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.

Patrick Hayashi, picking up his brother Lane at the San Jose airport, had spoken excitedly about their chances as they drove to the ballpark. Patrick likened the SRO tickets they'd purchased on eBay to lottery tickets. Lane said no, their odds were much better than the lottery's—why, if Bonds pulled one to right, as was his habit, and didn't get quite enough of it to blast it into San Francisco Bay, Lane and Patrick would be two of perhaps 1,500 people in the sweepstakes.

A few minutes before Bonds's first-inning at bat, both pairs of brothers split up. So they could cover more ground—that's what they told themselves. So brother wouldn't be clawing brother over a ball whose value, memorabilia marketing agent Michael Barnes estimated, was between $1 million and $2 million—that's what they didn't say.

By pure chance Michael Popov and Lane Hayashi ended up a few feet from each other, in dead right, while Patrick Hayashi and Alex Popov ended up likewise, just behind the 365-foot sign nearer to right center, where Alex's online research had told him the biggest number of Bonds's bombs had gone.

Bonds approached the plate. Two outs, nobody on. The brothers sized up their neighbors. Their enemies. Alex Popov, six feet and 200 pounds, decided he was taller than anyone within arm's reach, but just in case, he planted one foot on a box containing television cable so he could make himself even taller. He took no notice of the KNTV reporter beside him with a microphone stuffed inside his jacket, angling for the big story, nor of the reporter's cameraman a dozen feet away. Kathryn Sorenson, a Xerox repairwoman in a wool cap, surveyed the eager mass of males in their 30s and 40s and noticed the 5'5" Patrick Hayashi. How's that little short guy gonna get the ball? she thought. He doesn't have a chance in hell. He's gonna get stomped.

Three balls, two strikes to Bonds. Had the slugger mulled the ethical question staring him in the eye? He'd already smashed the alltime home run record held by Mark McGwire, hitting Nos. 71 and 72 two days earlier. The 72 ball ricocheted back onto the field and was presented to Bonds, which meant that all he had to do now, in a game that was meaningless in the standings, was to hit anything except a home run, and the 72 ball he possessed would be the million-dollar ball. What should he do?

Dodgers pitcher Dennis Springer coiled. The Hayashis and Popovs tensed. Springer slung a 3-and-2 knuckler. Bonds dropped his hands and lifted, a launching-pad lick, perhaps the most unselfish act of his life. The ball shot up, up and farther up—could a ball hit that high travel far enough? Up over a city where the gold rushers had thronged a century and a half earlier in quest of instant wealth. Up over a town where the rush had just happened all over again, a dotcom boom in which websites and high-tech firms had sprouted and monetized, in the locals' lingo, overnight. Where everyone had babbled of click-through rates and vested stock options and rents tripling and condos that couldn't be built quickly enough to accommodate the wave of worldwidewebbers washing in. Up over the stadium at the epicenter of it all, the cyberbarons' playground where Yahoo.com, Schwab.com, Webvan, CNET, TicketWeb, TiVo, Blue Mountain and Wired magazine had hung their 10,000-watt shingles from the facades, and where every spiderwebbed warehouse within a 10-block radius had been converted into a dotcommer's office or his two-bedroom pad.

Up, up over a mob that had just seen the four-year bubble burst, the dot detonate, instant riches vaporizing and the lights blinking out on those ballpark billboards one by one as the city of San Francisco discovered, to its shock, that the world didn't need a dozen online pet-supply companies.

High above Hayashi, one of 40,000 people laid off by Nortel Networks just a few months before, and Popov, whose online venture, Man.com, had gone up in smoke. High against a gray sky, one last dot worth a million bucks.

Oh... my... God. Slowly it dawned on Popov. That ball wasn't just high. That ball was deep. That ball was...monetized. And coming straight toward him.

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.

KNTV reporter Ted Rowlands says his first flush of ecstasy at finding himself at the bottom, literally, of a big story was replaced by panic as he was crushed against Alex Popov, the air driven from his lungs.

Kathryn Sorenson, who played tackle football with boys while growing up, says it felt like the middle of a blitz with Alex Popov as the quarterback. Says she saw people raking at him and kneeing him to obtain the ball she's sure he caught and took to the ground. Says she saw Patrick Hayashi bite a teenage boy and thrust his hand underneath Popov's crotch to try to get the ball.

Jim Callahan, a piano-shop proprietor whom Sorenson identifies as one of the ball-rakers, says no, the experience was neither scary nor violent—that he, in fact, said, "Sorry, excuse me," as he foraged for the nugget beneath a man's buttocks. Besides, he adds, he was looking right into Alex's glove one second after Alex hit the ground, and the ball he saw inside it wasn't the Bonds ball, but somehow another one, with black felt-tip lettering on it.

