The Daily Star, Oneonta, NY - otsego county news, delaware county news, oneonta news, oneonta sports

Sam Pollak

July 30, 2011

Critics caught way off base by decent act

So, I find myself driving in New York City earlier this month and listening to someone getting absolutely excoriated on sports talk radio.

A nice thing about sports is that there is never a shortage of bad guys.

You've got ex-ballplayers _ Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds spring rapidly to mind _ who used steroids and then lied about it.

You've got Tiger Woods and Kobe Bryant, who all but made cheating on their wives an Olympic sport.

And self-absorbed jocks Brett Favre and LeBron James, who care far more about themselves than about any team they ever played on.

But the sports-talk guys weren't ripping any of them. Nor, for that matter, did they speak ill of the 24 National Football League players who have been arrested for this or that in the past five months.

No, their disgust was leveled at Christian Lopez, a 23-year-old cellphone salesman who happened to be occupying Seat 19, Row 1, Section 236 in Yankee Stadium on July 9 when Derek Jeter hit a baseball near him.

Jeter plays shortstop for the New York Yankees, and is easily the most popular athlete in New York, and probably in America.

The baseball he hit was a home run. More importantly, it was the 3,000th hit of Jeter's career. That is a very big deal, in that only 27 other players in the history of the game had ever reached that milestone.

According to memorabilia experts, collectors would pay a minimum of $250,000 for that 3,000-hit ball.

So, as the crowd of 48,103 watched the high-arching parabola of a ball hit with such authority that it would have been out of any park _ including Yellowstone _ Lopez saw the ball descend and hit his father, Raul, right in the hands.

"I was taking a picture, and next thing you know I look in the air," Christian Lopez later told the media. "My dad dove and missed it, because he has awful hands. I saw it roll in front of me, so I jumped on it. It was just instinct. I thought 'Wow! This is it! This is my chance!'"

The husky former defensive tackle for St. Lawrence University recovered his father's fumble and found himself with a quarter-million bucks worth of baseball right in his hands.

The Yankees asked him what he wanted for the ball.

Amazingly, remarkably, astoundingly, Christian Lopez, a working man with more than $100,000 college loans, said he wanted ... nothing.

"Mr. Jeter deserved it. I'm not gonna take it away from him," Lopez said. "Money's cool and all, but I'm 23 years old, I've got a lot of time to make that. It was never about the money, it was about the milestone."

Wow.

Lopez's decency made me proud to be in the same species. But the sports-talk hosts and the vast majority of the folks who called in saw things much differently.

They called him an idiot ... and worse. They could not believe how Lopez could allow the Yankees to play him for such a chump.

No one would have blamed Lopez for selling the ball for what he could get from the wealthy Jeter or the Yankees or a collector. But for Lopez, the opportunity to meet Jeter was thrill enough.

"I was starstruck," Lopez said. "And I met (baseball Hall of Famer) Reggie Jackson and (rap star) Jay-Z. People that I'd never think of shaking their hand and saying 'Nice to meet you.'"

The Yankees gave him three autographed balls, bats, two Jeter-signed jerseys and four expensive Champions-suite season tickets to every home game for the rest of the season and through the playoffs.

Maybe it's true that good things happen to good people. Since that day, a couple of sporting goods and memorabilia CEOs impressed by Lopez's selflessness have given him $25,000 each. One of them also gave him a 2009 Yankees World Series ring valued at $40,000.

A beer company says it will pay any taxes Lopez incurs from the gifts, and Topps has announced that Lopez will have his own baseball card.

Fans ask Lopez for his autograph, and for the rest of his life he will not only be the answer to a trivia question about Jeter's 3,000th hit, he will be an admirable part of New York Yankees lore.

All because a nice young man did the right thing. The shortsighted radio guys _ so consumed with money and their conception of street smarts _ couldn't recognize class when it was right before their eyes.

Meanwhile, a 23-year-old cellphone salesman named Christian Lopez has four great seats for tonight's game and is having _ well _ a ball.

Sam Pollak is the editor of The Daily Star. He can be reached at spollak@thedailystar.com or at (607) 432-1000, ext. 208.

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