SI Vault
 
THE BALL (An American Story)
Gary Smith
July 29, 2002
Inside a locked metal box. Inside a thick gray vault. Inside a yellow stucco building. In a town named Milpitas, Calif. ¶ There lies a baseball. ¶ No one may play with this ball. No one may touch it or see it. Mr. Hayashi and Mr. Popov are just too angry—each insists the ball is his—and there's simply too much riding on it. Mr. Hayashi's reputation is at stake, and his obligation to the spirit that steered the baseball into his hands. So are much of Mr. Popov's savings, a year of his life, and his self-esteem as an outfielder. So are $1.5 million. That's how much the baseball is said to be worth.
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July 29, 2002

The Ball (an American Story)

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A 12-person jury will decide the case, which is scheduled to begin on Oct. 7—by sheer chance, one year to the day after the event—and Popov will have to convince at least nine of the jurors in order to win. Jury selection will be critical because informal polls have shown that blue-collar males tend to favor Hayashi and the last-man-standing rule in bleacher baseball ethics, while females tend to side with Popov.

Clearly, the thick vault that contains the baseball under Judge David Garcia's temporary dominion hasn't diminished the ball's power over human beings. It lured Mike Wranovics, a young filmmaker from Stanford, to begin filming a documentary entitled Up for Grabs. It led a fan, who mistakenly believed that he'd photographed the Bonds ball in Popov's hand, to try to sell the picture to him for $100,000. It made witness Yarris take out an extra million dollars' worth of life insurance, in case his testimony somehow leads to his elimination, and it haunted his sleep: He kept dreaming that in the chaos he couldn't find his way back to the son he left behind to pursue the relic that day.

It filled one gay witness with the fear of being outed by the trial and attendant publicity. It set off a security alert for Bonds's 600th home run, coming soon. It reduced Giants employees and Bonds himself to silence—none would comment on the case. It made the father of cameraman Josh Keppel wish his son's lens had never caught the ball's flight, for without the video there would probably never have been a lawsuit. It drove Patrick to move to a new apartment and change his phone number. It flushed him out of the woodwork and onto the network morning shows so the world would hear more than Popov's claims.

Still, eight months after the event, each visit to the mailbox churns Patrick's dread, for he knows another letter full of bewildering legalese and mysterious ramifications likely awaits him. Still, he broods over questions Popov's lawyer asked him during the deposition that his own attorneys angrily terminated. Why did the lawyer ask for Patrick's driver's license number? Why did he want to know how much memory and RAM Patrick's home computer has? Patrick doesn't know when or if he'll ever go to a ball game at Pac Bell Park again.

"It's a curse, getting that ball," says Ray Scarbosio, a friend of Popov's. "Look what Alex is going through. Look at Hayashi—how'd you like to be him? And what do you do with the ball, anyway? You can't wear it around your neck. You can't leave it in your apartment. Someone could steal it, or the dog could eat it. It's no fun leaving it in a safe. So you sell it, and people call you a greedy son of a bitch. Or you don't sell it—and you're a fool. I'm telling you, it's a curse."

******

One Saturday in April, Popov took his glove and his 72-year-old father, Nikolai, to the spot where he'd caught and lost that lovely curse. Picture the old Russian, who had never been to a big league ball game before, listening with furrowed brow as his son excitedly demonstrated everything that had happened there.

Picture Alex breathlessly explaining the loss of a cowhide-covered sphere to a man whose family had its 125-acre farm in Ukraine confiscated by the Soviet government and collectivized in 1929. Picture Alex describing his trauma to a man who, when he was 12 years old, was on his way to visit his uncle, grandfather, stepgrandmother and stepuncle when they were executed by the German army that had swept in and taken over their valleys and towns. Who hid with his father for a week beneath an overturned, manure-covered hay wagon so the counterattacking Soviet army wouldn't find them and force them into service. And who finally fled the horror with his parents, a 700-mile migration that ended when German soldiers rounded them up on the Hungarian border and shipped them off to forced labor in Poland.

Picture Alex, with his wide-eyed fervor, decrying the injustice he'd suffered to a man whose own dad was not only put in forced labor but also later locked away in a German concentration camp. To a man who, when the war ended, spent three years in a refugee camp in Germany with his family, hungering to emigrate to America, to freedom and opportunity, but unable to get the necessary documents. Who moved with his parents to Venezuela for nine years instead and finally, at 26, got the visa that put him on a freighter to Philadelphia in 1957 with a dozen words of English. Who helped his father establish his 170-acre farm in Bethel, then went cross-country with his Scottish bride to start on his own as a machinist for Hewlett Packard in Silicon Valley.

Barry Bonds? Nikolai didn't even know who the fellow was that day last autumn when his son called, babbling something about having just caught Bonds's 73rd. So imagine what the old man said a few weeks later when his son explained to him that he needed to file a restraining order to prevent a Japanese-American man from selling a baseball before Alex had a chance to prove that the baseball belonged to him, and that because the worth of the ball could plummet while it was locked away in a Bank of America vault awaiting the trial—see, this Barry Bonds or someone else might hit 75 and knock a couple of zeroes right off the price tag—Alex needed, uh...well...he needed his father to pledge $100,000 worth of his property as collateral against the potential devaluation of this, uh...baseball.

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