The Aaron Judge home run that changed a kid's life

ByRyan Hockensmith via ESPN logo
Friday, September 23, 2022 11:18PM
ESPN

THE TOUR OF THE YANKEES DUGOUT was off to a fantastic start.

The Rodriguez family -- dad Cesar, mom Carla and kids Cesar Jr. and Derek -- were milling around off to the side as the Yankees took batting practice in Toronto back in May. Derek, 9, kept elbowing his dad in the ribs and saying, "I can't believe how close we are."

They had been invited by the Yankees after a remarkable viral moment from the night before in Toronto when a Blue Jays fan caught an Aaron Judgehome run ball and then handed it to Derek, who was wearing a Judge jersey. Derek's emotional reaction, paired with a hug from the generous Blue Jays fan, created one of those videos where thousands of people tweet "If you're having a crappy day, watch this."

The Blue Jays fan, Mike Lanzillotta, was in the dugout with the Rodriguezes the next day, and he got to bring his wife, Kayla. They all pointed and whispered as various Yankees streamed in and out of the far end of the dugout. Derek's eyes kept drifting out toward the field, where his hero, Judge, was hanging out at the cage before taking batting practice.

They were all under the impression that they'd linger for a bit, then go sit in their seats. The Blue Jays gave the Rodriguez family prime seats behind the Yankees dugout, and Mike and Kayla got sweet tickets right in the back of the Blue Jays dugout.

But the Yankees had a 6-foot-7 surprise for everybody.

As Judge walked down the steps toward the clubhouse, about 25 feet away, he turned toward the group and began to walk over. A Yankees staffer said, "Allow me to introduce you to Aaron Judge," and suddenly Judge smiled as he closed the distance.

Derek's mom is a little over 5 feet tall, and she let out a small shriek and hustled out of the way as Judge got close. The media guide says Judge is 6-foot-7, but everybody involved that day will always remember him as much, much taller. There was already something fuzzy and dream-like about what happened the night before, followed by watching him lumber around right in front of them for BP, and then... there he was -- Aaron Judge, IRL.

Derek's eyeballs flooded, and Lanzillotta, wearing a Blue Jays jersey and a surgical mask on his face, couldn't even control his disbelief. As Judge got to Derek and started to pull him in for a hug, Lanzillotta put his hands on his head. His knees buckled a little, and the top of his body lurched backward. Even from under the mask, it looked like his jaw dropped.

"This is a fairytale," Lanzillotta thought.

Lanzillotta glanced over at Cesar, and he seemed to be in fairytale land, too. They were both thinking the same thing: How the hell did they end up here?

IN THE MID-2010s, Cesar Rodriguez's older brother left Venezuela for the Toronto area. "He wanted to find a better life for himself and his family," Cesar says.

And that's exactly what he found in Canada, and pretty soon, he was telling Cesar he should come. In 2017, Cesar did it: He picked up his wife and two young kids and moved in with his brother. He, too, wanted a better life for them.

He had to work hard to get it. Cesar took jobs in landscaping, painting houses and at banquet halls doing anything and everything he was asked. He had to scrape by just to find a footing in Canada, but he did it. Eventually, he found the job he holds -- and loves -- today, at a local toy company.

The entire time, baseball was a life raft. Even as a kid, Cesar clung to playing baseball as much as possible. He fell in love with the team that he saw the most on TV, the Yankees dynasty of the mid-1990s, and Cesar began to collect jerseys of Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter, as well as some greats from the past, like Phil Rizzuto, Lou Gehrig and Reggie Jackson. When his first son was born, he and his wife didn't struggle with names for very long. The little boy would be Derek, just like The Captain.

From the day he was born in August 2012, little Derek Rodriguez loved baseball as much as his dad. He'd sit on his lap and watch games in Venezuela, and then became an Aaron Judge superfan when he got a little older. He loved the cool name, the long home runs, and the bigness of Judge.

