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Derek Jeter, Christian Lopez, and Rational Choices

- July 10, 2011

Yesterday afternoon NY Yankees star “Derek Jeter got his 3000th hit”:http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/10/sports/baseball/jeter-relentlessly-consistent-reaches-3000-hits-with-a-home-run.html, which, for readers who do not follow baseball, is a big deal. Jeter is only the “28th player in MLB history”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/3,000_hit_club to achieve the feat, and the first to have reached this milestone if four years. Even more uniquely, he became just the “second player ever to hit a home run”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/3,000_hit_club for his 3,000th hit.

The fact that he achieved the milestone with a home run raised another question: what would become of the ball? Sports memorabilia is a big deal in the United States, and nothing seems to quite set off memorabilia enthusiasts as “baseballs from important home runs”:http://marketplace.publicradio.org/display/web/2007/08/08/putting_a_price_on_a_recordbreaking_ball/. So the baseball Jeter hit could easily have been worth hundreds of thousands of – and possibly even more than a million – dollars. And by all established practice, baseballs (unlike footballs) that end up in the stands belong to the fan who catches it, not the player who hit it.

Which brings us to Christian Lopez, the fan who caught the ball. He was immediately ushered out of his seats by stadium security, and, by all accounts, equally immediately decided he would “simply give the ball to Jeter”:http://sports.espn.go.com/new-york/mlb/news/story?id=6752505. In “his own words”:http://sports.espn.go.com/new-york/mlb/news/story?id=6752505:

Mr. Jeter deserved it. I’m not gonna take it away from him. Money’s cool and all, but I’m 23 years old, I’ve got a lot of time to make that. It was never about the money, it was about the milestone.

Now, to be fair, Mr. Lopez was then “showered with gifts by the Yankees”:http://sports.espn.go.com/new-york/mlb/news/story?id=6752505, including tickets for the remainder of the season and (if the Yankees make it) the playoffs, which could have quite a high cash value. But, given the publicity, it is hard to imagine him monetizing these tickets effectively, and, either way, he could have sold the ball for a lot more.

So here’s the question: in our models of political economy, is Mr. Lopez a rational actor? He clearly had a choice to make, and he chose the option that left him less financially well off. And let’s be clear – this is not a case of “altruism”:http://rss.sagepub.com/content/19/1/5.abstract — the recipient of the gift, Derek Jeter, has “boatloads of money already”:http://www.baseball-reference.com/leaders/leaders_salaries.shtml. I don’t know anything about Mr. Lopez’s finances, but based on the “ESPN’s description of him”:http://sports.espn.go.com/new-york/mlb/news/story?id=6752505 as “a 23 year old cell phone salesmen”, I’m guessing he just took his most valuable asset – that baseball – and gave it to a man (Jeter) who has earned over $200,000,000 from baseball alone (plus untold additional millions from endorsements^*^). Nor is this a case of whether or not one follows the law – Mr. Lopez would have been completely within his legal rights to keep possession of the ball. Moreover, my guess is that many people would have done what Mr. Lopez did. Not all, of course, and maybe not even a majority of people. But I doubt he is the only one.

So how do we fit Mr. Lopez into a world of rational actors? For example, if people are willing to give away hundreds of thousands of dollars just to feel like they did the right thing, then the “turnout paradox”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paradox_of_voting can easily be explained away. Or what about games such as the “prisoner’s dilemma”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prisoner%27s_dilemma or “battle of the sexes”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_the_sexes_%28game_theory%29 — shouldn’t we just expect players to “do the right thing” and consider their partner’s payoffs as strongly (or more strongly) than their own?

Now, I’m sure there is something inherently different about making an extremely public decision like what to do with that baseball and making private decisions such as whether to vote or what type of “tax policy to support”:http://tmc.org/blog/2011/04/20/squaring_the_circle_between_pu/. And perhaps herein lies the positive take on this in terms of theory: maybe there are interesting theoretical arguments to be made about the conditions under which individuals are more likely to behave like Mr. Lopez did. Perhaps Mr. Lopez would have behaved in a game-theoretic “laboratory experiment at NYU”:http://cess.nyu.edu/ exactly like we would have expected. Or perhaps, as “Mr. Lopez’s father put it”:http://sports.espn.go.com/new-york/mlb/news/story?id=6752505:

“That’s who he is,” Raul Lopez said. “My son could get a million dollars and he’d shrug his shoulders. He’d see a dog get hit by a car and he’d shrug his shoulders. It’s no big deal for him. He’s very cool and calm about everything.”^**^


^*^ To be fair, the fact that Jeter makes over $20,000,000/year playing for the NY Yankees and still feels the need to increase his income further by appearing on bill boards all over the West Side Highway is probably a mark in favor of the rational actor model…

^**^ Not sure I’d want someone in my family publically praising me by saying I don’t care if a dog gets hit by a car. Don’t we generally want people to get upset when dogs get hit by cars? Maybe there’s an interesting political psychology angle in here too….

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