Michael Kessler seems like a cool dude. He's the 20-year-old City College of New York baseball player who caught Aaron Judge's 60th home run ball at Yankee Stadium last night and promptly returned it to the slugger. I want to make that perfectly clear, along with pointing out that it was no one's choice but his because fate put him in such a position to make it. Allow me to humbly suggest, though, that this whole business of souvenir baseballs and inequitable bartering, combined with increasingly demented public pressure for the little guy to make the financial sacrifice, is not a feel-good story. Rather, it's a telling window into how things work and who they work for in the real word.
“Judge means so much to the organization, especially this year,” Kessler told MLB.com. "He’s just unbelievable. Just the way he is, he deserved to have the ball back. I have no second thoughts." One has no choice but to respect this point of view. Hustling to reunite the orb with its righteous dispatcher is exactly what I'd have done at 20. The opportunity to pose for a few pictures and score some autographs, as Kessler did, would have been enough. But not anymore.
Perhaps life has jaded me or perhaps I now see it for what it is. A place where the money runs uphill and responsibility runs downhill. Where the least secure are asked to value loyalty over the bottom line. Where bizarre, boot-licking weirdos demand that everyone do what's worst for them based on a hypothetical.
Judge's 60th dinger is valuable. It would have commanded a sexy price on the open market. Darren Rovell posited the price tag could have had six figures. This is a tremendous amount of money for the median fan seated in the left-field bleachers. It is also chump change to everyone else associated in this story.
Currently on a one-year, $19 million deal, Judge is poised to command, conservatively, $25 million annually for the next half-decade. An MVP season where he wins the Triple Crown will assure that. The New York Yankees, the most iconic brand in all of sports, have a valuation north of $7 billion. No one should feel bad about making the uber-rich pay what someone else would pay for a piece of history. Any notion to the contrary is patently absurd.
No one is saying Judge doesn't deserve the ball. If he wants it then the Yankees can figure out how to make it happen at auction. They are quite literally more equipped to ensure that happens than any other team in the league. Major League Baseball as a whole has shown a steadfast dedication to grabbing all the money. Umpires are wearing freaking crypto ads on their jerseys, for God's sake. They'll happily sell you NFTs knowing full well it's a bottomless abyss of ruin.
Visit Yankee Stadium and they'll gouge you for a hot dog and a beer. Baseball is beautiful but the infrastructure and bottom line of professional sports can obscure that. That's why it's so maddening to see the impetus for doing the right and selfless thing fall to the very people who could actually use a little extra money in their pockets. Look at how the media packages what went down last night.
It's not entirely analogous to the countless stories you see about GoFundMe accounts being set up to pay medical bills, but by this morning there were already some cropping up trying to get Kessler paid for doing the right thing. Presumably these donations will be driven by other working-class people instead of millionaires and billionaires. None of this, outside of Kessler's cool attitude, should make us feel warm or fuzzy.
If Kessler feels that way this morning, who am I to dull those feelings? Well, I guess I am someone who wants the next person who gets their grubby paws on baseball history to parlay that luck into some life-changing cash. If that next person feels better about it, how about bargaining for a significant charitable donation from an uber-rich franchise?
The only way this happens is if the conversation changes and the pressure is applied where it rightfully belongs. On the fat cats. Not the little guy. It should be seen as terrible public relations for a fan to feel pressured to forfeit six figures. And worse public relations to not make that fan whole in some meaningful, money-based way.
It's high time we stop falling for this playbook.