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The Mother Of All Pearls
Gary Smith
September 21, 1998
For a few brief, shining moments, the fans who retrieved Mark McGwire's monumental home run balls behaved with an unselfishness that might someday be recounted as fable.
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September 21, 1998

The Mother Of All Pearls

For a few brief, shining moments, the fans who retrieved Mark McGwire's monumental home run balls behaved with an unselfishness that might someday be recounted as fable.

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...and there it lay, the great pearl, perfect as the moon. It captured the light and refined it and gave it back in silver incandescence.... It was the greatest pearl in the world.
—JOHN STEINBECK
The Pearl

Even now, in my wrinkled years, I cannot help myself. Each time I hear the crack of the bat I am there again, screaming and throwing up my arms with the mob, in that long-ago summer when the giant cast his pearls into the sky. Everyone, of course, knows the story of the giant, but the tale of the people who caught those pearls is one I don't tell so often anymore. No one believes it, and I am far too old to suffer cackles and clucks.

I remember carrying my glove in one hand and my fishing net in the other, joining the 50,000 who surged toward the coliseum on the riverbank in September of the year nineteen hundred ninety-eight. In stadiums all across the land, the giant had already driven 59 of those five-ounce spheres over the faraway fences. He was marching toward history, toward the magical sums of 60 and 61 that giants from decades long before had smote, and each sphere he socked into the rabble's hands became more precious. Wealthy men wished to possess one to attract attention to their corporations or their causes, to display it beneath thick, impenetrable glass or to hide it in a vault and say, It is mine. Me? I still don't know my motive or precisely what I would have done had luck tapped me. I just thought it would be wonderful to reach up and pluck a pearl from the sky.

Two offers, each of a million dollars, had been made for the Largest Pearl, number 62, and surely those just before it, as well as those just after, would be worth tens or hundreds of thousands. No more than 4,500 seats existed in the region of the stadium where the pearls would most likely land—far better odds than any lottery offered—so you can guess what happened. Shrewd men gobbled them up weeks in advance and sold them to us romantics and pearl diggers for $150 one day...$250 the next...$350 the third! So strong was the lust for these pearls that people feared for our safety. Pleas for calm were issued, along with the suggestion that a net be placed above the fence to catch the pearls and save us from ourselves. Guards and policemen were posted at every aisle and ordered to race to the spheres' landing sites and protect the people who captured them.

What made this all the more intriguing, and more wondrous too, was that another warrior, wearing another team's colors, was stalking the giant, just a few clouts behind. Depending upon what this stalker did, the value of the spheres could change hourly.

Further complicating matters, the giant had requested that his pearls be returned to him rather than sold, so that they might be placed in a museum in a distant rural town where others might view them. He wanted them back for free—he would pay nothing other than a few bats or jerseys on which he would ink his name. Money would corrupt the quest, he felt, and oh, what a fevered discussion this loosed on the streets, in the taverns, around the breakfast tables. Many people concurred with the giant because they loved this gentle man who gave vast sums of money to unfortunate children, who spoke of spirituality and karma and of how purity was repaid with purity. But it was all so confusing, because...well, I needn't remind you that the quest was occurring in a land whose fiercest opportunists and entrepreneurs were its icons and leaders. Don't ask me how, but it happened: A game had turned into a national referendum on the price of a man's soul.

By god, cried one soul, anyone who found a pearl worth a million dollars owed it to his children and their college educations to cash it in—those were true family values. Yes, chimed in others, hadn't the ballplayers and owners already trampled on the purity long ago, turning themselves and their teams into commodities that jumped from city to city, wherever more cash was offered, and hadn't they even called off the games completely when their demands weren't met just four summers before? But the pearl belongs to the giant, others kept insisting. Well, some allowed, they might sell it, but they'd be sure to give a fitting portion of the money to charity. "This town is just stupid," a man sitting in front of me finally snorted. "Everybody is too nice. It's like winning a lottery—how can you give it back?" And none of their words meant anything, for no one truly knew what he'd do until the pearl lay in his hands.

How can I bring you to feel what we felt, pulling cameras and painted bull's-eyes and gloves—old cracked ones and shiny new ones—out from under our seats each time the giant approached the white-lined box to make his attempt? We climbed onto the seats to shout ourselves hoarse, pounding fists into our leather, each of us turning into a child again. Nerves jangled in my belly: Could I handle it if he whacked one to me? Behind me sat a woman from South Korea who had seen herself catching the Largest Pearl in a dream. Beside me, on three straight days, sat men who had flown from Japan to reach for it. We shook hands, we talked and laughed...but one flick of the giant's wrists could turn us into enemies, all.

The sun was murderous on the days when the titan launched numbers 60 and 61, as if God had placed a magnifying glass over the stadium to inspect the heart of every man who inhabited it. It's not important for you to know that 50 seconds before number 60 hissed over the fence, I was standing at the very spot in the aisle where it landed. All you need to know is that while an usher was sweeping me away, another man, craftier than I, was evading guards and lurking just inside a portal, then diving on the pearl as eight or nine others piled on him, pounding and clawing. All you really need to know is what he did with it.

He was Deni Allen, a handsome fellow just out of college. He pushed the sphere inside the right pocket of his shorts as police whisked him away. He still played Wiffle ball with his pals and had vowed to them that he would return the pearl to the giant if he caught it; those were the morals his mother and his Southern Baptist church had poured into him.

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