He has one jersey, a No. 99 Judge uni, and he put it on that day in May when the Yankees came to Toronto. The Rodriguez family set aside $2,000 every year for tickets and concessions to go to all nine Yankees games in Toronto, and then they pay for the MLB Network to see the rest. They'll be there again this weekend for all three games between the two teams.

They were in scramble mode on May 3 to get from their house, about 30 minutes away from the stadium, to their seats in the 200 level of the left field bleachers. This was a big one: The Yankees were on a 10-game winning streak, part of a 17-6 start to the year. The Jays were 15-9, and wanted to pour water on their rivals.

A half-hour farther outside Toronto, a stranger named Mike Lanzillotta was clocking out of his job as a theft management specialist for a chain of department stores. He called his friend, Nigel Singh, to make sure they were on target to meet up outside the stadium. Singh was already downtown, wrapping up his shift that day as a city ordinance officer in charge of investigating noise complaints in Toronto. "We're the fun police," he says with a smile. "Everybody's like, 'Oh god, here they come..."

Around the same time that the Rodriguezes were plopping down in their seats, Lanzillota and Singh were outside the stadium, hustling to grab a beer before heading in. They eventually made their way into the stadium and had planned to snag some loonie dogs -- that's what the Jays call their hot dogs. On select nights such as this one, loonie dogs are $1 a piece, and Lanzillotta and Singh were laughing about how many they thought they could put down.

But the loonie dog line was out-of-control long, so they bought beers and went to their seats instead. Maybe they'd grab food later.

Just one problem: Their seats were occupied.

They had No. 3 and 4, but people had already sat down there. Singh suggested just sitting in the empty aisle seats, 1 and 2, and if anybody came, they'd work it out. Nobody ever showed up and claimed the aisle seats, so that's where they landed for the night. Almost immediately, they noticed two Yankees fans who weren't shy about cheering for their team, even in enemy territory. Lanzillotta elbowed Singh and they briefly thought about chirping at the boy and his dad. Both of them use that word a lot -- chirping -- in place of heckling, and it's clear they have a more PG-rated, Canadian style brand of barking at opposing players.

Eventually, they decided not to chirp at all. Instead, they said hello to the Rodriguezes and started talking. Singh really identified with their story of settling in Toronto; Singh's family had come from Guyana, and his grandparents had picked baseball as their hobby as a way to cope with missing cricket in their native country. Just like with the Rodriguez family, MLB games have helped the Singhs find their footing in Canada, too.

Lanzillotta couldn't help but love Derek's sheer exuberance for baseball, even if it was for the dreaded Yankees. Within five minutes, Lanzillotta blurted out, "We're getting you a ball tonight."

Cesar smiled and nodded. What were the chances a ball would end up in their laps? Fangraphs once estimated it at 1 in 1,200. And in the 200 level of the left field stands? Yeah, good luck.

Lanzillotta doesn't mess around when it comes to getting balls at games, though. He got his first one as a 12-year-old, sitting on the third-base line beside his grandfather. Lanzillotta leaned over the rail for a foul grounder coming his way, and he stretched too far. Suddenly he felt his legs start to soar out and over his head, and he was about to faceplant onto the field.

Then two strong hands latched onto his lower body -- it was his grandfather, hanging on for dear life. Lanzillotta pulled in the ball, then his grandfather reeled him in. "Like a big fish," Lanzillotta says now.

When they got home that day, Lanzillotta tried to give his grandfather the ball. At first, he refused to take it. "It's your ball, Mike," he said. But Lanzillotta wouldn't take no for an answer, so his grandfather accepted the gift. When he died a few years ago, Lanzillotta found out his grandfather had willed it to him. So, MLB balls are precious to him.

As the game wore on, Lanzillotta went to his go-to move. Every half-inning when the left fielder would warm up, he would spend the entire five minutes pestering -- correction, chirping -- at either team's starter to turn around and throw the ball into the stands. He's gotten about 10 balls over the years doing that for three hours, so it sometimes works.

