It’s a storyline that could have been lifted straight from a promotional script for Major League Baseball. Jennifer Valdivia, a 12-year-old girl taken to her very first baseball game by her Cuban-born grandfather, is sitting in the right-field stands in Miami’s Land Shark Stadium when one of the game’s top young sluggers, Ryan Howard(notes) of the defending World Series champion Philadelphia Phillies, hits a home run that lands in the row behind her and bounces into her hands, instead of to her envious 15-year-old brother. The ball is not just any home run. It is the 200th of Howard’s career, making him the fastest Major League player to reach that number.
Not only does Jennifer have a souvenir to treasure, but she is whisked away to the Phillies’ clubhouse with a promise, she says, that she’ll get to meet the great slugger himself after the game.
But while the final scene of such a feel-good tale does indeed have the girl happily tucking the baseball under her pillow, it comes only after she says she was stood up by Howard, the ball was taken away because the Phillies said he wanted it, and a lawsuit was filed before she was able to get it back, months later.
Those are the broad outlines of the story as told by Delfa Vanegas, Jennifer’s mother, and Norm Kent, the Fort Lauderdale lawyer who on Monday filed a lawsuit in Miami after fruitlessly trying to get the ball back from the Phillies, only to have the team finally deliver it by courier the same day.
“They’re saying I stole the ball from Mr. Howard,” Vanegas said. “I didn’t steal anything from Mr. Howard. Whoever caught the ball, the ball belongs to that person.
“Why did they take the ball away? Because they knew it was a very valuable ball. They took advantage of my daughter.”
This was not about money, Vanegas insisted, although she admits that she contacted a Miami TV consumer affairs reporter after co-workers told her that the ball’s historical significance gave it added value. The reporter, in turn, put her in touch with Kent.
According to the lawyer, security officials escorted Valdivia to the clubhouse during the July 16 game and a Phillies equipment manager persuaded her to give up the ball, telling her to come back after the game and that Howard personally would give her a signed ball. “She thought he was going to sign the ball she caught,” Kent said. “She’s 12 years old. She didn’t have a clue.”
Valdivia came back as instructed, Kent said, but Howard did not appear and a club official sent her home with a different ball autographed by Howard. He said that when he contacted the Phillies, a club official said they couldn’t give it back because they’d already given it to Howard, and offered tickets to Jennifer for a Phillies game when the team returned to Miami in September.
When Kent pressed the issue, he said he received a letter from the team’s counsel, William Webb, saying the club would return the ball but couldn’t authenticate it, and that Valdivia would have to sign a confidentiality agreement. The lawyer refused.
It was only when he went to court and filed the suit, he said, that the ball appeared the same day.