Derek Jeter, Christian Lopez, and Rational Choices

by Joshua Tucker on July 10, 2011 · 6 comments

in Sports

Yesterday afternoon NY Yankees star Derek Jeter got his 3000th hit, which, for readers who do not follow baseball, is a big deal. Jeter is only the 28th player in MLB history 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 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. 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. In his own words:

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, 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—the recipient of the gift, Derek Jeter, has boatloads of money already. I don’t know anything about Mr. Lopez’s finances, but based on the ESPN’s description of him 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 can easily be explained away. Or what about games such as the prisoner’s dilemma or battle of the sexes—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. 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 exactly like we would have expected. Or perhaps, as Mr. Lopez’s father put it:

“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….


Frank Lynch July 10, 2011 at 7:43 am

This post is an excellent pairing with Andrew Gelman’s prior, on NY judges leaving for private practice.

Michael July 10, 2011 at 11:23 am

Doesn’t Mr. Lopez answer the question for you? He says, “it was never about the money, it was about the milestone.” Mr. Lopez’s preferences were ordered (1) milestone, (2) money. The only rational strategy he could choose to honor his preferences was to return the ball. Had he chosen to sell the ball, he would have been working towards his second preference instead of his first, which would have been irrational.

Andrew Gelman July 10, 2011 at 12:01 pm


Why would anyone want to “fit Mr. Lopez into a world of rational actors”? I think everyone realizes that people are rational in some settings but not others.

Boz Oliver July 10, 2011 at 12:47 pm

But while they prate of economic laws, men and women are starving. We must lay hold of the fact that economic laws are not made by nature. They are made by human beings. – FDR

Andrew Gelman July 10, 2011 at 5:11 pm

P.S. Why do you interpret Jeter’s willingness to appear on billboards as evidence in favor of the rational actor model? If he appears on billboards, presumably his perceived benefit (in money and fame) is greater than his perceived costs. If he said no to the billboards (as, in fact, he may have said no to other offers), then presumably the costs are greater than the benefits. The two possible decisions seem to me equally explainable (or not) via the rational actor model.

I’m not saying the rational actor model is useless–my colleagues and I published some papers on why it’s rational to vote! But I don’t see its relevance here, one way or the other.

Joshua Tucker July 11, 2011 at 2:58 am

@ Andrew:

You are of course correct that no one really believes that all people behave rationally all of the time. But I guess my thinking here (as it has been with my recent posts on tax preferences) is that we have all these models that take as their fundamental premise that people will choose the option that maximizes their own financial interests, so it is always interesting to me when we see deviations from this premise. Think about it the other way: what would be the response to a model that took as its basic premise that a 23 year old cell phone salesman would give his most valuable asset to a multimillionaire? So one way to look at this is that I’ve simply identified an anecdotal anomaly where one person didn’t behave in a “rational” manner by most models we have out there, and maybe it is no more than that. But I guess the potentially more interesting way to think about it is in terms of whether there is an interesting theoretical argument there about private vs. public actions (perhaps somewhat in the spirit Diana’s Mutz work on conflict with one’s social networks and how it affects public vs. private political behavior).

On Jeter and billboards, I have a two-fold response. First, it was just a simplistic view of the “rational” approach to maximizing income – you should do something if you get financial benefits from it that outweigh the costs, ergo Jeter does the adverstiments because they give him more money and therefore he is being rational. (I guess a mroe sophisticated argument would suggest maybe he isn’t being rational, because the marginal contribution of the ads to his wealth may not actually outweight the costs of the photo shoot, so your point here is well taken.) But the second reason I added the footnote is that I am a long suffering Mets fan, and I think my antipathy for both Jeter and the Yankees had been kept in check thoughout my writing of the post, but had to just pop out a bit at the end. But hey, at least I didn’t imply that Jeter shrugs at dead dogs!

@ Michael: I actually had something about this in the original post. I agree, we could always build a model where we add “honoring milestones” to the utility function, and then let individuals vary over how much they care about “honoring milestones” as opposed to “financial rewards”. It’s just that we don’t usually do this. With the comment on altruism, I was trying to get at this point (of what else would be in a utility function) – one thing we do sometimes have in models is a preference for altruism, but we don’t usually discuss altruism in terms of transferring assets to multimillionaires.

Thanks for the comments!

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