Over the course of the last two days, there has been a sports media controversy brewing over the ball struck by Derek Jeter as his 3000th major league hit. The saga of 3000 had its share of twists and turns as Jeter sustained hitting slumps and went on the disabled list last month. Members of the press speculated whether he should be dropped from his traditional lead off spot in the order and even whether the Yankees made a mistake by resigning him last winter.
All of this was forgotten when Jeter went 5 for 5 including a home run which put him at the magical number of 3000. The fact that the 3000th hit was a home run complicated matters for Jeter as the ball left the field of play and landed in the hands of a fan. As regular baseball watchers know, when a player has a momentous hit, the baseball is usually taken out of play and brought to the dugout for the player to add to his trophy case. Had Jeter only gotten a base hit, the ball would have been given to him with no added intrigue. However, since this ball was caught by Mr. Lopez, negotiations were required in order to obtain the ball.
To his credit, the 24 year old cell phone salesman who caught the home run ball did not attempt to sell the ball at auction, or demand a king's ransom in exchange for the ball. The news reports indicate that Lopez said that Jeter deserved the ball as he had earned this feat and that Lopez only wanted to meet him. The Yankees arranged the meeting and "compensated" Lopez by providing him with signed bats, balls and special seats at Yankee Stadium for the remainder of the season.
Lopez' actions were the topic of hot debate following his magnanimous gesture, as pundits and fans argued over whether the ball actually belonged to the player and whether they would have given up the "lottery ticket" ball. I heard an interview with former a big leaguer on the Mike & Mike show (I can't recall his identity) who agreed that the ball belonged to the fan and not the player. Still, Lopez was lauded for his action in giving up his quite valuable souvenir.
The conversation made me think about what the Torah perspective would be about the controversy. There is a mitzva in the Torah of hashavas aveidah - returning lost objects to their rightful owner. However, this object never belonged to Derek Jeter, it was a regular major league baseball which had the "luck" of being struck at a particular time. No one would argue that a foul ball should be returned by a fan, yet there is really no difference between the two balls.
So if halacha did not require the return of the ball, was there any reason for Lopez to return it. In my opinion, the answer may lie in the concept of hakaras hatov. There is a general principal of giving recognition for the good done for you by others. If Lopez wanted to show Jeter his appreciation for Jeter's years of service to the Yankees and Lopez' enjoyment of watching Jeter play, he could return the ball as a gesture of hakaras hatov. While this may not have been Lopez' motivation, it can't hurt to imagine that it played a role in his thought processes.
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