At one point, he started bringing Derek over to his seat and coaching him up on how to effectively chirp himself. "Mike was going at it hardcore, to the point where I think some people around us were annoyed," Singh says. "But Mike was determined to get that kid a ball."

Eventually, the Blue Jays' left fielder, Lourdes Gurriel, Jr., lobbed a ball up into the stands but it landed 25 feet away, and somebody else grabbed it. At that point, Derek was getting discouraged. "It was a little embarrassing because no one paid attention, even when I was dancing," Derek says, and he stands up from behind his laptop and replicates the dance on a recent Zoom.

Lanzillotta was insistent the entire game. He just kept saying, "Trust me, we're getting you a ball."

The game breezed along, with the Blue Jays leading 1-0 in the sixth inning. Singh told Lanzillotta he was going to the bathroom. On the way back, he noticed the loonie dog line was almost wiped out, so he made a quick pit stop to grab some food.

Singh kept telling himself that he was going to order two hot dogs when he got to the front of the line.

Then his stomach told him to order more.

But then he decided he didn't want to overdo it, so he would just order two...

"Can I help you?" the cashier asked.

"Six loonie dogs, please," Singh said, his stomach taking over his voice. Since he ordered six hot dogs instead of two, the cashier put his loonies in a large carrier.

The two hungry men scarfed down their first dogs, one apiece, as the Yankees came to bat in the sixth. PitcherAlek Manoahhad been humming along, blowing through the Yankees lineup for the first 15 outs.

He got the first two Yankees of the sixth inning, too, when Judge strode to the plate as a likely No. 18 out. Manoah had struck him out twice already, and Manoah has owned Judge more than perhaps any other pitcher in baseball (Judge is 1-for-16 against the young Jays starter).

It was a weird, long battle. Judge watched a 95 MPH sinker for strike one, then fouled off three straight fastballs. Then Manoah threw practically the same pitch three times in a row -- low 80s sliders, all at the knees, all outside, for three balls.

With a full count, Manoah got ready to dial up another high 90s fastball as Judge dug in. A football field away, Derek Rodriguez cupped his hands around his mouth and yelled for his favorite player, right as Mike Lanzillotta took the last bite of his first loonie dog. He was thinking about reaching for a second dog just as a crack of the bat stole away his attention.

His life would never be the same.

THE BALL CAME SCREAMING off the bat at 114.9 MPH. Lanzillotta, a very good slow-pitch softball outfielder, felt almost instantly that the ball was screaming directly at him, so he started yelling, "I got it! I got it!"

It was a laughable thing to yell. Foul balls and home runs at MLB games are free-for-alls, where survival of the fittest usually plays out. But this time, Lanzillotta's call caused everybody to... just back off.

Well, almost everybody. Earlier in the game, right after Lanzillotta had told Derek he'd get him a ball, he'd thrown in an important caveat. "We'll get you one -- unless it's a home run ball. Home run balls are special."

So because this was an Aaron Judge home run ball, landing within a short third-down conversion away from his little boy in an Aaron Judge jersey, Cesar felt mandated by fatherly law to try to swoop in and beat Lanzillotta to it. But there were too many people in between, so Cesar's push toward the ball never had a legitimate chance of snagging it away.

The ball flew straight to Lanzillotta. The ball whistled in for a landing, chest high, on a rope to him.

But as the ball soared right into his hands, he found himself a little distracted by the lack of hands and arms battling him for the ball. He had to lean just a few inches to his left, into the space between him and Singh. It was almost too easy.

Singh inched back behind Lanzillotta's hands, and let his buddy haul it in. He had been called off many times by Lanzillotta in their softball league -- Singh plays third base -- and he says Lanzillota never failed to snag the fly ball.

Except this time, Lanzillotta whiffed. The ball scudded through his hands and -- in yet another fluky occurrence -- it slapped right into Singh's cheek, then disappeared.

