Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Fair Ball Leads to a Foul Day in Court

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Fair Ball Leads to a Foul Day in Court

Article excerpt

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. …

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