YANKEE GROUNDING TOUR it was a fantastic start.
The Rodriguez family — dad Cesar, mom Carla, and kids Cesar Jr. and Derek — hung around while the Yankees trained in Toronto back in May. Derek, 9, kept elbowing his father in the ribs and saying, “I can’t believe how close we are.”
They were invited by the Yankees after a notable viral moment last night in Toronto when a Blue Jays fan caught Aaron Judge’s home run ball and then passed it to Derek, who was wearing an umpire’s jersey. Derek’s emotional reaction, combined with a hug from a generous Blue Jays fan, created one of those videos where thousands of people tweet, “If you’re having a bad day, watch this.”
Blue Jays fan Mike Lanzillotta was in the dugout with the Rodrigues the next day and had to take his wife Kayla with him. They all pointed and whispered as various Yankees entered and exited the far end of the dugout. Derek’s eyes kept darting to the field, where his hero, Judge, hung around the cage before starting practice.
Everyone got the impression that they would linger a little, and then sit down in their seats. The Blue Jays gave the Rodriguez family the best seats behind the Yankees dugout, and Mike and Kayla got sweet tickets right in the back of the Blue Jays dugout.
But the Yankees have a 6ft 7in surprise for everyone.
As Judge walked down the steps to the clubhouse, about 25 feet away, he turned to the group and began to walk over. The Yankees man said, “Let me 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 low scream and jumped to the side as Judge approached. The media guide says Judge is 6ft 7in, but everyone who participated in that day will forever remember him that way, much taller. There was already something vague and dreamlike about what happened last night, after which he watched him hobble right in front of them looking for BP, and then… here he is – Aaron Judge, IRL.
Derek’s eyes filled with tears, and Lanzillotta, dressed in a Blue Jays T-shirt and a surgical mask over his face, couldn’t even contain his disbelief. When Judge walked up to Derek and started hugging him, Lanzillotta put her hands on his head. His knees buckled slightly and his upper body leaned back. Even from under the mask, it looked like his jaw had dropped.
It’s a fairy tale, thought Lanzillotta.
Lanzillotta looked at Cesar, and he, too, found himself in fairyland. Both were thinking the same thing: How the hell did they get here?
What’s the matter 💙 pic.twitter.com/LGt2zkty5J
— New York Yankees (@Yankees) May 4, 2022
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 told Cesar that he had to come. In 2017, Cesar did it: he took his wife and two young children and moved in with his brother. He also wanted a better life for them.
He had to work hard to get it. Cesar took jobs in landscaping, house painting, and banquet halls, doing whatever he was asked to do. He had to survive to find a foothold in Canada, but he did it. He eventually found the job he has and loves today at a local toy company.
All along, baseball has been a life raft. Even as a child, Cesar clung to the game of baseball as much as possible. He fell in love with the team he saw most on TV, the mid-1990s Yankees, and Cesar began collecting jerseys for Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter, as well as some past greats like Phil Rizzuto, Lou Gehrig, and Reggie Jackson. When his first son was born, he and his wife did not fiddle with names for long. The little boy will be Derek, like Captain.
From the day he was born in August 2012, little Derek Rodriguez loved baseball as much as his father. He sat on his lap and watched matches in Venezuela, and when he grew up, he became a fan of Aaron Judge. He liked the cool name, the long home runs, and the bigness of Judge.
He has one jersey, a number 99 officiating uniform, and he wore it the day the Yankees arrived in Toronto in May. The Rodriguez family saves $2,000 each year for tickets and benefits to attend all nine Yankees games in Toronto, and then they pay MLB Network to see the rest. They will be there again this weekend for all three games between the two teams.
On 3 May, they were in scrum mode to get from their home, about 30 minutes from the stadium, to their seats at 200 left stands. It was a big event, with the Yankees on a 10-game winning streak, part of a 17–6 start to the year. The Jays were 15–9 down and wanted to throw water on their opponents.