Lanzillotta says he felt zero pain from the rocket hitting his hands, but Singh sure felt the ball off his cheek. An inch or two higher... Singh doesn't even want to think about if it hit him in the eye. "I'm going to trust my own hands next time," he says.

They both scrambled to figure out where the ball had bounced. They'd seen countless times where somebody has a beat on a ball, bobbles it, and it plummets 10 rows south, or bounces down into the lower deck, and somebody else plucks it.

As they looked around, though, they didn't see anybody hustling to corral it. In fact, everybody seemed to still be staring at them. At their feet, to be more specific.

Lanzillotta's eyes eventually drifted toward the ground, where he saw four loonie dogs, loaded up with ketchup and mustard, all snuggled comfortably into one corner of their carrier across from a new friend: the Aaron Judge home run ball. The ball had spilled their beers onto the hot dogs, ruining the rest of their dinner, but nothing seemed to have touched the ball itself. "Right into the fricking tray," Lanzillotta says with a laugh. "The loonie dogs are the real hero."

A slew of cell phone cameras captured what happened next. Lanzillotta looked down at the ball that hit his hands and then ricocheted off his friend's cheek, at the loonie dogs that shouldn't have been in a carrier, below the seats that weren't theirs, and he felt like that ball had been sent from the heavens for the little dude in the Aaron Judge jersey. "The way the stars aligned that day, it was nuts," Singh says.

Lanzillotta reached down, grabbed the ball and for a milli-second, raised his hands in exuberance. But then it hit him how much that specific home run ball might mean to his new little friend. So in an act of kindness seen by millions, Lanzillotta lowered his arms and stretched them out toward Derek.

On the video, it's half-hilarious, half-unnecessary roughness to watch as Lanzillotta extended the ball past Singh's poor achy face. In about a five-second time frame, Singh had gotten cranked in the cheek by the ball, looked down to see his dinner ruined by spilled beer... and then his friend gave it away literally right in front of his nose.

Derek took the ball and rushed to get close to Lanzillotta. He nudged past his own dad, who went from an initial look of mystification to sheer joy that his son just had ended up on the other side of an incredible act of kindness. "I hoped we might get a ball," Cesar says. "But he got the ball."

The crowd roared loud enough that it drowned out Lanzillotta yelling to Derek, "I told you we'd get one -- I told you!"

But Derek heard him. And when he got to Lanzillotta, his joy came out through an outpouring of tears. Lanzillotta patted Derek on the back and then palmed the back of his head like a mini basketball.

"Some day, you're going to be in my shoes and can make a kid happy," Lanzillotta said. "Promise me you'll pay it forward."

"I promise," Derek said, and he cried some more as Lanzillotta put his hands on his cheeks. Then Derek hugged his dad. And they cried together.

THE WHOLE SECTION CHEERED for Lanzillotta and Derek for about 30 seconds. Then everybody sat down and the game started up again. Lanzillotta and Singh were bummed about their hot dogs, but mostly just wanted to replace their beers before the stadium stopped serving alcohol the next inning.

Lanzillotta volunteered to go. So within 60 seconds of the Judge ball touching down, Lanzillotta was out of his seat and heading for the beer stand. On the way, a few fans smiled and waved at him, and Lanzillotta thought, "That's weird. I don't think I know those people."

But they knew him. What Lanzillotta didn't realize was that as he got ready to order his replacement beers, video of the moment had gone viral twice -- once on the interwebs, and also within the stadium, which had shown the whole thing on the scoreboard several times. He was now both Internet famous and Rogers Centre famous.

About five minutes later, Lanzillotta came back to his seat surprised to see that the Judge home run started a six-run outburst (the Yankees went on to win, 9-1). He was even more stunned at all the traffic lingering near his seat. Everybody was there to see him and Derek.

Reporters wanted to interview them both, and Blue Jays media reps had bobbleheads and other swag for Lanzillotta and the Rodriguez family. One Jays season ticket holder sent his adult son up to the second deck from their seats behind home plate to figure out a day when they could let Lanzillotta use their tickets.

