Whose Ball Is It?

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Whose Ball Is It?

'It’s not a catch if you drop the ball."

Have you ever wondered who owns the baseball caught by a member of the crowd after a player scores a home-run? The ball heads for the stand, a mêlée ensues, and eventually one lucky person gets his hands on the ball before taking it home and putting it on the mantelpiece to admire from the armchair for the rest of his life.

I have only been to see one MLB game in my life. It was in 2005, Fenway Park, Boston, Tampa Bay (Devil) Rays vs Red Sox. I always assumed it was the person who takes hold of the ball last that gets to claim legal title to it. You thought the same too, right? Like me, you are wrong.

I was reading an article in a book on sporting justice a few weeks ago and came across a piece on this very topic. In the last day of the 2001 MLB season, Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants hit a record-breaking home-run into the stands. Fans fought like crazy for this "priceless" ball that would be set in stone in the history books forever. Some fans would want the ball for its monetary value, others for its sentimental value. Whatever the reason, that home-run would lead to a very interesting set of incidents.

Alex Popov managed to get his glove to the ball first. He barely held it for a second before being smothered by his rivals. Eventually the scuffle died down. However, emerging with the ball was Patrick Hayashi. All of this was caught on camera. Normally the case ends there, Mr. Hayashi going home a happy man and the others cursing their luck. Not Mr. Popov though; Mr. Popov started a lawsuit to reclaim the ball.

It is pretty obvious that on another day everyone would have gone home happy to have witnessed a record-breaking home-run by the legendary Barry Bonds. However, the article pointed out that a record-breaking home-run by Mark McGwire in 1998 fetched $3.2 million at auction. Can you really blame Mr. Popov for trying his luck?

Mr. Hayashi said he found the ball rolling around on the floor, and with no one controlling it, he believed he should be entitled to keep it. Mr. Popov claimed that he had possession of the ball and that it had been unjustifiably taken from him. The three-week trial at the Californian Superior Court was intense. Four different law professors offered their opinions on what constituted "possession," "control" and other analytical theories. All four views conflicted.

Eventually the judge came to his decision: That both men had an equal entitlement to the ball in law. He based his decision upon the archaic Roman law of "equitable division." The ball would be auctioned and the proceeds shared equally.

Even though Mr. Popov did not assume full control of the ball, he still had a "pre-possessory" right to it. The judge was keen to illustrate that the USA is "a nation governed by law, not by brute force." The eventual sale of the ball earned each party an enormous prize of $225,000. It is a shame, however, that Mr. Popov had to pay legal fees to the tune of $470,000.

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