Fan proud to return milestone ball to Jeter

Fan proud to return milestone ball to Jeter

NEW YORK -- The balls used on baseball's most famous plays have long fetched enough money to change a fan's life -- if they end up in the stands. But Christian Lopez, who caught Derek Jeter's 3,000th hit -- a home run to the left-field bleachers at Yankee Stadium during Saturday's 5-4 Yankees win over the Rays -- hardly hesitated before offering the ball back to New York's captain and forgoing any opportunity to turn what likely would have been a large profit.

"Money's cool and all, but I'm only 23 years old and I have a lot of time to make that," Lopez said following Saturday's game. "It's his accomplishment; it's a milestone. Only 27 other people have done this. It's not an everyday thing."

Lopez, a Verizon customer sales representative from Highland Mills, N.Y., rose with most of the crowd of 48,103 when Jeter came to bat with one out in the third inning. He held up his cellphone, hoping to capture a picture of hit No. 3,000, but he ended up with a lot more.

"The next thing, when I looked in the air, I see my dad diving across on top of people, and he missed it, because he had awful hands," Lopez said. "I just saw the ball roll in front of me, and I jumped on it. It was just instinct. I saw the ball, and I was like, 'Wow, this is it. This is my chance.'"

Prior to Jeter's third-inning at-bat, a ballboy brought home-plate umpire Jim Wolf marked baseballs to use in case Jeter's 3,000th hit ended up in the stands. Major League Baseball, which has authenticators at every game, made sure that Lopez's ball was legitimate, and Yankees security made sure he was safe from other fans.

After catching the ball, Lopez, a former defensive tackle at St. Lawrence University, held it high for an instant before thinking better and tucking it under his body. His father dove on top for extra protection, and security soon came to whisk the fan away.

As soon as Lopez made his way out of the stands, the negotiations didn't take long. When asked what he wanted, Lopez said he'd like to meet Jeter and that "a few signed balls would be nice." The Yankees obliged with three signed bats, three signed balls and two signed jerseys. They also gave him four front-row Legends seats for Sunday's game and four Champions Suite tickets for the remainder of the season, including the playoffs, should the Yankees advance.

"It wasn't about the money -- it's about a milestone," Lopez said. "I'm not going to take it away from him."

Asked if he would have given it back to any Yankee, Lopez said yes.

"I would have done it for any of them, from [Alex Rodriguez] to Jorge [Posada] to [Curtis] Granderson in the future, hopefully," Lopez said. "I would have done the same thing. If it happened to a Yankee, I'm giving it back."

If not for his girlfriend and some cooperation from Mother Nature, Lopez would not have been in position to fall on the milestone ball. His girlfriend, Tara Johnson, bought him the ticket on StubHub -- "a 65-buck ticket," Lopez said -- as a birthday present 10 days before Saturday's game.

Jeter doubled in Thursday's series opener against the Rays to reach 2,998 career hits. After rain forced Friday's game to be postponed until September, the stage was set for Jeter's first-inning single and third-inning home run.

"When he got to 2,998, I was like, 'Oh, wow. Hopefully tomorrow gets rained out,'" Lopez said.

Yankees manager Joe Girardi said he thought of recovering the ball for Jeter soon after it went out.

"We're all so excited for him, and then we're thinking, 'Oh, boy, is he going to get the ball now?'" Girardi said. "I think that's the one thing that you want for him through all this, is to be able to get the baseball. And when it's a home run, sometimes that doesn't happen."

Girardi's fears were soon assuaged when Lopez, in a Yankees interview shown on the scoreboard, said to great applause that he would return the ball to Jeter.

"I do have the ball, I held it -- it was like all the rest of them," Jeter said. "I actually didn't think about it. Someone on the bench, I forget who, said, 'Now you've got to try to get this ball back.' That was the last thing that was on my mind."

Lopez's father wasn't surprised by his son's decision.

"That's who he is, I'm sorry," Raul Lopez said. "My son will get a million dollars and shrug his shoulders. ... He's very cool. He's very calm."

Lopez's girlfriend, the ticket supplier, also said Lopez "did the right thing." And if Jeter is correct, she'll reap the benefits of a well-chosen birthday gift.

"He owes her quite a bit," Jeter said. "He's going to be paying her back for quite some time."

Thomas Boorstein is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.