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A spectator found the baseball of Shohei Ohtani's first home run in the bleachers.

According to the linked article, she was surrounded by security and pressured to give up the ball (so that Ohtani can have the memorabilium). She was offered other memorabilia as a compensation.

There are two somewhat connected legal questions here (I hope it's OK to discuss them together):

  1. Who owned the ball? Was it actually the woman's? My own legal assessment leans to "no" because no transfer of ownership was intended and the ball was probably not "abandoned". On the other hand, baseball customs and precedence may be that a spectator acquires ownership.

  2. Even if she didn't obtain ownership: Was the security staff allowed to keep her from leaving with the ball? That situation created a lot of pressure to make a decision which may not have been favorable. Let's assume she was willing to pass on an ID so that she could be contacted later to resolve the dispute.

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  • I couldn't read your linked article because it requires a subscription but in another article I found it seems to indicate they didn't actually prevent them from leaving with the ball, they simply said they would not authenticate the ball if they left with it.
    – jesse_b
    Apr 5 at 12:36
  • @jesse_b Oh. Possible. The NYT/Athletic article is not quite clear on that. Apr 5 at 13:02
  • It definitely sounds like the team was being unscrupulous but it also seems like they took calculated steps to legally protect themselves. They likely strong armed the couple out of the ball through confusing wording but without directly saying they have to give the ball up.
    – jesse_b
    Apr 5 at 13:20
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    Nitpick: it was only Ohtani's first home run as a Dodger. He hit quite a lot of previous ones as an Angel and a Fighter. Apr 5 at 14:42
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    I'd happily trade any ball with sentimental value to the player in exchange for a ball signed by that player, and a photo with him. It's his accomplishment, I was just sitting there.
    – EvilSnack
    Apr 5 at 17:55

3 Answers 3

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See Popov v. Hayashi. The person who caught the ball, or who first obtained possession of the ball, becomes the owner.

Prior to the time the ball was hit, it was possessed and owned by Major League Baseball. At the time it was hit it became intentionally abandoned property. The first person who came in possession of the ball became its new owner.

The judgment cited Paul Finkelman, "Fugitive Baseballs and Abandoned Property: Who Owns the Home Run Ball?" for this point. Finkleman outlines a bunch of parties who could conceivably have a claim to ownership of the ball: the batter, the catcher, the pitcher, Major League Baseball, the home team (who supplies the balls). He ultimately concluded (and the judge and parties in Popov v. Hayashi agreed) that the rule is or should be that balls are considered abandoned when hit into the stands. It reviewed the example of Mets security guards forcing a fan to give them Mike Piazza's 300th home run ball. Finkleman's opinion that this would be conversion, battery, or fraud (given the Mets' explicit policy that fans be allowed to keep the balls).

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  • And actually the paul finkelman paper does state that major league baseball could likely claim ownership of the ball because they paid for it but in most cases the teams pay for their own balls. It goes on to say if a team chose to make a policy that balls hit into the stands must be returned there is nothing stopping them from doing that.
    – jesse_b
    Apr 5 at 12:03
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    @jesse_b Well, anybody can make a claim after the fact; that does not make the claim valid. The contractual and other legal circumstances at the point in time of the event are relevant. I'm not saying I know what those are. But unless special rules or contracts were established beforehand, the claim is, according to the paper and the ruling, likely not valid: The default is "abandonment" and "customary law". Apr 5 at 12:26
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    @jesse_b: MLB teams have explicit written policies that fans get to keep balls that are hit into the stands. In the Finkelman paper, the assertion that MLB might have a claim to the ball is attributed to Ron Borges, and Finkelman is refuting that assertion. He says that if, hypothetically, there weren't such a policy, then the team and/or MLB might have a valid claim to the ball; but there is such a policy, so they don't. Apr 5 at 16:02
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    @jesse_b: Finkelman cites one single case (the Piazza home run in 2001) where a team retrieved the ball, and emphasizes that it was unique. The Mets (like all other MLB teams for the last 50 years) did have an explicit policy in place that fans can keep the balls, and Finkelman's conclusion is that, in that case, the Mets (nor MLB) did not have a valid claim to the ball, and the Mets security guards acted illegally by seizing it. However, the fan in that case chose not to pursue the matter and so it was never decided by a court. Apr 5 at 16:06
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    @jesse_b In this case, Dodgers policy makes it clear they intend to abandon balls hit into the stands: "The Dodgers are happy for guests to keep any baseball hit into the stands as a souvenir," mlb.com/dodgers/ballpark/information/guide Apr 5 at 17:00
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Who owned the ball? Was it actually the woman's? My own legal assessment leans to "no" because no transfer of ownership was intended and the ball was probably not "abandoned". On the other hand, baseball customs and precedence may be that a spectator acquires ownership.

Not merely custom and precedent, but also explicit written policy.

https://www.mlb.com/dodgers/ballpark/information/guide

The Dodgers are happy for guests to keep any baseball hit into the stands as a souvenir.

I think this makes it pretty clear that the Dodgers did intend to transfer ownership of the baseball to the fan.

AFAIK this policy is universal among baseball teams; I didn't check all 30 MLB team web pages, but I follow baseball a bit and have never heard of any exceptions. It's considered part of the enticement of attending a game, so I think you could argue it is a term of the contract formed when the ticket was purchased.

I can't think of any legal basis that Dodgers security would have had to actually physically prevent the fans from leaving with the ball, and it's not really clear from the article if they tried to do so, or if they just tried to make it socially uncomfortable for them to leave. If they did physically prevent them from leaving, that would likely be false imprisonment, a crime under California Penal Code Section 236 and also a common-law tort.

What's claimed more explicitly is that they told the fans that if they left with the ball, the Dodgers would refuse to authenticate it, which would greatly reduce its potential market value. That's probably not illegal; it's just, as the article puts it, "hardball tactics" of negotiation (groan). (Though I wonder if it is in keeping with MLB policies, which AFAIK generally encourage significant game artifacts to be authenticated.)

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    I was in a bit of a bind. While your answer answers my specific question, Jen's answers the more general case. I thought the general answer has more value for future generations ;-). Apr 6 at 20:58
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A line from the Dodgers own website states in the 'Foul Balls and Milestone Balls section reads, "The Dodgers are happy for guests to keep any baseball hit into the stands as a souvenir." It looks like the guest in question did own the ball according to the Dodgers published information.

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