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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As well it should. Who else in the entire ballpark had awakened that Sunday morning, pulled out a packet of flash cards and begun reciting a dozen statements crafted as neurolinguistic tools to play on his subconscious and improve his life?

Each and every morning I plan my day in an efficient and productive manner to maximize the hours....

My lean waistline is an indication of my attitude toward life.... Who else had awakened that morning and reminded himself of the 10 things he had pledged to do daily: plan his day, clean his one-bedroom San Francisco apartment, stretch, read, exercise, account for his expenditures, utter the 12 affirmations from the flash cards in the morning and then again at night, guess at something that might happen that day (to build anticipation) and practice his golf swing? Who else had awakened and, because it was the first weekend of a new month, checked a monthly review sheet to make sure he'd lived up to his vows during the previous month, that he'd bathed at least twice (baths are more contemplative than showers), read both a business and nonbusiness book, gotten his monthly massage, visited his parents at least twice, reviewed his file of photographs that elicited positive emotions, and graded himself from 1 to 100 on his relationships, health, nutrition, finances, career, education, spiritual life and golf game?

The beauty of it was, it worked! That baseball was flying, as if magnetized, straight toward the most enthusiastic, most determined, most optimistic American in the whole damn ballpark. Toward the one voted by high school classmates the likeliest to succeed, the one who hadn't let the 20 intervening years wilt any of his wonder at the world or his belief in himself. The guy who'd spend 14 hours writing up a business plan for a start-up venture, hop in the car at 10 p.m., drive an hour and a half out of San Fran to lay a sleeping bag on the hood and watch a meteor shower on a mountaintop till 3 a.m. and then decide, What better capper on a meteor shower than to watch the sunrise? The one who had called a pal on his cellphone just a few minutes earlier in the game and informed him that No. 73 was coming, baby, and he was going to snag it.

The headphones piping play-by-play into Alex's ears disconnected him from the world, cocooned him from everything except the ball soaring toward him. All sound ceased. The dot in the sky grew larger. Time became taffy tugged at both ends: 5.7 seconds became forever. He didn't have to move.

Clearly, he'd think later—for he believed in such things—the ball was meant for him. He lifted his glove, unaware of what was happening around him. Unaware of how many other human beings believed that Barry's ball was meant for them.


This was what Todd McFarlane had feared. This lust, this frenzy, this stampede was what he'd felt in his bones, the premonition he'd had the moment he purchased McGwire's 70th home run ball for $3 million two years before. That was 25 times the amount paid for the next-most-expensive baseball in history: Babe Ruth's first Yankee homer, auctioned off in 1998 for 120 grand. I've just given people a false sense of how much a baseball is worth, he remembered thinking. I've just turned people into lunatics.

The ball struck the top of the webbing of a glove whose pliability Alex Popov so prized that he'd appropriated it from his girlfriend a year and a half earlier. There was an explosion of noise from 41,000 throats, then darkness as he fell to the cement floor beneath a wall of flesh and bone. All sounds—the crowd's roar, the blasting home run music, the shrieks of treasure-seekers entangled in the pile (Help! Get off me!)—grew muffled and distant, as if heard through water. Alex's headphones were ripped off, a lens of his glasses knocked out. Michael Popov, a surfer, felt as if he were being lifted and carried by a wave, only the liquid below and above him was human, the man on his back was Lane Hayashi, and suddenly he couldn't breathe.

What was occurring in that heap? Each survivor tells a different tale.

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