But suddenly, with the pearl his, he entered an altered state: People looked at him and treated him in a way they never had. Officials whispered in his ear, photographers snapped his picture, reporters peppered him with questions, producers begged him to appear on their shows, strangers begged to touch his hand. Even with police protection, he looked over his shoulder—no telling who might come at him for the pearl. He closed his eyes and set his teeth and shook his head as even his grandfather asked him to consider all the justifications for keeping the sphere or selling it. When the game ended, he did what those who had caught pearls 56, 57, 58 and 59 had done. He handed it back to the giant.
He knew the next morning, when he lay in bed half asleep, shuddering as he dreamed that he still possessed the sphere and that hands and voices were coming at him from every angle, that he had done the right thing. I'll never forget his words: "It would've burned a hole in my heart if I would've hung on to it."
Number 61 ricocheted off the window of a restaurant in the faraway seats, split open the finger of a man who reached for it, bounced just a lunge or two away from where number 60 had landed...and came to rest under the seat of a 28-year-old man from St. Louis named Mike Davidson. This fellow tucked the pearl under his shirt as police shepherded him to safer quarters, but he never once paused to puzzle over his dilemma. He recalled that distant relatives had once won a lottery, that their lives had been ruined by all the money grubbers who had sprung from the woodwork and that they were never heard from again. Besides, he loathed having people's eyes upon him; his wife gritted her teeth every time she lifted a camera and he ducked. His voice was flatter than a dial tone, and he kept the red cap of the titan's team tugged low over his hairline. "I'm a lifelong Cardinals fan," he said. "This means more to him and to baseball than a million dollars does to me. Why be greedy?" He couldn't wait to give the pearl to the colossus and be left alone so he could get some sleep before he arose at 4 a.m. to slice cold cuts and dice vegetables in his job preparing food. "Had the spotlight, done with the spotlight," he muttered to all those clawing and cawing behind him.
I still don't know. Maybe goodness gathers more goodness, like a snowball rolling downhill: Six men in a row had now returned their pearls. Maybe goodness isn't goodness at all, but fear—fear of change, fear of the moral pressure that had mounted as each pearl was returned, fear of stepping before the blinding lights and relentless questions and saying, "I don't care what the others did, I'm keeping it, I'm selling it, it's mine." Maybe the fans, who had screamed for years over what had been done to the bond between them and the players, were putting their pearls where their mouths were. Perhaps it could've happened only in that city, with its heartland values, and for that giant...I just can't say.
A few hours before the Largest Pearl was launched, I remember, I took a walk. Now the ante had been raised to a million dollars, but I couldn't stop dunking of a fable by John Steinbeck that I had read, about a man who found the world's largest pearl and dared to dream of how it might lift his family out of poverty...only to be consumed by the jealousy of neighbors and strangers, pursued and attacked until finally his child was killed over the pearl, and the man flung it back in the ocean. I stopped at a park where office workers sat smoking at a picnic table. They all said they'd give the pearl back, but half said it after a deep sigh. I moved to another park a few blocks away, where four men sat on a bench swigging beer and vodka, one with a quarter in his left ear. They were unanimous. "You crazy?" yelped one. "Give that mother back? In their hearts, everyone wants to sell it—they're just afraid to say it now. Nobody wants to go down in history as the one man who sold it, but what they don't realize is he'll go down in history as the one man who had sense."
It frightened me that evening, the frenzy that ensued when one of the players tossed a sphere up into the seats three rows behind me. Men and women dived for it, while under their weight screamed a seven-year-old boy. Perhaps the Good Lord himself grew unnerved by the human experiment He had hatched. Perhaps He touched the giant's bat and kept number 62 from reaching us. It streaked just over the fence, into a storage area below the seats, where a member of the crew that groomed the stadium grass and dirt pounced upon it just before his brother did.
The young man's right hand went numb. His body trembled. Management of the giant's team had told employees that anyone who caught a pearl could do with it as he wished. But the man who held the Largest Pearl was a 22-year-old named Tim Forneris who grew up fielding grounders and imitating Cardinals in his backyard and called the giant "Mr. McGwire." He had been an altar boy, a magna cum laude graduate of a Jesuit university, a volunteer at a homeless shelter. Even as he reeled across the field during the celebration, the pearl throbbing in his pocket, he bent to pick up the litter thrown by the euphoric mob.
His brother, Tino, also a groundskeeper, had asked him to stop and think—of a million dollars, of the lifetime of struggle and toil he might detour. "Dirty money," Tim said later. "It would brand you to sell it. It's sad to hoard things. Life is all about experience, which I have here tonight."
I remember wondering if what the people in the faraway seats had done would touch the players and the owners the next time a new city and an extra million dollars in income beckoned. I remember people snickering at me. I remember a scribe in one of the grandest gazettes calling the man who returned the Largest Pearl a dupe—no, it was "a pigeon." But what man, I ask, can truly judge what another man must do in order to sleep soundly at night and look into the mirror in the morning?