The seeds for Mike Lanzillotta’s Musial Award were planted decades ago and continents apart.
As a youngster, Mike attended Toronto Blue Jays games with his grandfather, Robert Anderson. And one day, Grandpa ensured that Mike lived every kid’s dream, holding the youngster by the ankles to retrieve an errant ball, which Mike has kept.
“Those games and that ball mean so much to me, you look for a chance to give that experience to someone else,” Mike says.
Meanwhile, in Venezuela, Cesar Rodriguez nurtured a love of the game. Above all, he loved the Yankees and Derek Jeter, naming his firstborn son after the Hall of Fame shortstop. Since the family moved to Toronto five years ago, Cesar and Derek seldom miss a Yankees game at Rogers Centre − except Derek wears the jersey of HIS favorite player – Aaron Judge.
Father and Son sat a row behind Mike at a Yankees game early this season and struck up a conversation. Their story touched Mike’s heart, who asked, “Would you like a ball?” Receiving a “yes,” Mike called to the pitchers in the bullpen and the outfielders between innings, “‘Hey, how about a ball for a kid?’ But we got nothing,” he says.
Then came the sixth inning, when Derek’s favorite player was up to bat. “I joked to Derek that Aaron was going to hit a home run right to us,” says Cesar. “As soon as he hit it, I could tell it was headed straight for us.”
Cesar tried to grab it but was blocked by a wall of hands. Two of them were Mike’s. The ball hit him and landed softly at his feet. In a plate of hot dogs. “Immediately you could see he was looking for Derek,” Cesar says. Mike handed the ball to Derek, who tearfully hugged Mike.
“I had my chance, and I just did it,” Mike says. “But if Derek hadn’t reacted, I don’t think the moment would have blown up. I don’t know how I didn’t cry myself.”
Derek had to convince himself it wasn’t a dream: “It was so overwhelming. I don’t know if it was shown, but I pinched myself after I got the ball to make sure I was awake.”
After Blue Jays staff arrived in their section and heard the story, they asked the trio to sit behind home plate the next day and watch batting practice on the field. Only then did they realize that their split-second moment had captured the sport’s heart and imagination.
“There’s media, cameras, all there for us. We felt like movie stars,” Mike says. “I didn’t expect that at the time, but now I realize that after a few years of negativity and challenges, people were ready for a feel-good story.”
Aaron Judge among them. The Yankees staff escorted the Rodriguez and Lanzillotta families to the dugout, where Aaron was waiting to meet his biggest fan. He signed the homerun ball for an overcome Derek, whom Aaron referred to as “my man,” and gave him a pair of batting gloves.
Since then, the families have been invited to games at Yankee Stadium and in Pittsburgh. The Lanzillottas have received offers of trips and dinners. Cesar and Mike text frequently. And Derek keeps the ball in a case in his room, grateful for a chance to meet his hero.
“When people ask me about being thankful for meeting Aaron Judge and I explain it, it’s the same feeling for Mike,” Derek says. “I think he knows I’m talking to him, too.”
Mike hopes the moment carries a legacy, not for him but for all sports fans. “I hope it created a change of outlook,” he says, “where people pay it forward.”