The two fans who claimed ownership of Barry Bonds' record-setting No. 73 home run ball after a scrum in the right-field stands must sell the ball and split its value — an estimated $1 million — a judge ruled Wednesday.
Bonds hit the ball into the record books, and into a long court battle, on the last day of the regular season in October 2001 to set the season record for homers. Since then, the ball has been locked both in legal limbo and a safe-deposit box.
Judge Kevin McCarthy said that both Alex Popov, who gloved the ball for an instant, and Patrick Hayashi, who ended up with the ball, have a legitimate claim — and so neither should get the ball outright.
"Their legal claims are of equal quality and they are equally entitled to the ball," McCarthy ruled. "The ball must be sold and divided equally between the parties."
McCarthy's ruling, a lengthy exploration of the meaning of possession, came after a trial in which legal scholars and former umpires debated what constitutes a catch. The case bemused fans around the nation, some of whom cited the trial as an example of what's wrong with America today.
The judge made a point of saying that if he awarded the ball solely to Hayashi, it could send the wrong message to fans about civility in the stands.
"This case demands vindication of an important principle," he said. "We are a nation governed by law, not by brute force."
But, even though the judge acknowledged Popov had been "set upon by a gang of bandits who dislodged the ball," McCarthy said Popov never demonstrated full possession and could not be awarded sole ownership.
San Jose State marketing and business professor Jeff Kallis said the case raised an important legal issue.
"A jury might see this as a case of a couple of overgrown 12 year olds," said Kallis, a practicing attorney. "But the underlying legal issue is about property ownership."
Much of the case turned on a matter of fractions of seconds caught on television videotape.
TV news video showed the ball in Popov's glove for at least six-tenths of a second before he was enveloped by a crowd. Both sides agreed the videotape showed the ball in Popov's glove. They did not agree on what defines possession — Popov's split-second catch, or Hayashi's final grab?
Popov contends he held the ball longer than a split second before it was taken from his glove. Hayashi said Popov dropped it before hitting the pavement.
McCarthy deliberated for a month after hearing closing arguments in late November.