Don’t Give the Ball Back!

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Wayne Mitchell gave the ball back—just like Christian Lopez, Tim Forneris and who knows how many other fans who over the years happened to be in the right place at the right time during a big moment in sports. The question is: Why do they do it?

Mitchell, 59, a chemicals industry executive from New Tripoli, Penn., was at the second green at Augusta National Golf Club during the final round of the Masters Tournament. As everyone in golf knows, he caught the golf ball that Louis Oosthuizen tossed into the gallery after recording only the fourth double-eagle in Masters history and the first on that hole.

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There is nothing foggy about who owned the ball. It belonged to Mitchell the moment he caught it, just like Lopez became the owner of Derek Jeter’s 3,000th-hit ball last year and just as Forneris became the owner of Mark McGwire’s 62nd-homerun ball a decade ago. This is The Show. Balls hit into the stands or tossed to spectators become the property of whoever catches them, and at least in baseball it says so right on the ticket.

Sometimes these souvenirs have breathtaking value. Yet in a flash of do-the-right-thing excitement, some fans give the balls back while in the dark about what kind of cash they may be forfeiting. It’s a nice gesture. But is it really the right thing to do?

Mitchell’s giveback doesn’t come close to having the financial ramifications of the actions by Lopez and Forneris. The Jeter ball might have been worth about $250,000 at auction. Estimates on the McGwire ball reached $1 million. Oosthuizen’s double eagle? Maybe $10,000, says Bob Zafian, co-owner of Green Jacket Auctions, which specializes in golf memorabilia. Golf just doesn’t inspire the same kind of memorabilia frenzy that surrounds baseball, though official green jackets from the Masters and extremely old golf clubs have gone for six figures.

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Still, a quick 10 grand isn’t nothing. I first explored this phenomenon of ordinary people giving back to millionaires when Forneris returned the valuable ball to McGwire. And again when Lopez returned the Jeter ball. In both cases, the fans fell victim to something called mental accounting. They put the famous balls in the category of “found money,” which made it easy to part with. It’s a lot like winning at the casino and not caring if you proceed to lose every dime that you had won. It was house money; it was found money; it didn’t hurt to lose it.

Yet money from a windfall like a lottery or inheritance or tax refund—or a souvenir that lands in your lap—spends exactly like money you earned at work. It’s a mistake to mentally account for found money differently. Do you want to retire one day or not? Individuals come across found money all the time—after an installment loan has been paid, when you get a raise, when you’ve paid your last tuition bill. Treat this money as though you worked overtime for it and you’ll think twice about frittering it away.

As for Mitchell, it’s not clear that he made a mistake. The stakes were fairly low, and rumors are swirling that sponsors have promised him Masters tickets in the future. Those are tough tickets to get; they fetch up to $6,000 in the secondary market for a weekly pass. A few of those and he’d be ahead financially. Still, that approach relies on the good graces of others. What he gets, other than a warm and fuzzy feeling, is out of his control.

At the very least, Mitchell should have slept on it (always a good idea before spending on something you do not need). He would have lost nothing by giving the ball back the next day. The folks at Augusta would have been just as appreciative. Meanwhile, just maybe Mitchell would have decided to go about it differently.

Readers may take my view on this subject as inappropriately mercenary. They may prefer to make their deposit in the Bank of Karma than the actual bank. So be it. But how many windfalls does one get? In the case of really valuable sports souvenirs, how many chances at instant retirement security does one have? Found money is real money—no matter how you account for it.