'I still can't believe it': Young Yankees fan who got home-run ball in Toronto speaks on his incredible week

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Michael Lanzillotta, left, snagged an Aaron Judge home run ball in Toronto Tuesday and handed it over to Derek Rodriguez, right, because he knew how much that would mean to a young fan.   (Grant Linton/CBC - image credit)
Michael Lanzillotta, left, snagged an Aaron Judge home run ball in Toronto Tuesday and handed it over to Derek Rodriguez, right, because he knew how much that would mean to a young fan. (Grant Linton/CBC - image credit)

It has been an incredible week so far for nine-year-old Yankees fan Derek Rodriguez: he watched his favourite baseball player, Aaron Judge, hit a home run; a Blue Jays fan snagged the ball and gave it to Derek; and then Judge signed the ball in person.

"I still can't believe it," said Derek on Tuesday night, just after meeting Judge and shedding a few tears of joy. "It's so amazing."

Derek's amazing ride began on Tuesday night when he and his father, Cesar Rodriguez, came to Toronto's Rogers Centre to watch the Toronto Blue Jays take on the New York Yankees.

Both father and son, who live in Toronto, are big Yankees fans. Cesar Rodriguez said he first got hooked on the team in 1996 when Hall of Famer Derek Jeter became the starting shortstop.

"When I saw him play — Derek Jeter — I [said], 'Oh, my God, this is my favourite player right now, and this is going to be my team forever,'" said Rodriguez. "That's why my kid's name is Derek, because [of] Derek Jeter."

Despite his namesake, Derek's idol is Judge, who is currently considered one of baseball's best players. Derek came to the game decked out in a Judge jersey, and that caught the eye of Blue Jays fan Michael Lanzillotta, who was sitting nearby.

"I immediately noticed this boy and his father in Yankees gear and said, 'Okay, here we go. Yankees fans are behind us," he said.

Grant Linton/CBC
Grant Linton/CBC

But any animosity he felt wore off fast. In fact, when Lanzillotta learned that Derek was desperate to catch a ball during the game, he decided to help out because he knew how much that would mean to a young fan.

When Lanzillotta was 12 years old, his grandfather held his legs so he could reach over and grab a foul ball during a Blue Jays game in the mid-'90s.

"Growing up as a Jays fan, that's what you want. That's what you live for when you go to a game," said Lanzillotta, who lives in Newmarket. "I turned to the kid and said, 'Listen, we're going to get you a ball no matter what.'"

Watch | Blue Jays fan gives Yankees fan home run ball in heartwarming moment:

Somehow the stars aligned, and Lanzillotta was able to keep his word. When Judge hit a home run, the ball flew into the stands where both Lanzillotta and Derek were seated. Lanzillotta snagged the ball and handed it to Derek without hesitation.

"Instinct just took over and I turned right to the kid and I said, 'Here you go, buddy," said Lanzillotta. "He wrapped his arms around me, and I just had an overwhelming feeling of joy and elation."

Derek, of course, was also elated.

"It was like a roller-coaster of emotions," he said. "I couldn't hold back my tears and I just started crying [tears] of happiness."

Derek meets his Yankees idol

Derek thought his week couldn't get any better — until it did.

He and his father also had tickets to the Jays-Yankees game on Wednesday night, so they dropped by batting practice before the game to see if Judge might sign Derek's ball.

Judge gladly obliged and took time out to chat with Derek in the dugout — even giving him a pair of batting gloves.

Grant Linton/CBC
Grant Linton/CBC

"It was really exciting," said Derek. "He was really nice."

The feeling was mutual, according to Judge.

"I asked him who his favourite player was and he just turned around and showed me his little jersey. That still gives me goosebumps to this day to see little kids that are wearing my number," he said. "So a pretty cool moment that I definitely won't forget."

Derek plans to keep his precious ball close by as a constant reminder.

"I'm going to keep it in my room and not take it out," he said.

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