Mike Lanzilotta remembers the first ball he took home from a Blue Jays game.
He was 12 years old and reached over the railing, before netting was around, to grab a slow-rolling foul ball.
“My grandfather held my legs as I grabbed the ball. And then he pulled me back in,” he said.
To this day, he’s kept that ball. It’s a reminder not only of his love for the team, but the time he spent with his grandfather.
That’s why when Lanzilotta, a longtime Jays fan, met a young New York Yankees fan as the two teams faced off at the Rogers Center on Tuesday, he knew he had to ensure the kid went home with a ball.
A video of Lanzilotta plucking a homer from Yankees outfielder Aaron Judge and immediately handing it to nine-year-old Derek Rodriguez, who stood behind him wearing a Judge shirt jersey, has since gone viral.
“I was overwhelmed, I was like, ‘There you go kid,’” said Lanzilotta. “He was like ‘I love you so much man,’ and he was crying. It almost brought me to tears, it was special,” he said.
Rodriguez bursting into happy tears and bear-hugging Lanzilotta has been shared millions of times online, held up as an emblem of the best parts of baseball fandom and camaraderie, an act of kindness that transcended team allegiances.
“For some people it might be just a ball, but for me it means way more,” Rodriguez told the Star.
Judge is Rodriguez’s favorite player. The young fan said he was especially impressed with Judge’s rookie year, adding that he’s so tall he’s like a “skyscraper.” His father was a big fan of former Yankees captain Derek Jeter, so big he named his son after him.
An hour before Wednesday’s game between the Jays and the Yankees, Lanzilotta, Rodriguez and their families were invited down to the field to watch the players practice and to meet Judge. Blue Jay George Springer also gifted Lanzilotta a signed jersey as a thanks for giving the ball to Rodriguez.
But when Judge walked across the dugout and came up to Rodriguez and gave him a hug, it was clear it was a moment Rodriguez had only dreamed of. The young Yankees fan promptly started crying.
“That still gives me goosebumps to this day, to see little kids that are wearing my number, wearing my jersey… it’s something that I dreamed of. I used to be in his position of him, you know, that little kid rooting on my favorite players and teams. That was a pretty cool moment that I definitely won’t forget,” Judge said.
When Judge Rodriguez asked who his favorite player was, he pointed at Judge and showed him his shirt.
“Having that moment with a young Yankee fan, that’s a moment seen around the world now. It just speaks to the Blue Jays fans they have here,” he said.
Taking home a ball is like bringing a reminder of your hero home with you, said Lanzilotta. When he takes his kids, aged two and six, to games, he tries to get a ball for them too.
“Kids growing up are watching baseball and having these idols that are superheroes. To actually share a piece of their life, a kid is never going to forget that,” he said.
“I don’t know what it was, he was just there and I got talking to him,” he said. “His dad named the kid after Derek Jeter. So I was like ‘wow, this is a cool family.’ It reminded me of going to games when I was a kid, with my grandfather,” he said.
So he committed to getting Rodriguez a ball, as his grandfather had once done for him.
Every inning, as the ball was getting thrown around during warm-ups, Lanzilotta would yell, “Get the kid a ball,” but to no avail.
“I said, ‘Don’t worry kid, I promise you we’re going to get you a ball today, one way or another,’” he said.
“And then that happened in the most epic way.”
The response to the video of the catch has been overwhelming, I added.
“My phone started blowing up. All my buddies and family were sending the video,” he said.
Many people have been messaging him, praising his act of kindness, hailing it as an antidote to world events, he said.
“People I don’t even know, just from the comments, it impacted their life, something small,” he said.
“It’s just all for the love of the game… I hope people just pay it forward in some capacity, whether it’s at the game or just in their personal lives.”
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