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Wednesday, January 12, 2005
Updated: January 13, 11:57 AM ET
Let's let the Supremes decide

By Jim Caple
Page 2

"I put the Polish death grip on it. When we beat the Yankees I gave the ball to Derek Lowe but this one I'm keeping. This one is staying with me."
-- Doug Mientkiewicz, immediately after winning the World Series, explaining his plans for the baseball with which he recorded the final out.

"We're going to make a request of him to return it to us. We want it to be part of Red Sox archives or museums so it can be shared with the fans. We would hope he would understand the historical nature of it."
--  Red Sox CEO Larry Lucchino, explaining the team's desire that Mientkiewicz give up the baseball.

* * * * *

If you think the World Series baseball is a thorny issue, just be glad that Alex Popov and Patrick Hayashi never got their hands on it. There would be so many lawyers involved then that Larry King wouldn't be able to find anyone available to interview about the Laci Peterson case.

The dispute over the World Series baseball doesn't figure to descend into the ugly Popov-Hayaski abyss of greed, selfish clients and cloven-hooved lawyers charging by the second (unless, of course, Scott Boras gets involved). But it does bring up an important issue. Given the crazed state of sports memorabilia -- when fans are anxiously bidding into five figures for old bubblegum chewed by Luis Gonzalez -- to whom do those game-used bats, balls and jerseys really belong? The teams that pay for them or the players who use them?

The Supreme Court has rendered decisions on school segregation, abortion and the outcome of the 2000 presidential election. But, sadly, it has shirked its duty and hidden from this most important issue.

Doug Mientkiewicz
"I got the ball! Nah-nah-nahnah-nah!"
That is, they ignored it until now, when they deliver the following exclusive opinions in Mientkiewicz v. Boston Red Sox Baseball Club.

CHIEF JUSTICE REHNQUIST: The baseball belongs to the Red Sox. Established policy in baseball and almost every other major sport is that the teams own all equipment they paid for. Players are told in advance that they do not even own the shirts on their backs -- jerseys are club property.

JUSTICE KENNEDY: Does that include those old Padres uniforms that Randy Jones wore after he really let himself go?

REHNQUIST: Good point. To paraphrase Justice Potter Stewart, I can't define hardcore pornography but I know it when I see it.

JUSTICE STEVENS: Granted, the Red Sox may own each item of equipment they provide for the players, but Boston has no claim in this case -- as home team for Game 4 of the World Series, the St. Louis Cardinals paid for the disputed baseball, not the Sox. If the Cardinals wished to pursue this issue, they would have a case. The Red Sox do not.

Further, to say that a baseball belongs to the team that paid for it is akin to saying Marge Schott is the all-time hits leader because she owned the Reds when Pete Rose passed Ty Cobb. You can pay for as many baseballs as you want, but until a player makes them special with his performance, they are just some Mr. Rawlings among the millions produced each year.

JUSTICE SCALIA: To say that only players can make a baseball special is to ignore the importance of the team. It is Boston's 86-year World Series drought that makes this ball important, not Mientkiewicz. Mientkiewicz has fielded many throws to first base in his life. The only time he caught a ball with true historic and valuable significance was because he also was wearing a Red Sox uniform. No one has any interest in any of the baseballs he fielded for the Twins, including, as it turned out, the Twins.

JUSTICE BREYER: Even so, teams have already established that they do not particularly care what happens to game-used baseballs. That home runs and foul balls belong to the fans who catch them is not only an established tradition, it is specifically mentioned on the back of tickets and in pregame announcements. Further, teams encourage their players to toss baseballs into the stands at the end of each inning. If teams make no claim to baseballs that are sent out of play -- including those involving historic home runs -- how can they claim differently for baseballs on the field?

To say they only want the valuable ones is inconsistent. Although expected, given Major League owners.

The Supreme Court
Let's let the real judges decide this case, shall we?
JUSTICE O'CONNOR: Mientkiewicz may have caught the ball, but that only gave him its temporary possession, not ownership. He joined the team in midseason, played sparingly and batted just .215. His contributions to making that ball valuable were too limited to give him ownership. How can he maintain a claim to the ball when Jason Varitek and Pedro Martinez were far important to the Red Sox, to say nothing of Nelson de la Rosa.

JUSTICE GINSBURG: Mientkiewicz's contributions may have been limited, but they also have no bearing on this issue. To say Mientkiewicz could only convey value on a baseball through long and heroic service ignores the 1986 precedent of Buckner v. Mookie, where the baseball in question took on enormous value not through sterling performance but through the sort of shoddy play and bungling regularly seen at the lowest levels of Little League. And in Milwaukee.

JUSTICE THOMAS: I don't know about this baseball, but does anyone have any naked pictures of Kris Benson's wife?

JUSTICE SOUTER: No.

JUSTICE THOMAS: Would you like to buy some?

* * * * *

The thing is, no one really cared what happened to the baseball until Lucchino made a fuss about wanting it. I could see if the Series had ended on a home run, but who cares about the ball from a routine groundout? Do the Marlins demand to have the final baseball from the 2003 World Series on display? Do the Angels insist on the 2002 baseball? Does anyone even remember who caught the final outs?

The best solution is for the Red Sox to acknowledge that the ball belongs to Mientkiewicz, and for Mientkiewicz to then agree to loan it to the team or the Hall of Fame to put on display. That way, everyone is happy.

Except, of course, the Cardinals.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com