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Who Is The Owner of Alex Rodriguez's 3,000th Hit Milestone Ball?

By Daniel S. Greene

Reaching the 3,000 hit mark is one of the greatest accomplishments for career baseball players. Every player to reach the "3,000 Club" has been elected the National Baseball Hall of Fame, with the exceptions of Pete Rose (banned from baseball), Rafael Palmeiro (steroid allegations), Derek Jeter (not eligible yet), and Alex Rodriguez (still active). Hence, joining "the club" makes one a lock for "the Hall." The importance of this honor was featured in the 2004 sports comedy film "Mr. 3000", staring Bernie Mac.

Jeter obtained his 3,000th hit on July 9, 2011, by knocking a home run into the left field bleachers at Yankee Stadium. On June 19th of this year, Rodriguez reached the 3,000 hit plateau by depositing a home run into the right field bleachers in the Bronx. Jeter and Rodriguez became the 28th and 29th members of the 3,000 hit club, respectively, and the second and third players to record their 3,000 hits via home runs (the first being Wade Boggs in 1999).

While Jeter and Rodriguez have this feat in common (as well as being All-Star infielders for the Yankees), the big difference between these historic events involved the men who caught each respective milestone ball. Jeter's ball was caught by Christian Lopez, a 23-year-old cellphone salesman from Highland Mills, New York. Lopez immediately returned the historic ball back to Jeter, and in return, the Yankees rewarded him with luxury suite tickets for the remainder of home games that season (valued at $32,000), autographed balls, bats, and jerseys, and a 2009 World Series ring (http://www.nydailynews.com/sports/baseball/yankees/guy-caught-derek-jeter-3-000th-hit-no-zack-hample-article-1.2265253).

The man who caught Rodriguez' ball, Zack Hample, is not your average baseball fan. Hample is a professional baseball snatcher, having caught approximately 8,000 baseballs throughout many Major League Baseball (MLB) games. He even has his own website where he updates his latest ball-hawking exploits (http://zackhample.mlblogs.com/2015/06/20/a-rods-3000th-hit/#comments). Further, Hample has refused to give Rodriguez the baseball despite Yankees personnel trying to negotiate with him by offering a plethora of merchandise and publicity. Shortly after seizing the ball, Hample stated, "[Rodriguez] will not be in possession of this ball tonight, unless he personally mugs me outside on 161st Street." (http://www.nydailynews.com/sports/baseball/yankees/famous-ballhawk-snags-a-rod-3-000th-hit-won-return-article-1.2264699).

As expected, Rodriguez was disappointed that he would not be receiving the historic ball. "The thing I was thinking about is, where's [Jeter's] guy," said Rodriguez after the game. "The guy that caught [his] ball? That's the guy that I needed here. Where is that guy? I wasn't so lucky." Some Yankees fans were also upset, including Bald Vinny, the leader of the Yankees fan group the "Bleacher Creatures". He proclaimed, "That guy sucks. He pushes little kids out of the way. He is the worst ever. That guy is the worst ever. There is literally-- nobody worse could've gotten that home run ball than that [expletive] guy." (http://www.nydailynews.com/sports/baseball/yankees/famous-ballhawk-snags-a-rod-3-000th-hit-won-return-article-1.2264699).

While fans have discussed among themselves as to whether they would return the ball to Rodriguez, others have mentioned that Hample should return it, as he is not truly the rightful owner. Whomever owns the ball is likely to make a pretty penny if he or she decides to sell it. This ball does have tremendous value, as one auctioneer estimates that Rodriguez' ball could be worth $500,000 (http://www.foxsports.com/buzzer/story/alex-rodriguez-zack-hample-3000-hit-ball-062315). Other historic balls have been bought for even higher prices (http://www.forbes.com/sites/davidseideman/2014/04/13/historic-home-run-balls-keep-smashing-auction-records/), including Barry Bonds' record-breaking 756th home run ball that was sold for $752,467 about 10 years ago (http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/02/sports/baseball/02ball.html?_r=2&).

Hample does not technically have to return the ball to Rodriguez, the Yankees, MLB, or anyone else. While there is no true legal doctrine on the ownership of home run balls, it does seem that Hample is likely the legal owner this one.

There is very little case law on these types of situations, but in 2002, the Superior Court in San Francisco County (California) decided a similar issue regarding the ownership of Barry Bonds' record breaking 73rd home run, which set the mark for most home runs in a season. In Popov v. Hayashi, the issue regarded which fan (Popov or Hayashi) gained rightful possession to the milestone home run ball when one man caught it, but the ball was knocked out and rolled over to another man. While the Rodriguez-Hample situation is different, the court did lay down some legal principles, though while not binding in New York, can help us figure out ownership under these circumstances.

