HOUSTON -- Jim Freeman woke up his sons Sunday morning at a hotel in suburban Houston and asked them if they wanted to go to an Astros game. His oldest, 16-year-old Rylan, had played in a baseball tournament this weekend, and the family was set to head home to Corpus Christi, Texas.
But it was Father’s Day, and the Astros were playing a night game against the White Sox, so Jim purchased three tickets for himself, Rylan and his youngest son, Weston, in section 102 and pointed his car toward Minute Maid Park. They couldn’t have guessed it would be the best Father’s Day they could have imagined.
Sitting in the Crawford Boxes above left field, Rylan corralled a home run ball off the bat of Astros designated hitter J.J. Matijevic in the fourth inning of Houston’s 4-3 win. It was the first career hit for Matijevic and -- as is customary in these instances -- the Astros sent a representative to negotiate what it would take for Rylan to return the ball to Matijevic.
“They came up to me and said, ‘What do you want?’” Rylan said. “I love pitching, so I said I wanted a J.V. jersey. I love Justin Verlander. I asked for a J.V. jersey and they said, ‘We can’t do that.’ I said, ‘OK, OK.’ So me and my dad talked it out and I said, ‘Yuli Gurriel.’ I wanted to get his bat, jersey, whatever, and they said, ‘We can’t.’ So me and my dad talked, and we said, ‘Six tickets and we get to come watch BP for them, and we get a Jose Altuve signed ball.’ It’s awesome.”
They had a deal. The game was nationally televised on ESPN, and Rylan’s phone started blowing up. Friends and family members back home saw the whole thing play out on television. And before long, an Astros representative returned with a brown paper bag containing a signed Verlander jersey with the inscription, “Nice catch!”
“I didn’t even know until one of my buddies texted me and said, ‘J.V. is signing your jersey on live TV right now!’ and I flipped out,” said Rylan, whose high school team, the London Pirates, won the Texas 3A state title last weekend. “The experience is incredible. When they came and brought it to me, I didn’t even believe it. I saw the jersey and my mind went blank. I’m just loving life right now.”
Astros fans started recognizing Rylan, too, and stopped him for selfies. His father, Jim, was smiling from ear to ear.
“Best Father’s Day,” Jim said. “But it’s not over yet.”
Truth be told, Rylan didn’t actually catch the baseball, but that part of the story didn’t matter much.
“It actually bounced off someone’s head, and then it bounced off another person’s head and fell on the ground, and I just picked it up,” he said.
Matijevic, who was hitless in his first eight Major League at-bats, was having a surreal experience of his own while rounding the bases. He took it all in, looking up at the fans and knowing he’ll remember it for the rest of his life.
“This moment right here, it’s not just for me,” he said. “It’s for my family and my friends, my fiancée. I worked really hard for this moment, and I dedicate it to them. I appreciate them so much for believing in me and supporting me. It’s just not all about me.”
Meanwhile, 1,360 miles away in Jeanette, Pa., fire captain Joe Matijevic had just returned home from a 24-hour overtime shift and flipped on the TV in time to see his son’s first career hit. As Father’s Days go, this was pretty remarkable, as well.
“It was unbelievable,” Joe said. “Best Father’s Day gift I could have asked for. I started screaming and yelling. My neighbors probably thought I was crazy.”
J.J. Matijevic later heard about the details of the negotiations with Rylan and came away impressed with the kid’s ability to swing a deal.
“I was planning on giving the little kid a signed bat,” he said. “That’s all I would have wanted, but man, he’s the best negotiator I’ve ever seen. If he wanted a signed bat, I’ll give it to him. Whatever he wants, I’m just happy I got the ball back. And thank you.”
It was all worth it. Matijevic said he’s going to give it to his father.
“I just hope that he’s proud of me, and that’s all that really matters to me,” he said. “I know he is, and I know he’s smiling back home. Unfortunately, he couldn’t be here but I know he’s watching, and I know he’s smiling.”