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Thursday, October 08, 2009

Greedy athletes or greedy fans?

It must be Sports Week for me again. I find this story really sad--as a baseball fan and as a lawyer.

Short version: Ryan Howard of the Phillies hit his 200th career homer this summer in a game in Miami; the ball was caught by 12-year-old Jennifer Valdivia. Howard reached the 200-homer mark in the fastest time in history, so he wanted the ball. Phillies officials brought Jennifer in to the clubhouse, where they got her to give up the home run ball in exchange for a ball autographed by Howard. But the family decided they wanted the home run ball because, apparently on advice of counsel, it would be worth more. So on Monday, the family sued for rescission; the Phillies gave her the ball back.

Three thoughts.

First, this seems like a bad trade for Ms. Valdivia and her family. If the Barry Bonds home run ball fiasco taught us anything, it is that "historic" home run balls do not have nearly as much value as many fans assume. Her attorney is described in the story as a "memorabilia enthusiast," so he probably knows something about value that I don't. But the ball is unique only because of the "fastest-to" mark that is a largely meaningless, made-up record. If Ryan Howard goes to the Hall of Fame (and I believe he will, at his current pace), will an autograph really be worth less than his 200th home run?

Second, Ms. Valdivia, her family, and her lawyer are hereby estopped from ever again complaining about greedy professional athletes who only care about money and not the game. Howard wanted the ball for his personal satisfaction, because it represented an accomplishment that, in the long run, is meaningful only to him. He offered something of value in return. And the girl's family sued because, in crassest terms, they wanted more money (or more value).

Third, I wonder what she did with the autographed ball the Phillies originally gave her in exchange. Did she keep it? That would give her quite a windfall, to which she is not entitled. Of course, if the Phillies had asked for it back in settling a rescission claim, we would be hearing all sorts of shouts about the greedy team/player taking back what they had given this innocent fan.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on October 8, 2009 at 03:14 PM in Howard Wasserman, Sports | Permalink


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you need to check your premises. Ryan Howard's 200th career home run ball is worth FAR more than his autograph. Quick sniff test: do you think Ryan Howard has signed more than or less than 200 baseballs?

Posted by: phil | Oct 13, 2009 11:36:23 AM

Mr. Wasserman,

I agree with general view that the parents appear to be greedy. This is supported by their attorney's public statements about the case.

I also agree that Howard's wanting the ball does not necessarily mean he was acting with greed. The point is that it could just as easily be spun that way as the parents' greed has been spun.

Another important fact is that it is not clear the Phillies manager was acting directly on Howard's behalf or at his request. It was instigated by a club manager (not bench manager, think more in the range of towel manager). As far as I'm concerned, Howard's clean in everything.

As for an autographed ball -- it is easier to get one of those than a homerun ball.

I guess I just feel bad for the little girl. Not only has the media spun her parents as greedy (and it seems with good reason), but her attorney is also focusing on the wrong thing. It didn't have to be about greed.

The magic of catching or being given that homerun ball, no matter where it ends up, will be forever tainted.

Posted by: John | Oct 9, 2009 12:51:43 PM


I would not describe Howard's motives as "greedy." "Selfish," perhaps, but not greedy because not monetary benefit was involved for him. I suppose we could debate whether his pride-in-accomplishment should trump the fans. What disturbs me is that he wanted the ball for, for lack of a better term, pride in his accomplishments--at a time when the universal fan lament (an untrue thought, but made nevertheless) is that players only care about the money and don't play for the love of the game.

I am not willing, without more, to give the parents the benefit of the doubt that their motives are different than their lawyers'. Without more, I am not willing to believe that they were motivated solely by the intrinsic value of a caught home run ball and not the (greater) financial value they believe the ball holds. I guess if/when the ball hits e-Bay or the auction block, we'll have a better idea.

And, by the way, when I was 12, a trip into a Major League Clubhouse, a chance to meet players, get food, and walk away with an autographed ball absolutely would have trumped a caught home run.

And I still want to know what she did with the ball the team gave her . . .

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Oct 9, 2009 10:12:39 AM

It is easy to dump on the plaintiff/girl's family and their attorney in this case. I listened to an interview of the attorney on NPR and he came across as exactly described in thought two: crass and only after the money.

Nevertheless, the legal points of the attorney are valid, even if unartfully presented.

Little girl goes to a baseball game. Little girl catches a homerun ball (or is given one by a nice fan).

Then, without guardians around her, little girl is convinced by a team manager to cough up the ball in return for an autographed baseball. This id done after little girl is taken down to the clubhouse, plied with free cotton candy, introduced to, in her eyes, powerful and important adult people, and asked to do something.

This doesn't have to be about the money. I've attended many baseball games in my life (over a hundred) and never caught a foul ball or homerun ball. I have friends who have attended many more games with the same result - no foul ball, much less a homerun ball.

Catching or receiving a homerun ball very well might be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. This value is not monetary, but it is value nonetheless.

A child, without the wisdom of years to understand what once-in-a-lifetime can truly mean, may be more easily persuaded to give up the fruit of this once-in-a-lifetime event for something else. Having an adult guardian present only serves to protect the valid, legal interests of the child.

Whether those interests are represented in dollar signs or momentous life experiences is moot. The Phillies acted badly in how the situation was initially handled.

Moralistic questions of greed are not relevant to the underlying legal principles. Greed is an unfaithful mistress, able to be thrown upon either side in this case.

Howard, after all, plays a sport — perhaps the only sport — that allows fans to keep wayward balls. As nice as having that 200th ball might be, Howard has no 'right' to it either morally or legally. Just as the girl's family's efforts might by greedy, so too are the Phillies' (and Howard's, by extension).

So, to cast this as only capable of being about the money is cynical and shortsighted. Sadly, the little girl's lawyer and the media have both decided to do just that.

Ironically, the bad actor in this case, the Phillies, appear to be the only ones not making it about money. (And interestingly, the little girl and her lawyer appear to be Marlins fans, the team against which the Phillies were playing when the homerun occured.)

Posted by: John | Oct 9, 2009 9:40:54 AM

I think Ryan going to the HOF is less likely that the trend suggests -- he started later than most, and his peak years will be as a result shortened.

Posted by: dave hoffman | Oct 8, 2009 4:43:07 PM

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