Doug Yarris, a dentist, says that's not possible, that he landed with his head two or three feet from Popov's glove as it lay tucked near Alex's torso, and that the ball inside the glove was the one Bonds hit.

Kevin Griffin, a plumbing contractor who agrees that the ball should be Popov's, reeled away with a new insight into his species: "I felt bad for Alex. I felt bad for humanity. It opened my eyes to how ruthless human beings can be."

Jeff Hacker and Paul Castro, who design display panels for military aircraft, insist that no theft or atrocity occurred and that Popov himself told them a half-hour later—which Alex denies—that he must have lost the ball after transferring it into his clothing in an attempt to protect the million-dollar one by pulling a switcheroo with a second ball.

Alex? He says he had the ball for at least 45 seconds but that no man could be expected to withstand such an assault, and that he can't recall transferring it from his glove to his clothing, but God knows, in that madness he might've considered it.

On and on went the scrum, new bodies joining in whooping celebration as if it were a mosh pit, some in hope that a TV eye was watching and making them immortal, others determined to keep scavenging because no one had yet stood and displayed ownership of the ball. Somehow, the million-dollar nugget seemed to have vanished.

And where was security? Nearly half the security guards that the Giants had contracted to supervise the stands that day were no-shows. A half minute elapsed before a Major League Baseball security officer could reach the maelstrom, another half minute before two reinforcements arrived, all in plain clothes. "Where is it? Cough it up!" they demanded, yanking bodies out by the scalp and scruff of the neck, but because they wore no uniforms the chaos multiplied, the treasure-seekers believing that three more bullies were bent on becoming rich by hook or by crook.

At last Alex was excavated, gouged and dazed. All eyes fixed on him. The ball in his hand was a squishy imposter, one he'd just picked up as he felt around for the Bonds ball now missing from his glove. "This isn't it!" he cried. Ted Rowlands, still convinced Alex was the new millionaire, whipped his microphone out of his jacket to interview him. Kathryn Sorenson flinched—she thought the flash of metal was a gun. Alex's hands groped his jacket and pants pocket in bewilderment. "I caught it!" he cried. "It f——-' hit my glove!"

Slowly, a few people began to notice a small Asian man behind Alex wearing a wide grin...and holding up a baseball. Who was he, the littlest guy in the bunch—and how could he possibly have come up with the treasure? "Who's got it?" Patrick Hayashi quietly asked. "I got it."

The security men's eyes flashed: Yes, it bore the markings of a big league ball. People blinked. People cheered. People began coming to their senses. An African-American man, blood running down his nose, hurried to his crying daughter. A wheelchair was summoned for an injured woman. An Asian woman sobbed.

Popov spluttered as the security men formed a wedge around Hayashi and the sacred ball, and swept them away.

The world needed to know who possessed the pearl. A Giants official placed a pen and notepad in Hayashi's hand. Patrick tried to write his name and gave up. His hand shook so much, he couldn't grip the pen.

In the quiet of the Giants' ballpark operations office, he stared at the ball. What had he just done? He'd gone to the concrete amid the tangled heap. He'd seen the ball—just lying there on the cement, he says. Opportunity: the thing that his grandparents and mother had left war-decimated Japan in search of. He'd extended his hand....

Him. The boy who'd always been careful not to do anything that would make anyone look at him. Not to sing. Not to dance. Not to argue. Not to sign up for any extracurricular activity at school nor to raise his hand from his seat in the back of every classroom, even when he knew he knew the answer. The chunky second baseman who might've played more than just two years of Little League ball if not for that part when you had to step to the plate with everyone watching you.

Lane kept bopping him on the shoulder, crowing, "You got the ball! It's the biggest record in all of sports! You've got history!" Even Patrick, nowhere near the sports fan Lane was, felt its power. It was as if the ball had sailed through the century, from Babe Ruth to Roger Maris to Mark McGwire to Barry Bonds...to him. What should he do with it? Just walk out of here with it in his hand? The Giants suggested placing it in the vault of a local hotel, and he nodded. His lips and tongue couldn't form words.

Just once before in his life had he taken a risk, lit a match to a piece of paper when he was seven, and whoosh, the pine tree that stood a foot from the house next door had shot up in flames, and in another few seconds, if his father hadn't raced over with a hose....

His father. What else could explain how the ball had ended up, out of all those hungry hands, in Patrick's? Nothing else made sense. In almost all his memories of his dad—repairing dents and repainting cars in the driveway for friends, puttering around the house, taking walks with Patrick to feed the ducks at the pond—there was a Giants hat on his father's head and a Giants game on his transistor. There was that yelp and hand clap that jolted his wife every time Bonds jolted one. There was that easy thing to talk about whenever Patrick wished to feel close to him. Right up to the end, when the clot formed in his father's brain two years earlier and all but snuffed out that happy-go-lucky man, leaving him on life support while the family frantically tried to find Patrick, who was driving home from San Diego. Two days later Patrick walked through the front door, expecting the welcoming goody bag his father always prepared for his visits, and got the wallop of his life.

