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Property rights and baseballs, redux

Some time back, we mused about the issue of who owns a ball that leaves the playing field. The consensus formed in the comments (now deleted) was that baseball doesn't bother asserting a property right to these balls because they are not very valuable after getting scuffed. But that changes in the case of "historic" balls, say Barry Bonds' 700th home run, or Joe Carter's walk-off winner of the 1993 World Series. People have a sense that such balls "belong to the game" or belong to the batter who did the deed. Opposing players, for instance, return the ball to a batter when he reaches a milestone such as 2000 hits. They don't hold out for a price.

Clearly, there is a conflict between the rule of capture - he who comes out of the scrum with the ball gets to keep it - and the idea that balls of value be treated differently than the run-of-the-mill foul pop-up.

In Sunday's game, the two Astros' homers that left the yard - Berkman's 8th inning grand slam to make it a contest, and Burke's 18th inning game-winner - were improbably caught by the same person, Shaun Dean. As reported in the Washington Post, he and the Astros have already come to an agreement on the disposition of the balls:

Dean, comptroller at a construction firm, isn't keeping the balls. He will present them to a representative of the Hall of Fame on Friday.

In exchange, the Astros are giving him four box seats for Saturday's Game 3 game against St. Louis and are inviting him to their workout on Friday, team spokesman Todd Fedewa said.

It is not clear what the Hall of Fame is doing in the middle of this, but otherwise it makes sense. It is too costly to protect property rights to the typical ball, but teams and players would prefer to maintain their interest in "special balls" like the two in question. And this trade makes sense: the consideration involved is not very costly to the club, but it's of significant value to a true fan.

Consider the following default contract: you buy a ticket, and your financial gain from capturing a historic ball is limited to additional tickets. Would this pass muster in court, and stand the million dollar test of Bonds' 756th?