Returning Jeter’s 3,000th Hit Ball

July 19th, 2011 by Andrea Bennett

An act of generosity nearly goes awry. What would you have done?

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

This is a not-so-simple story about one good turn deserving another.

Last week, Bloomberg News told the story of Christian Lopez, a 23-year-old mobile phone salesman and recent college graduate who caught Derek Jeter’s 3,000th-hit ball in the left-field stands and gave it back because it was the right thing to do.

Lopez, whose girlfriend had bought the $65 tickets to the July 9th game against Tampa Bay for his birthday, said he jumped on the home run ball after it bounced off his father’s hands. He then turned it over to the New York Yankees in exchange for three bats, three balls and two jerseys signed by Jeter – worth around $1,000, $500 and $1,500, respectively. Additionally, the Yankees also gave him four Champions Suite tickets for their remaining 31 regular-season home games and any playoff games. The seats are worth between $37,000 and $62,000 for the rest of the season. The Jeter ball itself, according to Doug Allen, president of Chicago-based Legendary Auctions, may be worth as much as $250,000.

According to a New York Times report, this feel-good story may not have been so cut and dry, as security guards immediately whisked Mr. Lopez and his father to the office of Yankee team president Randy Levine, where officials asked his intentions with the ball. Lopez responded, "How about a couple signed balls, some jerseys and bats?" Knowing the ball's potential monetary value, the Yankee officials jumped on the request, throwing in $40,000 in face value of (unsold) tickets.

While no one debates the conduct (laudable) of Lopez, the Huffington Post’s Steve Malkenson took a closer look at that of the Yankees, who, they contend, could have treated Lopez slightly better for taking what likely amounts to a $180,000 loss or more, especially considering that he is a recent college grad who owes $100,000 in student loans. “Judging by the immediate response of the security guards and the waiting team officials, the Yankees were fully prepared for this moment. They were also fully aware of the market value of the ball. It can be safely surmised that Mr. Lopez was less well prepared. There was a fundamental asymmetry to the situation, and the Yankees were happy to exploit it.” Malkenson suggested that the Yankees should have offered Lopez something more meaningful in return for his graceful gesture, like paying off his student loans.

Even worse, reports the The New York Daily News, the IRS will likely consider Lopez's gratuities from the Yankees to be income, and if so, he could end up having to pay anywhere from $5,000 to $13,000 in taxes. One CPA suggested the Yankees step up and pay the taxes for him, “….if they really want to make a public relations triumph.”

But lest you think no good deed goes unpublished, ESPN has reported that Miller High Life has stepped up to wipe out Lopez’s tax debt, and now both Mitchell Modell, CEO of Modell's Sporting Goods, and Brandon Steiner of Steiner Sports, guaranteed Lopez at least $25,000 each toward his outstanding student loans.

While the moves may not be without their own public relations benefits, at least the story’s original hero won’t get stuck with the bill. If you were Lopez, what would you have done? Would you have given the ball back, or kept it?