Fair ball leads to a foul day in court

Whose ball is it anyway?

The ownership of San Francisco Giant Barry Bonds's record-setting home-run ball has the baseball world - and many outside it - tangled up tighter than a Scottish rugby scrum.

Back on Oct. 7, Bonds made history on the last game of the regular season by slugging his 73rd homer over the right-field stands. The ball landed in one guy's mitt, got jostled by a less-than-polite crowd, and ended up in the hands of another.

Now, both fans claim ownership of the ball, and have wound up fighting it out in California's courts.

At stake is enough cash to overstuff several dozen major league mascots (perhaps up to $3 million), America's ever-fragile rule of law, and the purity of the national pastime.

"This is going to go down in baseball history as one of its great stories, like the player who lost the pennant by not touching second base," says Roger Abrams, dean of Northeastern University School of Law, an authority on sports law. "Why do we care about this silly ball? Because Americans feel like somebody else owns the teams, the uniforms, the stadiums, but we own the game."

The story is in the news this week because of legal arguments by both people claiming ownership in a Los Angeles courtroom. Superior court Judge David Garcia barred the ball's final claimant from selling it prematurely, while he determines whether a court is the right place to decide the case. For now, the ball sits in a locked safe-deposit box as the case heads towards a trial.

Possession lesson

Law professors can't wait to be spectators at any possible trial, or to use it in their classrooms as the perfect case to describe the concept of possession.

"This is going to be hilarious and serious at the same time," says Butler Shaffer, a professor of law at Southwestern University School of Law (SWL). "You are going to have a whole courtroom of people playing a video tape over and over, like the Zapruder [Kennedy assassination] film, trying to figure out who had possession and when."

If that prospect is comical to some, it is quite serious to others. The legal issue is: What constitutes possession? A television station videotape shows health-food store owner Alex Popov thrusting his mitt forward to snag the ball in its webbing. But after the ball lands, a shoving match ensues in which the ball somehow pops out, ending up in the hands of Patrick Hayashi, a Silicon Valley engineer.

"This has all the precise ramifications to be a perfect case study for our classes in property law," says Christopher Cameron, specialist in sports law at SWL. "It portrays all the issues for a civil society to decide at what point we are going to protect someone's interest, or if there is some line over which the mob rules."

Law scholars say they are going to watch the case to see what test of possession will be applied.

Some argue that the test for possession is control: How in control of the ball was Mr. Popov before it jostled out of his mitt? Would he have lost control of his own accord, or did he drop the ball because he was pushed or shoved?

Video images show several men jumping on top of Popov, clawing for the ball, and pinning him to the ground while he cries for help. When Popov emerges, glasses broken and bearing scratches and bruises, the ball is gone.

Hayashi, for his part, was knocked to the ground as well, and claims only to have been at the right place at the right time, reaching out to pluck the ball before rising.

Stadium security guards immediately whisked Hayashi away to a room where they later verified the ball's authenticity, placed it in a clear trophy case, and gave it to him. His attorney argues that the long custom of Major League Baseball is that whoever ends up with the ball, firmly in control, is the rightful owner.

Major League Baseball is taking no position on the matter for the moment.

It claims through a spokesman, that it is not its place to play judge and jury, but merely to verify who had the ball when league personnel arrived.

What is making the case so heated is the possible price the ball might command. When Mark McGwire hit 70 home runs two seasons ago, the 70th home-run ball sold for $3 million.

The two fans may yet settle out of court before it even reaches trial.

"Since there is so much uncertainty about which way this could go, and both sides have so much to lose, I wouldn't be surprised if they decide to split the eventual price of the ball 50-50 or 70-30," says Mr. Abrams.

Ballpark greed

Beyond the legalities of the matter, however, sociologists and sports historians say the episode symbolizes the greed that has overrun the nation's pastime.

"Instead of embracing this as a piece of history for Bonds or the Hall of Fame in Coopertown, the whole thing has just become part of the process of making money by an individual," says Benjamin Rader, a sports historian at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln.

Mr. Rader points out that when Roger Maris hit 61 home runs to break Babe Ruth's record, the man who caught the ball gave the ball back to Mr. Maris, and settled for an autograph, photos, and complimentary game tickets.

To others, the baseball world is just making too much fuss. Robert Ross, a professor of sociology at Clark University, has announced his top "reasons not to pay attention to this story."

First, he says, someone will probably break the record before the case settles. And number one: William Graham Sumner and Spencer and Darwin all said it earlier - when it comes to baseballs in the stands, it's survival of the fittest.

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