Half an hour outside of Toronto, a stranger named Mike Lanzillotta was finishing his job as an anti-theft specialist for a department store chain. He called his friend Nigel Singh to make sure they were going to meet outside the stadium. Singh was already downtown, finishing his shift that day as the city official in charge of investigating noise complaints in Toronto. “We are the fun police,” he says with a smile. “Everyone’s like, ‘Oh my god, they’re coming…’
Around the same time as the Rodrigues flopped into their seats, Lanzillotta and Singh walked outside the stadium, rushing to grab a beer before heading inside. what jays call their hot dogs. On some nights, like this one, harriers cost $1 each, and Lanzillotta and Singh laughed at how much they thought they could put to sleep.
But the harrier-dog line got out of control, so they bought beers and took their seats instead. Maybe they will take food later.
Only one problem: their seats were taken.
They had #3 and #4, but people were already seated there. Singh suggested just sitting in the empty aisle seats, 1 and 2, and if anyone came, they would take care of everything. No one ever showed up or claimed aisle seats, so they landed for the night. Almost immediately, they spotted two Yankees fans who didn’t hesitate to cheer for their team, even in enemy territory. Lanzillotta nudged Singh with his elbow and they briefly considered tickling the boy and his father. Both of them often use this word – tweet – instead of shouting over, and it is clear that they have a more PG-rated, Canadian style of barking at opposing players.
In the end, they decided not to tweet at all. Instead, they greeted the Rodriguez and started talking. Singh did identify with their history of settling in Toronto; Singh’s family is from Guyana and his grandparents took up baseball as a hobby to cope with the lack of cricket in their home country. As with the Rodriguez family, MLB games have helped the Singhams find their place in Canada.
Lanzillotta couldn’t help but love Derek’s obvious passion for baseball, even if it was a terrible Yankee. Five minutes later, Lanzillotta blurted out: “Today we will give you a ball.”
Caesar smiled and nodded. What were the chances that the ball would end up in their lap? Once upon a time, fangraphs rated it as 1 out of 1200. Is it left field at level 200? Yes, good luck.
However, Lanzillotta is not slacking off when it comes to getting balls at games. He got his first at age 12, sitting on the third base line next to his grandfather. Lanzillotta leaned over the railing, waiting for the filthy Earthman to approach him, and reached too far. Suddenly, he felt his legs begin to fly over his head, and he was ready to collapse face down on the field.
Then two strong hands grabbed onto his lower body—it was the grandfather who was clinging on with all his might. Lanzillotta pulled the ball, and then his grandfather pulled it up. “Like a big fish,” Lanzillotta now says.
When they got home that day, Lanzillotta tried to give the ball to Grandpa. At first he refused to take it. “It’s your ball, Mike,” he said. But Lanzillotta did not accept the refusal, so his grandfather accepted the gift. When he died a few years ago, Lanzillotta learned that his grandfather had bequeathed it to him. So MLB balls are dear to him.
As the game went on, Lanzillotta made his move. Every half inning, when the left fielder warmed up, he spent the entire five minutes molesting – a fix. chirping – in the starting lineup of any team, turn around and throw the ball into the stands. He’s made about 10 balls in three hours over the years, so sometimes it works.
At some point, he started taking Derek to his seat and teaching him how to tweet effectively. “Mike did it hardcore, to the point where I think some people around us were annoyed,” says Singh. “But Mike was determined to give this kid a ball.”
Eventually, Blue Jays left fielder Lourdes Gurriel Jr. threw the ball into the stands, but it landed 25 feet away and was intercepted by someone else. At this point, Derek was discouraged. “It was a little embarrassing because no one was paying attention even when I was dancing,” says Derek, getting up from his laptop and repeating the dance on a recent Zoom.
Lanzillotta was persistent throughout the game. He just kept saying, “Trust me, we’ll give you the ball.”
The game moved quickly, with the Blue Jays leading 1-0 in the sixth inning. Singh told Lanzillotte that he was going to the bathroom. On the way back, he noticed that the harrier-dog’s rope was nearly destroyed, so he made a quick pit stop for a bite to eat.
Singh told himself he would 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 that he did not want to overdo it, so he would simply order …