He spent his dad's last night watching and talking and crying over the near-lifeless body, and he spent the days leading up to this historic Giants game thinking, God, how much I wish Dad could be right there with us watching his guy, Barry, launch one into eternity.

Maybe... yes, he must've. Suddenly Patrick was filled with a certainty that it was his father who had guided the ball into his sight amid that snarl of fingers and elbows and knees. That Barry Bonds and a baseball had brought Patrick and Larry Hayashi together again. He pictured, at that very moment, his dad smiling down at him.

Now Patrick might meet his father's hero. A mob of media would be waiting to speak to Bonds and Patrick both at a press conference as soon as the game was over.

Patrick sagged into his chair as his brother left with a police escort to store the baseball. Two Giants employees were talking in the next room. Patrick couldn't help eavesdropping. "That guy's life's about to change forever," one said. "His neighbors will know who he is, people will recognize him wherever he goes."

Dread began to grow in some part of Patrick that wasn't numb. He was so simple and unadorned a man that he never hung anything on his apartment walls, so private a man that his personal life was a blank to his family. He hadn't thought of fame—of having all America's eyes on him—when he'd reached for the ball. Now he became aware of a stir outside the door. Someone else besides the media, he was told, was waiting out there. Some fan claiming that the sacred ball had been stolen from him.

No, Patrick told Giants officials. He didn't want to meet the media horde. He just wanted go home and begin sorting through another tangled heap, the pile of emotions inside him. It had all seemed so simple, just reaching out and taking hold of the ball. Or had the ball taken hold of him?

So many people all across the Mediterranean basin once craved possession of John the Baptist's skull that soon there were John the Baptist skulls all across the Mediterranean basin. The Shroud of Turin, purported to be the burial cloth of Jesus Christ, was reportedly stolen from Constantinople and taken to France during the Fourth Crusade. Jesus's crown of thorns is said to reside in the church of Sainte Chappelle in Paris—never mind that 25 cathedrals across Europe claim to own thorns from that crown. In the sixth century the bodies of saints were dug up and cut into pieces to be distributed or sold.

Ownership of objects once touched by or belonging to someone who has attained immortality makes a man matter—and maybe immortal too. Such objects have always been worth lying, stealing and pillaging for.

Something deep and powerful began to stir inside Alex as it sunk in that his relic was gone. By the second inning, ushers and police were arriving to sort out the mushrooming controversy, and a few dozen people who had seen the ball enter his glove began chanting, "Do the right thing! Do the right thing!" By the fourth inning he'd collected a pocketful of telephone numbers from witnesses. Doug Yarris had offered his because, as a 12-year-old at a Stanford game, he had caught a football that had been kicked into the stands on an extra point, and it had been ripped from his arms by two kids. Sorenson offered hers because, she says, "I'm tired of seeing injustice. I'm tired of seeing O.J. Simpson get away with murder."

By the fifth inning Alex had received a shrug from Giants officials—they said he'd have to pursue his claim on his own—and the attention of four reporters intrigued by his story. By the eighth he'd received a business card from a lawyer who offered to represent him. And a question from the KNTV reporter: "Are you gonna sue?"

By 6 p.m. he was standing in his underwear as his girlfriend snapped photos of the abrasions on his elbows and knees and the welts on his head.

By 1:30 a.m. he was waiting outside the San Francisco Chronicle's offices to get the story hot off the presses, the first-edition headline hitting him like a shovel in the gut: MAN LOSES FORTUNE AT BOTTOM OF PILE.

By 6 a.m.—after a sleepless night spent combing the Internet for information about Bonds's 73rd, Hayashi and record home runs—Alex was calling local sports talk radio host Gary Radnich to tell his tale.

By 9 a.m. his phone was jangling, one local and national reporter after another calling.

By 1 p.m. he was sitting in an office at KNTV, his mouth agape. There it all was on the video that cameraman Josh Keppel had shot, the ball flying into Alex's glove, the glove quickly disappearing from view, the rabble toppling him, the long struggle before the ball was produced and—wait, what was that, when the video was played in slow motion? Why, you couldn't see teeth, but it appeared that Hayashi, on his hands and knees in the pile, was doing what witness Sorenson had claimed he'd done: biting the leg of a teenager in a Dallas Cowboys hat!

By 4 p.m. Alex was visiting the first of two newsrooms, presenting the video and a list of witnesses to the Chronicle and then to KRON-TV.

The days blurred for Alex. There he was at San Francisco police headquarters, a 37-year-old man reporting that his baseball had been stolen. There he was dialing Hayashi, leaving a voice mail asking if they could meet over a beer and sort this out. There he was hiring lawyer Marty Triano. There he was on BBC Radio and Radio New Zealand. There he was—having received no return call from Hayashi and having read that Patrick had talked with Michael Barnes, the sports marketing agent who'd brokered the sale of Big Mac's 70th home run ball—filing a lawsuit against Hayashi for damages and to take possession of the ball.

