecticut on two straight days, hoping to see Jeter hit the mark. Instead, he was headed back to the station without seeing a single pitch or at-bat.
“I got the tickets on StubHub for a premium,” Verbeek said, referring to Friday’s game. “My daughter is a real Jeter fan and she raced all the way in from Boston to get here on time last night. I’m really disappointed, because I’ve seen them play in a lot worse weather than last night. We were here for a Boston game one night (June 9) when they waited 3½ hours and then played the game. And it wasn’t that bad weather. They’ve played in a lot worse. And now we can’t get in today. We’re very, very disappointed.”
Mark Brill, who drove in from Woodstock, bought his tickets for Friday’s game on TicketsNow.com.
“Sometimes you get bit,” he said. “I know they’re sold out for today’s game, but I heard they might have standing room, or maybe we’ll get tickets for tomorrow’s game.”
For the chance to see Jeter’s 3,000th hit, that’s too late.