There it is, Derek Jeter’s historic 3,000th hit, the first Yankee ever to hit the mark, and it is going, going, gone, a home run, and in Yankee Stadium. The crowd is going wild and there in the stands is Christian Lopez holding the caught ball in triumph.
Security guards immediately descend on Lopez and rush into the office of team president Randy Levine.
Lopez reports that he is asked, What are you intentions? What do you want for the ball?
At this point in the story, cash registers are going wild in the eyes of fans. How about the $752,467 that Barry Bon’s record home run ball was auctioned for? Or is it more like the $3 million for Mark McGwire’s 70th home run ball? This was like winning the lottery in public view.
Lopez, though, had other ideas. He said that he would like a couple of signed balls, some jerseys and some bats. The Yankees went him better—four suite tickets for all the remaining home games and any postseason games, three balls and three bats and the jerseys he asked for, signed by Jeter. He also received four of the very best seats for Sunday’s game, boxes that go for $1,358.90 each.
Not only did Lopez pass up the opportunity to become a millionaire but, he quickly discovered, also opened himself to a possible tax bill based on the net worth of the items he received, just as Oprah’s guests did on the cars they received as gifts at one of her shows (their tax amounted to about $7,000). One tax expert estimated that Lopez may be liable for about $14,000.
Lopez, who works in customer service at a Verizon store, already owes about $100,000 in student loans. So what was he thinking? Pretty simple, really: the ball rightly belonged to Jeter. The ballplayer earned it, not Lopez, who happened to be in the right place at the right time. One earned it as a matter of luck, the other over a lifetime performance.
“To have someone come up to you and say, ‘Hey, my kid is looking up to you now’ or ‘You’re really a stand-up guy, I wish there were more people like you in the world,’ it’s very meaningful stuff. You can’t put a price on something like that,” he said to a NY Times reporter.
What Lopez got out of his generosity was something more important than money. It was the satisfaction of doing the right thing and knowing that he, like Jeter, could be a role model to sports fans.
Lopez, it turns out, isn’t the only stand-up guy in the story. Mitchell Modell, of Modell’s Sporting Goods stores, and Brandon Steiner, of Steiner Sports memorabilia, are each giving Lopez $25,000 to help ease his financial burden. Modell also pledged 5 percent of the earnings from Yankee merchandise for the next week and, perhaps most significant to Lopez, 2009 Yankee World Series ring, estimated to be worth $40,000.
What about the potential taxes?
“Right now I’m living in the moment,” he said. “I’m not going to let taxes ruin my experience.”
Lopez is an example of what’s good about people. And Modell’s and Steiner’s actions are display acts that are noteworthy in their generosity.
And the Yankees? Well, that remains to be seen. The team spokesperson wouldn’t comment on whether they would help Lopez meet the increased tax bill. All Alice McGillon said was, “Yankee partners and partnership always comply with the tax law.”
The issue isn’t following the law but doing the right thing by a fan so loyal and good that he spontaneously gave up a million dollars because the ball wasn’t his (it was legally) but morally belonged to the man who hit the homerun, the hit that insured him a place in the Hall of Fame.
Lopez deserves a place in a moral hall of fame, and as do Modell and Steiner, with asterisks.