"Was it really that special?" Lanzilllotta asked, with a beer in each hand.

The answer was, yes, it was that special. For the next 12 hours, people around the world reveled in the kindness.

On a Zoom call, Derek says he has to watch the video to recall what exactly happened. He had blacked out in the moment after a wave of emotion that his 9-year-old brain couldn't quite process.

When he talks about it, he says, "All I remember is..." and then he starts rubbing his hands under his eyes and making a whimpering noise, mocking his own tears. "I know crying is something natural to do," Derek says. "But I feel like that much crying... was too much crying."

The next day, a few kids teased him for getting so emotional. But they quickly hushed when he pulled out the Judge baseball. He brought it into school so everybody could see it, but he was the only one allowed to touch it.

By the end of the school day, he was exhausted with the outpouring of his fellow elementary schoolers and even the faculty. "I cry every time I watch the video," one teacher told him.

He left school tired but excited. After all, his dad had two tickets for the game that night to see the finale of a three-game set between the Yankees and Blue Jays. When he got home, though, his parents made his brain melt: The Blue Jays and Yankees had conspired to get him seats right behind the Yankees dugout.

As Derek celebrated in the living room, his dad said, "And oh yeah, we're going down in the dugout, too."

THAT EVENING, right after Derek Rodriguez's mom shrieked as her son's giant hero approached, Aaron Judge spoke.

"Who's your favorite player?" he asked Derek.

Derek didn't say a word, he just turned around and tugged on the back of his No. 99 Yankees jersey, the same one he'd worn the night before and then all day at school during his victory lap. "That still gives me goosebumps to this day, to see little kids that are wearing my number," Judge told reporters later. "That's something I dreamt of. I used to be in his position. That was a pretty cool moment."

In the dugout, Judge dropped down to a knee, and yet he was still a few inches taller than Derek. "Don't cry, because I'll start crying too," Judge told Derek. "Enjoy it. Did you bring the ball?"

Derek handed him the ball, then Judge asked for a pen, signed it and pulled a pair of batting gloves out of his back pocket. As Cesar and Derek tell this part of the story, Derek disappears off screen and comes back with a plastic case. Inside, the Judge batting gloves.

"I hope you use these some day," Judge told him.

Derek hugged him, and then Judge stood up to take some pictures with the whole gang. But before he started posing, he turned toward Lanzillotta, who seemed to be enjoying Derek's moment so much that he forgot he was part of it, too. Judge extended a hand, then pulled out a pair of batting gloves. He'd given Derek a brand-new set, and he wanted Lanzillotta to have the actual batting gloves from the night before.

For the next few minutes, phone flashes went off, and the whole group exchanged small talk. Judge said hello to little Cesar Jr., and chitchatted with both Rodriguez parents.

Toward the end of the dugout get-together, Judge turned his attention toward Lanzillotta. In the postgame scrum the night before, Judge had seemed genuinely lit up by the idea of a Blue Jays fan being so kind to a young Yankees fan, and his exuberance showed through when he got to meet Lanzillotta.

It's not quite that he was as excited to meet Lanzillotta as Lanzillotta was to meet him... but it was a lot closer than you'd have thought.

"That's a really special thing that you did," Judge told him. "You impacted people around the world with your kind gesture. It doesn't matter what uniform you wear. Bringing people together is what it's all about. Thank you."

As Lanzillotta finishes up that story, he hesitates. "When that guy says thank you to me..." he says, and his voice trails off. Long pause. "To me."

But then he starts the story back up again because there's one more part. He wanted to tell Judge something he might not like, so he began by buttering him up. "You've been good for my fantasy team," Lanzillotta told him, and Judge smiled and nodded his head. Now was the time to just come out and say it.

"You know they offered us tickets to come down to New York and sit in the Judge's Chambers?" Lanzillotta said.

"Yeah, I know," Judge said.

