On Friday, June 19, Alex Rodriguez became the newest member of one of Major League Baseball’s most exclusive clubs when he recorded the 3,000th hit of his career — just the 29th player in history to reach that milestone. And with that same swing of the bat, A-Rod joined an even more exclusive club by getting his 3,000th hit in the form of a home run. Only Derek Jeter and Wade Boggs had done that before.
The baseball that A-Rod deposited into the stands at Yankee Stadium was caught by a fan named Zack Hample, a sports memorabilia collector and author who, coincidentally enough, once wrote a book called How To Snag Major League Baseballs.
Considering Hample’s impressive personal collection — his Twitter bio photo shows him submerged in a bathtub full of baseballs — I doubt there’s a chapter in that book about giving the ball back to the person who hit it after you snag it. And Hample’s very public decision to keep the now-famous A-Rod home run ball has him at the center of a social media storm.
Somewhere along the way, it became custom among baseball fans that if you catch an important ball at a game — maybe a rookie ballplayer’s first big-league homer, or a future Hall of Famer’s 3,000th hit — you make arrangements through the team or through MLB to get the ball back to the player. In exchange for your kind gesture, the player will typically hook you up with tickets to a game in the future, an autograph, or another piece of memorabilia. This is the unwritten order of things.
Zack Hample is not having that. Soon after catching the A-Rod homer, Hample posted on Twitter that he was keeping the ball. Soon after that, Hample was subject to insults, harassment and bullying from other people on Twitter who wanted him to give the ball to A-Rod. (For what it’s worth, on his website, Hample claims he caught Los Angeles Angels star Mike Trout‘s first career homer and gave the ball back to Trout for nothing in return.)
Hample didn’t say he was going to sell the ball. (In fact, he says he’s never sold a ball.) He didn’t say he was holding it for ransom to drive up the price A-Rod and/or the Yankees are willing to pay for it. It seems he is simply a baseball fan and collector who wants to keep a special piece of history that landed in his hands fair and square.
Still, that hasn’t stopped a bunch of fans who don’t know Hample or A-Rod from criticizing the fan’s decision to deny the athlete the tangible fruit of his labor.
Imagine yourself in Hample’s shoes. You have a piece of property that doesn’t exactly belong to anyone, and yet everyone is yelling at you to do the “right thing” and give that property “back” to someone who never owned it in the first place.
What would you do? Better question: What should you do if you are being guided by the principles of Islam?
The answer that first comes to my mind would be to give the ball to A-Rod with no expectation of making a trade. The ball represents a special accomplishment for A-Rod, and many people would argue that it is rightfully his ball. And while that ball is certainly worth a lot of money on the memorabilia market, it would be a selfless good deed to brighten your fellow man’s day — even if he is already a very rich man like A-Rod — by giving him that valuable ball. After all, Islam teaches us that our good deeds are far more important than our money or possessions. May Allah [swt] allow us to be paid back in the afterlife for the good deeds we do in this life.
But there is still a tricky matter here, and it’s one of rightful ownership. Who does the ball belong to once it leaves A-Rod’s bat? Is it the property of Major League Baseball? Of the Yankees? Of their opponent that night, the Detroit Tigers, who you could say technically had “possession” as the team playing the field at that moment? Is it A-Rod’s ball as soon as it leaves the field of play? Is it Hample’s ball as soon as he secures it in his hands?
No one would expect any other ball hit into the stands during that Yankees-Tigers game not to go home with the fan who caught it. But because this ball had historical significance, now the fan is wrong for keeping it?
I ran these questions by a couple of Muslim brothers who follow sports but aren’t big baseball fans — looking for somewhat objective perspectives — and each said they saw no problem with Hample keeping the ball so long as he is not exploiting the situation. One brother said he’d keep it himself had he caught it. It is not haram, or un-Islamic per se, to keep something you found in public that has no official owner.
But each brother also acknowledged that the “most right” thing to do would probably be to give it to A-Rod.
Or maybe the best thing to do would be — knowing the ball’s potentially high value — donating the ball to a charitable organization. Or selling the ball yourself and giving the proceeds to the poor and needy.
As with many decisions Muslims face, your intention in this scenario may be just as critical as your action, as one almost always informs the other.
The Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) is quoted in one hadith: “Actions are but by intentions and every man will have only what he intended. So whoever emigrated for Allah and His Messenger, then his emigration was for Allah and His Messenger. And whoever emigrated to attain something of this world or to marry a woman, then his emigration was for whatever reason he emigrated.”
So if the intention is good — to own a special keepsake in this case, or to donate to charity, to do something nice for Alex Rodriguez, or show him your appreciation for his talent — the deed that follows will be good in the view of Allah [swt]. If the intention is bad, then the deed will be bad or wrong.
It seems in this case there are fewer wrong answers than there are right answers.