Mientkiewicz's claim to final World Series ball is thin

Saturday, January 22nd 2005, 11:40 am

By: News On 6

BOSTON (AP) _ Doug Mientkiewicz, call a lawyer. You're going to need one if you want to keep the baseball you caught for the final out of the World Series.

The Red Sox first baseman is storing the ball that clinched Boston's first title since 1918 in a safe-deposit box near his Florida home. But the Red Sox want it back so they can show it off, and legal scholars say the team has a good case if it wants to fight Mientkiewicz in court.

``What appears to be emerging as a legal consensus is that the person with the least rights to it is Mientkiewicz himself,'' said Yale Law School Dean Harold Hongju Koh, who ranked the claims as: ``the Cardinals, the Red Sox, Major League Baseball and then the guy who happened to hold it at the end of the game.''

Baseball clubs don't routinely distribute game balls like football teams do, and the final out is most likely to wind up tossed to a fan unless one of the players reached a milestone that day. No one's spent much time discussing who actually owns the ball because, until now, it hasn't really mattered.

As the rise of the memorabilia market makes such items increasingly valuable, though, baseball is being forced to confront the issue of who owns the otherwise interchangeable pieces _ the bases, the balls, the uniforms _ that make the game go. On the same day the Red Sox clinched the Series, the ball Barry Bonds hit for his 700th career homer sold for $804,129.

``What this has done is force the baseball teams and MLB to make some decisions about who gets the noncontractual value of a valuable trophy,'' said Paul Finkelman, a law professor at the University of Tulsa. ``Does he (Mientkiewicz) get a $500,000 bonus because he's the last guy to hold it?''

Mientkiewicz happened upon his keepsake when St. Louis shortstop Edgar Renteria knocked it back to Red Sox pitcher Keith Foulke with two outs in the ninth inning of the fourth game of the World Series. Foulke made an underhand toss to first base, and Boston's 86-year title drought was over.

Mientkiewicz also made the final putout of the AL championship series victory over the New York Yankees and gave that ball to pitcher Derek Lowe. But the first baseman kept this one, and it was among the many items authenticated by Major League Baseball in the chaotic clubhouse afterward.

Mientkiewicz initially called the ball his ``retirement fund,'' though he later backed off those comments and said he wants it for sentimental value. The problem is, so does the team that waited nine decades years to even have a chance to talk about the last out of a World Series victory.

``It's not Doug's ball. It belongs to all of us,'' said Roger Abrams, a Northeastern University law professor who has written several baseball books. ``He is the trustee of the ball but it is owned by all of Red Sox Nation and it should find a place of special importance, either at Fenway or Cooperstown.''

Finkelman, who was an expert witness in the court fight over Bonds' 73rd home run ball, said the fact that Mientkiewicz was a midseason addition and a late-inning replacement makes his claim to the ball tenuous. If he had made a leaping catch to secure the victory, been a major contributor during the regular season or even weathered the franchise's lean years, fans and courts might be more sympathetic.

``The notion that Mientkiewicz did anything is absurd. He didn't do anything,'' Finkelman said. ``He caught an underhanded toss from a pitcher. This is what he's paid to do. He didn't win the World Series. It's simply coincidence that it ended at first base.''

Of course, there was this little incident back in 1986.

``I understand that there's some irony in that,'' Finkelman said when reminded of the routine grounder that went through Bill Buckner's legs. ``Because not every first baseman in Boston does his job.''

By comparison, Curt Schilling could make a legitimate claim to the sock he wore when he pitched in the Series: Although the sock was the team's, the blood was his.

``It's his blood that makes it valuable,'' Abrams said. ``Mientkiewicz doesn't add any value that made it unique to him.''

Soon after Bonds' 73rd homer cleared the fence at Pac Bell Park, it landed in the middle of a skirmish in the stands that spilled into the courts. In Popov v. Hayashi, California Superior Court Judge Kevin McCarthy considered the claim that Major League Baseball still owned the ball after the homer and ``later gifted it to Mr. Hayashi.''

``There is no evidence to support it,'' the judge wrote. Instead, the ball belonged to Major League Baseball until it was hit, and as it flew out of the ballpark it became ``intentionally abandoned property.''

``The first person who came in possession of the ball became its new owner,'' McCarthy decided. Then they fought over what constituted possession, with McCarthy ruling the ball should be sold at auction so the proceeds could be split between them.

But that ball left the playing field; Mientkiewicz's was still part of the game when he gloved it. And he wasn't a fan who bought a ticket in the outfield arcade; he was a Red Sox employee in his workplace doing his job.

``Clearly teams have agreed that when the ball is hit out of the park, it's abandoned. But they have never said that when it's in the park it's abandoned,'' Finkelman said.

That makes Mientkiewicz like a research scientist who makes a lucrative discovery at work: He's sure to get an attaboy from the boss, but the royalties and patents probably belong to the company.

``We know if he found the ball in the woods, it's his. But he didn't find the ball in the woods,'' Abrams said. ``Does that mean any first baseman that catches any ball that arrives at first base owns the ball? Of course not.''

Red Sox president Larry Lucchino said the team is negotiating for the ball through Mientkiewicz's agent. The logical and expected solution is for Mientkiewicz to own the ball and lend it to the Red Sox so they can display it.

Lucchino also said the team is working on a policy to avoid another fight over, say, the ball that clinches the first Red Sox World Series repeat since 1916.

Finkelman thinks Major League Baseball needs to clarify the rules for the whole industry.

``MLB should decide that the winning team should be able to dispose of the game ball,'' he said. ``And, in general, when a player reaches a milestone, it's simply good sportsmanship'' to give it to him.

No one thinks the issue will just go away.

``What's this about Lowe having the New York ball?'' Koh asked. ``That's the ball I want. Who cares about the Cardinals?''

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