"Aaron, just for your information, if we come to New York... I'll be chirping from the stands -- a lot," Lanzillotta said.

Judge got a good chuckle out of that. "Oh man, don't worry, I can handle it." They shook hands and said goodbye, and then the Rodriguezes went to their seats, and the Lanzillottas went to theirs. Right before the game, a Blue Jays rep came to Lanzillotta's seat and handed him a signed jersey from George Springer. He'd never gotten a signed jersey before, so Springer instantly became his new favorite Jay.

For the next three hours, the Rodriguez family cheered for the Yankees, and the Lanzillottas yelled for the Jays. From time to time throughout the game, the two groups would make eye contact and wave. At the end of nine innings, the Blue Jays had squeaked out a 2-1 win, ending the Yankees' 11-game winning streak.

On the way out of the stadium that night, they all met up briefly to say good night. The last thing Cesar said to him that night was, "Mike, thank you. You don't know what this means to us."

Then they went their separate ways. Both realized it wasn't the end of something. Just the end of Chapter 1.

IN AUGUST, the Lanzillottas traveled to the Bronx to be guests of the Yankees and to sit in the Judge's Chambers. The Rodriguezes hoped to go, too, but had some travel paperwork snafus that didn't get straightened out in time.

Lanzillotta took his wife, two kids, Nigel and six other friends, courtesy of the Yankees. They arrived at the stadium early for a tour, and Lanzillotta even got to hold one of Babe Ruth's bats.

But he was also a little jittery as game time approached. He'd gone back and forth about wearing his Blue Jays gear, and ultimately decided he had to be true to his fandom. He was worried about the notoriously tough Bronx crowd, especially with his family along.

His seats were in the Judge's Chambers section in right-field, which he wasn't sure would be better or worse.

Right before the game, Lanzillotta and his crew were all given complimentary Judge's Chambers robes to put on, and he held his nose and slid it over his Blue Jays jersey. It felt like a perfect solution -- he could wear his Blue Jays stuff, and it'd be covered up by a robe.

Eventually, though, he felt like he was cooking in the August heat, so he took off the robe. Nobody said anything for a while... and then the Yankees put up a message on the scoreboard, welcoming Lanzillotta to the Judge's Chambers. He looked around to gauge the reception, and it was nothing but warmth. "It seemed like we had the immunity idol," Lanzillotta says.

When the game started, Lanzillotta asked his daughter if she'd like to try to get a ball. He explained how hard it is to get one, but that it's a fun chase they could do together. She was in.

So they began to go down to the rail along right field and yell at players as they wrapped up warmups between innings. Some time in the middle of the game, they got loud enough that Blue Jays right fielderWhit Merrifieldturned toward them and launch a ball into the bleachers.

The second it left Merrifield's hand, Lanzillotta groaned. His daughter's eyes had lit up when he launched it, but her dad recognized the ball was going to soar way over their heads into a sea of Yankees fans behind him. She reached her hands up as it whistled into the stands, then both of their heads watched overhead as it passed by. A young guy in his 20s, wearing Yankees gear, caught it.

"It's okay, we'll try again next inning," Lanzillotta told her, and they started their retreat back up the stairs to go back to their seats.

As they walked, though, Lanzillotta noticed the young guy in the Yankees shirt making his way down his row toward the stairs. By the time they got to his row, he was standing in the aisle.

"Nothing compares to what you did," the Yankees fan said. "But please, I hope your daughter enjoys this ball."

He handed it to the little girl, and both Lanzillottas thanked him as they headed back to their seats. It was a life-affirming moment that he'll never forget, a good deed boomeranged back at him.

In the Hollywood version of this story, Lanzillotta would hug his daughter as a sweeping needle drop played them back to their seats.

In real life, though, Lanzillotta could barely hear her excited words as they made their way through a sea of fans, half-cheering on their struggling Yankees, half booing the Jays during what was a chippy afternoon. And Lanzillotta found himself soaking it all in.

"It was the best chirping I've ever heard," he says.

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