An unforgettable week of fathers and sons, triumph and tragedy
About 10 minutes after the ball had landed, with the ballpark still reverberating from what it just had seen, Raul Lopez quietly put his hand on the shoulder of his only son, Christian, as they sat in an office within the bowels of Yankee Stadium.
The two were finally alone. It seemed like only seconds had passed since Derek Jeter's 3,000th hit had come flying towards them, an arcing home run that first bounced off the palm of Raul's hand, then rolled over to Christian. The chaos that followed had been overwhelming: Security guards initially detained Raul, because they thought he'd been trying to mug Christian and take the ball from him when, in reality, he'd actually jumped on Christian's back to protect him from the mass of fans behind them. By the time that mess had been sorted out and they'd been shuttled down the steps and on to the ramp and off toward the office beneath the concourse, the sweat on Raul's forehead was glistening.
Edward Fastook, the Yankees' executive director of team security, had originally been in the room with them, but he had stepped into the hallway after Christian calmly informed him he would be happy to return Jeter's ball in exchange for little more than an autograph. Considering the expected value of such a historic ball -- mid six-figures wasn't out of the question -- this was not what Fastook (or anyone, really) had expected. So Fastook needed to make some phone calls. That left father and son together.
"What are you thinking about pal?" Raul said softly. "What's in your mind?"
Christian looked at him in surprise.
"Well, this doesn't belong to me."
Raul nodded. "I understand that. But you also have to understand that's a piece of change right there. A real piece of change."
Christian sat up. Considered this for a moment. Then stared into his father's eyes.
"You and mom, you talk a lot of crap about how no one in this world gives you anything, how you can't expect that to happen," Christian said. He was almost reprimanding his father.
"You should earn what you get, right? Well I didn't earn this. This is his ball, not mine."
Raul nodded. Rubbed his son's back. Took a deep breath. Over the next few hours and days, he would hear from everyone about what an idiot his son was. TV personalities would question Christian's intelligence; radio hosts would call him a moron. Everyone would have an opinion on whether Christian should have tried to sell the ball, whether he should have tried to cash in on the good fortune that came with sitting in Section 236, Row 1, Seat 19, last Saturday afternoon. Even Raul himself, when he lay his head down on the pillow that night at home in Highland Mills, N.Y., wondered if he would have been able to do what his son did.
"I've got bills," Raul says. "I've got a mortgage. He told (the media) that he's got the rest of his life to make money. I'm 56. I don't."
So put Raul in with the rest of us, the ones who wonder about the difference between the right thing and the thing that's right for us. At that moment, though, when Christian looked at Raul, a son looking at his father, and seemed so sure about something that ought to be have been so much harder, Raul melted. He was silenced.
"He told me what was in his heart and then he smiled," Raul says. "He was making the decision that made him smile. When that happens, what else can you say?"
This is a story about fathers and sons because that is what baseball has always been about. Fathers bringing sons to games. Cheering together. Watching together. Having a catch and pretending the backyard is Dodger Stadium. It is the game's lifeblood.
Last week in Texas, Shannon Stone, a firefighter, died after falling 20 feet from the outfield bleachers to a concrete path below. Stone had been reaching out, over the railing, trying so hard to catch a ball thrown by Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton. Stone wanted to give the ball to his 6-year-old son, Cooper. Just wanted to give him a baseball and died because of it. Hamilton will always remember hearing Cooper calling out for his daddy, screaming for him. It was enough to make you cry, long and loud. Hamilton did.
On Monday, at the Home Run Derby in Phoenix, though, came the other side. Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano hit 32 home runs with his father, Jose, pitching to him. It was national TV, everyone was watching -- and Cano just wanted to share the experience with his dad, who once pitched six games for the Houston Astros in 1989, and still throws to his son in the offseason when they're at home. When it was over, and Cano had won, he ran out toward the mound and leaped into his father's arms. Their hug was warm and deep and real. It was enough to make you cry for an entirely different reason.
In between those two was Saturday in the Bronx. Baseball had always been a part of the Lopez family, and growing up in Queens, Raul would go to games with his father, Raul Sr. He turned into a decent player, too, playing the infield corners. He even spent a few weeks in the Phillies Class A instructional league during the summer of 1973. "It wasn't even a cup of coffee," Raul says. "But it wasn't bad."
When Christian was little, three generations of Lopez men would go to Yankee Stadium together. Baseball was what they did. Once, Raul and a friend went to a game at Shea Stadium and brought in a six-pack of beer ... tucked underneath Christian, who was riding in his stroller.
Back then, Raul went to games all the time. He even caught a foul ball once, reaching his glove just above Rick Dempsey's near the screen in a game at the old Yankee Stadium, snatching a Mike Easler foul ball away from the Baltimore catcher. "I got the crowd cheering for me because I saved an out," Raul says. "When I got home, I put the ball in Christian's crib."
After the player's strike in 1994, though, Raul stopped paying for tickets to games. He hated what had happened, hated the players for what they did. He would go to a game if someone had an extra and offered it for free, but the money ruined baseball for him. "The greed -- it was just too much," Raul says. "I wasn't going to give my money to them. I couldn't believe they didn't want to just play. Greed is everywhere." His principles are steadfast; even on Saturday at Yankee Stadium, the tickets were a birthday present for Christian from his girlfriend, Tara Johnson. And instead of paying for parking in one of the garages near the Stadium, they parked a 10-minute walk away, down near the Major Deegan Expressway. For free.
"That's the thing," Raul says now. "Since Saturday, everything has been about the money Christian didn't get. The money we didn't get. 'Should he get a payday? Should he get a payday?' I know Christian is getting tired of it and I am, too. I don't want to another thing in this game to be ruined for me by money. I won't let it."
When it was over on Saturday, and Christian had done every last interview and spent 40 minutes taking pictures with fans who recognized him just outside the Stadium gates, Christian, Tara and Raul hiked back to the car.
Tara was exhausted. They all were. But on the ride home, Raul listened as his son continued to bubble over.
He talked about meeting Jeter, about talking with Joe Girardi. About shaking Jay-Z's hand when he saw the rapper lingering in the hallway outside the Yankees clubhouse. At one point just before Christian did his press conference, Mariano Rivera pulled Christian aside for a quiet moment: He wanted to thank Christian for giving "my friend" -- Jeter -- the ball back.
"For me, it was getting to meet Reggie Jackson, who was in the room, too," says Raul. "For Christian? Suffice to say, I heard Jay-Z's name 100 times during that ride home."
The negativity would come later. The criticisms and incredulity and the stories about how Christian will be stuck with a tax bill for accepting tickets and memorabilia as a gift from the Yankees in exchange for his generosity. By Monday, Tara would be skipping work to stay home and answer the family's phone since it rang off the hook with interview requests; neighbors kept ringing the doorbell and stopping by, too.
Raul knows it will fade soon. The Lopez's lives are different, yes, but not in the long-term: Christian is still working at Verizon, still selling phones because the company is helping pay for his master's degree. Raul is still an opthalmologist, still getting up early to make it to the city in time for work.
Those things haven't changed. What did is something unspoken between father and son. Something that goes back to the Yankee Stadium office and the smile Raul saw on Christian's face once he'd made up his mind.
On Saturday at Yankee Stadium, Raul had the kind of day Jose Cano would get two days later. The kind of day Shannon Stone so desperately wanted two days before.
The kind of day every father wants. A day where his boy goes to the ballpark and comes home happy.