First, it was agreed the before the ball was hit, MLB owned it, and that once the ball was hit it became intentionally abandoned property. Therefore, the person who came into possession of this abandoned property became the new owner. (Popov, 2002 WL 31833731, at *3.) Second, the court formulated a definition of possession under baseball circumstances. It stated that the legal question in this situation is whether the person "did enough to reduce the ball to his exclusive dominion and control. Were his acts sufficient to create a legally cognizable interest in the ball?" (Popov, 2002 WL 31833731, at *4.)

Here, in accordance with the Popov court's ruling, the ball became abandoned property when it was hit by Rodriguez. In addition, since Hample reduced the ball to his exclusive dominion and control and created a legally cognizable interest in the ball when he caught and held onto it, and then had it authenticated by MLB officials, he became its new owner. Therefore, under the principles set by Popov, Hample has the right to do whatever he wants with the ball.

However, some may argue that the person who hit the ball is the rightful owner, since he is the reason why that specific ball is so valuable, and without the hitter, the ball has no significance. This argument has been made by Professor Steven Semeraro, who stated that the doctrine of accession applies to these types of milestone situations. This is so because when the batter "combines his labor with an ordinary baseball owned by the home team to create a ball worth potentially thousands or even tens of thousands of times the value of the original ball . . . This increase in value is more than sufficient to trigger the doctrine of accession." (Steven Semeraro, An Essay on Property Rights in Milestone Home Run Baseballs, 56 SMU L. Rev. 2281, 2293-94 (2003).)

Professor Semeraro also argues that a home run ball cannot be abandoned property since it doesn't satisfy the legal elements of abandonment, mainly that the home team did not have the intent to abandon the ball. (Id. at 2286.) Further, he discusses that allowing fans to keep milestone baseballs goes against competing common baseball practices. (Id. at 2290.) For example, Professor Semeraro notes that when a pitcher strikes out his 3,000th batter, the home team gives him the ball. (Id. at 2291.)

These issues have also been discussed by Professor Paul Finkelman, who has taken an opposing stance to Professor Semeraro in a law review article entitled "Fugitive Baseballs and Abandoned Property: Who Owns the Home Run Ball?" In the article, Finkelman argued that the batter has the weakest claim to the ball. (Paul Finkelman, Fugitive Baseballs and Abandoned Property: Who Owns the Home Run Ball?, 23 Cardozo L. Rev. 1609, 1611 (2002).) Here, he analyzes this situation under traditional property law, the "common law of baseball," and contract law associated with purchasing a ticket. In doing so, Finkelman notes that the batter "never had [the ball] in the first place; did not want it; and used all his might and skill to make it go away." (Id. at 1612.) He further compares the idea of the batter increasing the value of the ball to that of art, an autograph, a discovery, or an invention, noting that the connection between the batter and the ball is more similar to a celebrity's connection to a place or event. Finkelman uses the example of an inn that claims that "George Washington slept here," which, he argues, does not give Washington (or his heirs) property claims in the inn. (Id.)

As seen by the stances taken by these two professors, legal minds have different opinions on this specific issue. While there is no clear-cut answer to this question, one must also look to the common practices among MLB teams. Many not only allow fans to keep home run balls (http://newyork.mets.mlb.com/nym/ballpark/information/index.jsp?content=guide), but some openly promote it (the Arizona Diamondbacks allow those "who catch D-backs' home run balls arrange to have the ball autographed by the player who hit it." http://arizona.diamondbacks.mlb.com/ari/ballpark/information/index.jsp?content=guide). It essentially seems that, along with statements like the one made by the Diamondbacks, once a patron buys a ticket, there is a binding contract between the person and the franchise that allows the person to keep any ball to come out of play. This notion is even seen by Professor Semeraro as the patron's strongest argument. (See Semeraro at 2292-93.) However, he does note that this claim is different when a milestone ball is at issue, proclaiming, "one should not extrapolate an agreement contemplating $12 souvenirs to extremely valuable pieces of memorabilia. Is a ball a ball when the value differs by a factor of 10,000?" (See Semeraro at 2292.)

Yet what is the definition of a milestone ball? Some balls are small milestones and some balls don't become valuable until many years later. Does it depend on projected value? If so, what is the cutoff number? While Professor Semeraro makes a strong argument, it is difficult to know what constitutes a milestone ball. Basically, any ball hit out of play is up for grabs. If a team really wants to own a milestone ball, it must make it very clear before a game where a milestone can occur that the fans do not have the right to own the ball if anyone catches it. Figuring out how this could be done is another story.

So, what should the next player to reach 2,999 hits do when he is up next? Don't hit it over the wall. A chopper up the middle will do just fine. Oh, and make sure you know where Zach Hample (or Christian Lopez) is sitting, just in case you do hit a home run.

UPDATE: http://sports.yahoo.com/blogs/mlb-big-league-stew/alex-rodriguez-will-receive-his-3-000th-hit-ball-from-zack-hample-164901812.html.

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