- Associated Press - Saturday, July 9, 2011

NEW YORK (AP) - Christian Lopez was at the bottom of several piles during his days playing football at small St. Lawrence University.

So, finding himself buried under a hoard of Yankee Stadium fans Saturday wasn’t exactly a new experience.

What was different, however, was that instead of cradling a fumbled pigskin in his arms, the 6-foot-5 former lineman happened to be clutching Derek Jeter’s 3,000th career hit after the New York star homered in the third inning off Tampa Bay’s David Price.

The specially marked ball landed in the first row of Section 236 in the left-field bleachers, avidly pursued by a dozen other fans. Lucky to land the prize, Lopez was happy to give it back to Jeter for season tickets and several other goodies.

“I was taking a picture, hoping he would hit it, and the next thing I know, it’s in the air and I see my dad diving across a crowd of people,” Lopez said after a whirlwind series of in-game interviews with the media and a postgame meeting with Jeter and several other Yankees. “My dad missed it, because he has awful hands. The next thing I know, I just saw the ball roll in front of me and I jumped on it. It was instinct.”

The 23-year-old Lopez, from Highland Mills, N.Y., a town just outside West Point, got his $65 tickets a few days ago through StubHub as a birthday present from his girlfriend, Tara Johnson, 22, also from Highland Mills.

Johnson, his father, Raul, and two family friends all were in the first row of raised bleachers, hoping to see history. According to Johnson, Lopez actually thought he might be part of it.

“My boyfriend said, ‘If the ball comes over here, I’m going to get it,’” Johnson said. “So when it was hit, I said, ‘Christian, I think it’s really coming here.’”

When the ball reached the stands, Lopez bent down to retrieve it and engulfed as though he was recovering a fumble. His father, wearing a No. 5 Joe DiMaggio jersey, draped himself across his son’s back while others in the section tried to pry away the prized possession.

“I was worried about getting out of there alive,” Christian Lopez said during an in-game interview that the Yankees showed on the big video board in center field.

The crowd cheered when Lopez said he would give the ball back to Jeter.

“When I saw the ball went to him, I covered him,” Raul Lopez said. “I knew it would be crazy, because I saw the Barry Bonds thing. You know it’s going to be crazy because it’s history.”

Once he emerged, Christian Lopez told a different tale.

“I think he’s telling the story that he was trying to protect me,” Christian Lopez said. “But I think he was the one who punched me in the ribs. I was glad I got to share with him. This is a good time.”

Moments after Lopez grabbed the ball, Yankees officials hustled him to the Steinbrenner family luxury box.

Story Continues →