12-year-old Jennifer Valdivia holding Ryan Howard's 200th
career home run (WSVN)
Jennifer Valdivia will never forget her first professional baseball game. On July 16th, the 12-year old was in the right-field stands of Land Shark Stadium in Fort Lauderdale, Florida with her 17-year old brother and her grandfather, watching a game between the Phillies and the Marlins.
In the top of the sixth inning, Phillies slugger Ryan Howard launched the 200th home run of his career. The ball landed in the seat next to Jennifer, who immediately grabbed it and claimed it for her own. Thus began a two-and-one-half-month odyssey that ended the way it started, with Jennifer the proud owner of Howard’s home run ball.
Soon after she corralled the baseball, stadium security ushered Jennifer and her brother to the Phillies clubhouse. A Phillies equipment manager convinced her to leave the ball with him, telling her to return after the game to meet Howard who would personally autograph the ball for her. When Jennifer returned to the clubhouse after the game, Howard was nowhere to be found, but a Phillies official gave her another ball autographed by Howard.
Things got interesting the next day when Jennifer’s mother, Delfa Vanegas, learned from her co-workers that the baseball Howard hit the previous day was no ordinary home run. Howard had reached the 200-homer plateau faster than any player in Major League history.
Thinking the ball her daughter caught had historical significance, and thus was worth more than the ball the Phillies had given to Jennifer, Delfa contacted attorney Norman Kent, who attempted to retrieve the ball from the Phillies. The Phillies’ attorney told Kent the ball had been given to Howard and suggested he contact the slugger’s agent. After being rebuffed by the agent, Kent filed a lawsuit against the Phillies and Howard on October 5. Two days later, the ball magically appeared in his office, along with a letter of authentication.
The events raise a number of legal, practical and PR issues, beginning with the fact that Jennifer is a minor. Any contract she may have entered into with the Phillies to swap Howard’s home run ball for an autographed ball would be considered voidable, meaning she could disavow the contract, return the autographed ball and claim the home run ball. She did that through her attorney.
Phillies’ employees could have committed civil fraud and conversion against Jennifer by convincing her to swap the home run ball for another ball if there was a significant difference in value between the two baseballs. That may well be the case. An autographed Ryan Howard ball is worth $100-200 on the open market. Seth Swirsky, a baseball memorabilia collector, told Yahoo! Sports that Howard’s home run ball may fetch $1,500-3,000 at auction.
But as a young (29) slugger, Howard presumably will hit many more home runs. If he is the fastest Major Leaguer to 300 or 400 home runs, and ends up with 500 or more, what will his 200th home run ball be worth? Hard to say. But it’s likely it will be worth significantly less than it is today.
Stadium security who escorted Jennifer and her minor brother from the stands to the Phillies clubhouse could be considered accomplices to any action the Phillies may have been liable for. That would make the Marlins, as their employer/principal, equally liable.
Major League baseball teams should have a protocol for instances like this. It’s OK to ask a fan - who is not a minor - to surrender a baseball hit into the stands, but employees should be trained not to exert pressure on a reluctant fan. And never, ever, attempt to coerce a minor who is unaccompanied by an adult.
The entire episode taints the Marlins, Phillies, MLB, and their employees, and casts Howard, who has a reputation for being a good guy, as a villain. None of this was necessary and could have been avoided with proper planning, procedures and training.
Fortunately, the story has a happy ending for everyone, including Howard. Jennifer agreed to offer the ball back to him for market value should she ever decide to sell it. That’s when we find out what the ball is really worth – and whether the lawsuit was about emotion or avarice.
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Jordan Kobritz is a staff member of the Business of Sports Network. He is a former attorney, CPA, and Minor League Baseball team owner. He is an Assistant Professor of Sport Management at Eastern New Mexico University and teaches the Business of Sports at the University of Wyoming.
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