Ballhawking: Is It Playing Foul?

October 29th, 2009 by Kathy McManus

Is holding a caught baseball — especially a milestone homerun — morally reprehensible?

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

When Florida Marlins rookie Chris Coghlan hit his first major league home run this season, the ball was caught by a fan—and caught in a standoff between ballpark rights and doing the right thing. 

After his victory lap, Coghlan requested that the milestone ball be returned for sentimental reasons. “I wanted to get it and give it to my mom,” he said. But the fan countered, “What’s the ball worth to you?” 

The fan, 30 year-old Nick Yohanek, was legally entitled to keep the ball, but as a professional “ballhawk,” his stance was criticized all the way from the local Palm Beach Post to the Wall Street Journal, which described the business of ballhawks as “grabbing any ball that goes in the stands, especially milestone home runs like a player’s first or 500th. Most then refuse to give them back to the player unless he coughs up something valuable in return, from a signed bat or jersey to up to $10,000.” 

A fan who caught and kept Ken Griffey’s 600th home run ball last year auctioned it for $42,000. And the man who refused to hand over Mark McGwire’s 70th homerun ball during the 1998 season later sold it for $3 million. 

Negotiations to free Chris Coghlan’s treasured piece of memorabilia soon involved the Marlins manager, coach, media relations head, and team psychologist, and focused on free tickets to future Marlins games, a photo op, a signed ball, and two signed bats, one which Yohanek wanted inscribed, “To Nick, thanks for catching my first home run!” 

Coghlan eventually got his ball back. “He wasn’t the most polite or respectful guy about the whole process,” Coghlan said, likening the ballhawk’s actions to holding balls “for ransom.” 

Yohanek disagreed. “It’s my hobby, people,” he wrote on his blog, along with this summation. “QUESTION: Is it okay to catch a historic milestone home run and sell it at auction for $1 million dollars? ANSWER: If that's what it's worth to someone, hell yeah it's okay.” 

Tell us what you think: Ballhawking is legal, so does it matter if it’s responsible or not? Does baseball need new rules for fans?