For sports writers and poets, Derek Jeter's 3000th hit was the stuff myths are made
of. A home run into the left field stands and a dramatic exclamation point from a
player who has had difficulty getting the ball through the infield this year.
For the New York Yankees, however, it was a mixed bag. Had it been a ground ball
single, the ball would have been easily retrieved from the playing field. A home run
meant the ball was inconveniently the private property of one Christian Lopez, who
had just won the lottery without even buying a ticket.
Estimates of the ball's value range from $250,000 to $1 million or more.
According to a New York Times report, Mr. Lopez and his father were whisked by
security guards to the office of Yankee team president Randy Levine where officials
asked his intention. Lopez responded, "How about a couple signed balls, some
jerseys and bats." Knowing the ball's potential monetary value, the Yankee brass
jumped on the request. To show their generosity, they threw in $40,000 in face
value of (unsold, and thus likely worth much less) tickets.
Mr. Lopez's modest conduct was highly laudable. He explained he felt the ball
rightfully belonged to Derek Jeter. He wanted to do the right thing and return the
ball to its owner. Bravo!
But what about the conduct of the Yankees and Mr. Jeter?
Let's run the numbers:
New York Yankees (principal owners the Steinbrenner family) -- value $1.6 billion.
Derek Jeter (currently has a 3 year, $51 million contract) -- Career earnings $250
Christian Lopez (23 year old recent college grad) -- owes $100,000 + in student
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.
In effect, Mr. Lopez was offering Mr. Jeter and the Yankees a gift worth hundreds of
thousands of dollars and the Yankees knew it, even if Mr. Lopez didn't.
What does it say about the Yankees, Mr. Jeter and our society that multi-millionaires
and billionaires knowingly (and happily) accept the charity of a young man in debt?
One must ask themselves, in this transaction who acted with dignity and class, and
who acted with greed and shame?
Instead of capitalizing on the moment, the Yankees should have offered Mr. Lopez
something meaningful in return for his graceful gesture. Perhaps not the full market
value of the ball, but some exchange roughly equivalent in value. At a minimum,
they could have paid off his student loans.
It matters not whether Mr. Lopez would have accepted the offer -- the Yankees still
had the moral obligation to do the right thing and make the gesture.
This tells us something about our society and ourselves. Not only about the
exploitative relationship between professional sports teams and their fans, but also
about the conduct of institutions in this era of selfishness and greed.
There is an antiquated concept called noblesse oblige. Mirriam-Webster defines it
as "the obligation of honorable, generous, and responsible behavior associated with
high rank or birth."
In the case of the New York Yankees, Derek Jeter and Christian Lopez, ask yourself
which party acted responsibly and with generosity and which was happy to exploit
its rank and privilege? The answer isn't pretty.