Baseball Fans and Taxes: Christian Lopez and the Derek Jeter Ball

Derek Jeter

Photo by Keith Allison on

You’ve probably heard the story about Christian Lopez, the guy who caught Derek Jeter’s 3,000 career hit ball at Yankee Stadium and then was classy enough to return the ball to Mr. Jeter. He was rewarded handsomely by Yankee management with box seat tickets for the rest of the season, autographed balls and other merchandise. There’s been a lot of talk on the radio and in the media about the IRS going after Mr. Lopez for taxes. And while there are some really good articles out there already about the tax issue, I’ve decided to answer some of the actual questions people have been asking me because not all the stories running around out there are accurate.

I’ve heard that the IRS has already issued a bill to Christian Lopez for $10,000, how can they do that? That rumor isn’t true. There’s some speculation about how much tax Lopez will have to pay, but no bill has been issued by the IRS-they just can’t do that. The IRS will have to wait until April 15, 2012 to see any money from this event.

I’ve heard that Christian Lopez will have to pay a gift tax to the IRS for giving the ball to Derek Jeter. Why? First, that’s not true. But this is why people are talking about that: You can give a “gift” to someone with a value of up to $13,000 and not have to deal with any gift tax issues. People estimate that the ball Christian Lopez caught is worth between $275,000 – $300,000. Since Lopez gave it to Jeter, some people are erroneously calling that a gift. Even if they would be right about the gift, you can gift up to $5 million in your lifetime without paying tax on it—it just requires paperwork.

But I say it’s not a gift at all. Christian Lopez caught the ball and gave it back right away. Kind of like turning down a prize at a game show, he just gave it back so there’s no taxable transaction there. I’m from St. Louis. In 1998 when the fan returned Mark McGwire’s ball when McGwire broke Roger Maris’ single season home run record, the IRS did not require a gift tax return. That gives Lopez legal precedent.

But what about the tickets and stuff the Yankees gave him? Will that be taxed or is that a gift too? It would be nice if it could be considered as a gift, but it won’t. I’m pretty sure that the Yankees will issue a 1099 to Christian Lopez for the value of the tickets and merchandise he was awarded.

So he’s screwed no matter what? Not completely. One option is for Christian Lopez is to sell some of his tickets.

But if he sells the tickets, then won’t he have to pay tax on that money too? Only if he makes a profit. You see, because he’s paying tax for receiving the tickets then he has what’s called basis in the tickets. Say for example one of the tickets is worth $100 (I know it’s worth more than that, but let’s make the math easy.) Christian Lopez is getting taxed on receiving the full fair market price of the ticket, right? So it’s like he paid the full $100 for the ticket. So if he sells that same ticket for $100, he hasn’t made a profit on it, so there’s no tax on the $100 (because he’s already paid the tax on it). For you tax geeks, it would go on a Schedule D, just like selling stock.

Now it’s possible that Christian Lopez could sell his $100 ticket for $125. (Come on, really. Wouldn’t it be kind of cool to sit in Christian Lopez’s box seat? I think people would pay extra for that.) If he sells his tickets for more than their face value, he would be stuck paying taxes on the profit. That’s cool, make a profit and smile. If I were Mr. Lopez, I’d sell enough tickets to be able to pay the taxes and have fun going to as many baseball games as I could.

For more tax information about the Jeter baseball, this article at Accounting makes the most sense: