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.
It looks like such a simple thing, the ball in the metal box. But if you were to begin to pull it apart to know it at its core, you'd have to unstitch 88 inches of waxed thread sewn in a factory on the slopes of a Costa Rican volcano, peel back two swaths of cowhide taken from a tannery in Tennessee, unravel 369 yards of Vermont wool and pare away a layer of rubber applied in Batesville, Miss.—and you still wouldn't have gotten to its heart. It's sort of like this story.
It's the tale of a record-setting baseball struck by a wooden stick swung by the descendant of slaves from Africa, smacked into the glove of the son of a Russian immigrant who'd been captured and forced into labor by the Nazis, popped into the fingers of the child of Japanese-Americans once locked away in internment camps, and finally landed in a safe-deposit box whose key is held by a San Francisco judge, the grandson of Mexican immigrants who fled Pancho Villa. That's Bonds to Popov to Hayashi to Garcia, if you're scoring at home. And now the lawyers—third-generation Japanese-, Chinese-and Italian-Americans—are in feverish preparation for an October trial to settle the lawsuit over who will possess this ball. That's right. It's a genuine American story.
Ah, but this is the America that makes your stomach turn. The one in which pettiness and greed and lawyers chasing contingency fees can sully anything, even a thing so pure as a baseball sailing through the sky on a Sunday afternoon. You're forgetting already: Nothing's simple. Wait till the stitches come off and the yarn starts unfolding. Wait till you see how far back, back, back Barry Bonds's maple bat made that baseball go.
Their eyes met, a few minutes before their fates did. Two strangers, on last season's final day, standing upon the loveliest piece of baseball real estate on earth, the rightfield arcade at Pac Bell Park—a brick reef poised between the glorious green of a ball field and blue of a bay. Two strangers gazing together upon the festival in McCovey Cove, frisbees and foam balls flying over a flotilla of canoes, kayaks, surfboards, rowboats and motorboats, over women in wet suits and guys in bull's-eye T-shirts and Batman and Robin suits and barking retrievers and fishing nets lashed to broomsticks, all waiting for treasure to drop from the sky.
Something else, that very moment, was dropping from the sky. The U.S. assault on Afghanistan had commenced just a few hours earlier. Knots of people were staring at TV monitors near the concession stands as F-16s and cruise missiles screamed through the clouds and Special Forces parachuted behind enemy lines. We were all in this together. We'd all just learned, the hard way, what really mattered. Just 25 days had passed since Sept. 11.
Looking down from the arcade at all their bobbing brothers, Alexander Nikolaivich Popov and Patrick Mitsuo Hayashi exchanged a smile.
They shared things, the two strangers, that they never could have guessed. Both had graduated from Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo. Both had become fascinated by computers and had majored in electrical engineering. Both had gone on to market high-tech equipment in Silicon Valley. Both were passionate golfers and still bachelors in their mid-30s. Both had come to Pac Bell Park wearing baseball gloves and accompanied by brothers with whom they'd shared bedrooms and front-yard ball games growing up.
It was time to be boys again. Alex Popov, waiting with a baseball outside the subway station near the stadium, had tossed it to his brother, Michael, the moment he emerged, and the two of them had weaved through pedestrians, flinging fly balls to each other for a half-dozen blocks in preparation for the big one. As soon as they reached the ballpark, Alex traded his $40 lower box seat to a scalper in exchange for a 10-buck standing-room-only ticket, like the one his brother already held, so they'd both be able to stand on the rightfield arcade walkway.