Topic: Sports & Entertainment

Ball Games

Professional baseball has been around since the 1870s, and during that time there have been an awful lot of famous, important, and memorable games. Somehow, the "game ball"in these contests always seemed to find its way to the appropriate party, be it player or team, and the player or team usually managed to do the right thing with it if it was truly a historical item, usually by giving it to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.

But money muddles ethical instincts by feeding rationalizations and warping priorities. In 2005, Boston Red Sox first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz is claiming that the ball that he caught for the final out in Boston’s historic World Series victory last October belongs to him, and him alone. He calls it his "retirement fund," and has refused a request from the Red Sox to turn the ball over. Estimates are that the baseball may be worth a million dollars or more.

Because it used to be so obvious who should get possession of historic baseballs, the exact law controlling such matters has remained vague. Some legal experts say that the team owns the ball, as the team paid for it, and Mientkiewicz was acting as a team employee when he caught it for the final out. Some say Major League Baseball, not the Boston club, are the true owners, and others agree with Mientkiewicz: finders, keepers. Whatever the law is, the ethics of the situation is clear regarding Boston’s greedy firstbaseman is clear: it is wrong for him to claim the ball. It is wrong for many reasons, practical, logical, and moral.

If the ball has special significance, it is as a symbol of a team athletic achievement. The ball’s value was created, first, by the interest and dedication of baseball fans; if nobody cared about whether the Red Sox finally won the Series or not, the ball would be worthless. Second, it was created by the collective effort of the team itself. Not merely the players, but the coaches, management and front office — everyone whose work paid off in the World Championship that was realized in that final out. Finally, the ball’s value is the culmination of special heroics by many Red Sox players who sparked the remarkable eight game winning streak that took Boston from a supposedly insurmountable 0-3 deficit to the New York Yankees in the American League Play-offs to a four game sweep of the St. Louis Cardinals in the Worlds Series.

Mientkiewicz, by any measure, is way, way down this list. His role in the Sox victories was as a late inning defensive replacement at first base: he made no game saving catch and had no key hit, run scored, or run batted in. His sole claim to the ball is based on happenstance: Sox pitcher Keith Foulke, having fielded a come-backer on the mound with two outs in the Cardinal ninth, decided to flip the ball to Mientkiewicz rather than making the play to first himself. Foulke was trying to win the game, and didn’t think in terms of whether he was giving up custody of a million dollar baseball by making the throw to first base. Do we really want baseball players calculating their on-field actions according to assessments of the memorabilia value of the balls, bats, and gloves they use? Mientkiewicz replaced David Ortiz at first in that final game: should Ortiz have objected to Sox manager Terry Francona, pointing out that the substitution could cost him a million dollar windfall? Do we want to see outfielders pushing each other aside as they compete for fly balls that will be the final outs in no-hitters or other historic games? This is where Mientkiewicz’s precedent will lead us.

And if it leads baseball there, it will ultimately devalue the ball. What makes the ball valuable to Red Sox fans are the values it stands for: courage, team play, sacrifice, persistence, perseverance, integrity, loyalty, and sportsmanship. Mientkiewicz is embracing the values of selfishness and greed. It would be obvious to him what he should do with the ball, if he simply forgot about its theoretical auction value. It has been obvious to thousands of players in similar positions before him. Money doesn’t change the ethical equation, it only obscures it. Like the otherwise good person who finds a wallet containing a fortune but no identification, the Red Sox firstbaseman deserves our sympathy for being placed in one of those circumstances when doing the right thing hurts.

But he still has to do the right thing.

Give back the ball, Doug. It isn’t yours.


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