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The Mother Of All Pearls

Sept. 21, 1998
Sept. 21, 1998

Table of Contents
Sept. 21, 1998

Home Run Chase
Baseball [bonus Piece]
Photo Credits: Getty Images file

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

. . . 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.

This is an article from the Sept. 21, 1998 issue

—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 thepearl 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.

We climbed onto the seats to shout ourselves hoarse, each a child again.

"It would've burned a hole in my heart if I would've hung on to it," Allen said.

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 hismother and his Southern Baptist church had poured into him.

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 thinking 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 thepearl, 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 thepearl 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 pearlcould 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?

The streak by then had reached seven, and nearly three weeks remained for the giant to swat more pearls. The final one was expected to be worth another million. What happened next, you ask? Maybe the people just kept returning the spheres to him, maybe not—after the Largest Pearl, even I stopped counting. All I recall is that a few days later, when the other warrior hit his 61st and 62nd, they went clean out of the park and neither was returned immediately. The man who gathered number 61 on the avenue behind the stadium held on to it to consider his options, while number 62 set off a ferocious street scrum in which one man lost the ball to another after his hand was bitten—and thank god for these people, thank god. For I am thick-skinned and fool enough to tell a fable . . . but certainly not a fairy tale.