Sept. 11's ashes had barely cooled, but materialism was back in full blaze—that's what commentators and columnists howled. A San Francisco sports anchor called it perhaps the most ridiculous story the station had ever covered. An e-mailer to CNN sneered, "If you can't play nicely, you'll have to go to your rooms," and a CNN commentator called Alex's claim and his hiring of a lawyer "pathetic." How could an artifact from a ball game mean that much, people wondered. What's happening to us?

In the Middle Ages so many splinters of Christ's cross were sold to or bestowed upon the reverent that if the splinters had been laid end to end, it is said, they'd have circled the globe.

Splinters of major league ballplayers' bats, along with threads from their jerseys, are being encased in plastic and sold today in a hobby shop near you.

Nineteen hours after he'd given the world the slip, Patrick climbed into his car to go to work and glanced into his rearview mirror. A news van had penned him in. He refused to do an interview on air and, after the van backed away, hurried to work.

He returned home at dusk. Two more reporters awaited him outside his door.

He turned on the TV. There was Popov's head, telling the world that a great injustice had been done and that Patrick had his ball.

He went out to eat. A stranger approached his table and asked him if he'd go say hello to a friend, as if Patrick were a celebrity.

He went to work at Cisco Systems, where he'd been on the job for only two weeks. He wasn't just imagining it, was he? Everyone was staring at him. He could barely concentrate. His stomach was in knots.

At home he picked up the phone to check messages: more reporters. And Popov's lawyer, threatening legal action. He picked up the newspaper. The media were licking their chops over allegations that Patrick had taken a chomp out of the leg of a teenage boy and participated in a mugging—both preposterous, he insisted. A Los Angeles Times columnist wrote that Patrick had "slithered into the pack like a snake after a rat."

Who was this Popov, what else might he spread, and why, Patrick kept wondering, couldn't the man admit that he'd dropped the ball? Everywhere Patrick turned—on radio, television and in newspapers—there was Popov again, accusing him.

Patrick confided in no one, not even his relatives, for fear they would be subpoenaed and dragged into court. He couldn't sleep. He got headaches and chills. Somehow, without ever having chosen to take a journey, he'd stepped onto a train he couldn't get off, a train whose destination was unknowable.

Why not end this agony? Why not settle out of court with Popov, sell the ball in the metal box, split the bounty and melt back into his levelheaded life, marketing telecommunications devices? Settle rather than confront, acquiesce rather than assert: That's what he'd been raised to do. But then ...wasn't that what his parents and grandparents and 120,000 others of Japanese descent had done in America in 1942? Bowed their heads and complied when they were given 48 hours to gather whatever they could jam into two suitcases, climb onto a bus full of dazed and weeping people wearing name tags, and report to a camp surrounded by barbed wire, gun towers and armed soldiers who they had thought were their countrymen?

Not a whisper of it had been breathed in his house as he grew up, but in his 30s Patrick had become fascinated by TV documentaries on the subject and had begun piecing together the story through relatives. His mother had been six years old, his dad 22 when they and their families were swept away to ease America's terror in the wake of the sneak attack at Pearl Harbor. Both families, who didn't know each other at the time, were transported by train at gunpoint from a camp in Fresno to a camp in the wastelands outside Jerome, Ark., where for two years they would sleep in cramped barracks on folding cots and hang blankets across rooms for a semblance of privacy.

Patrick's maternal grandfather, Jinkichi Fukui—sickened at the treatment of a people who had never committed an act of sabotage in America during the war—refused to vow allegiance to the U.S. government on a questionnaire. He was branded an enemy alien and banished to a camp in South Dakota for a half year, then was returned to his family and sent with it to yet another internment camp, for those considered suspect or disloyal, at Tule Lake in northern California, surrounded by tanks and troops. For the third time in three years Patrick's mother carried her clothes and her doll to start over again amid strangers.

The Fukuis flushed the American dream and returned at war's end to Japan, where they lived, often racked by hunger, in a relative's barn, cold-shouldered as outcasts for all the years they'd spent in America. Twelve harsh years later Patrick's grandfather admitted that no soil grew opportunity like America's, even with its weeds, and so he brought the family back to California. After years of barbed wire, all that Patrick's mother wanted when she returned at age 22 was a white picket fence. She soon married a man who'd left his internment camp to work in a factory making ammunition for U.S. troops and had then been drafted into the U.S. Army and assigned to the Military Intelligence Service.

In a Sacramento house so small that a few family members had to sleep in a backyard camper, the Hayashis raised six children, sealing off their past so completely that their children knew nothing of their parents' internment, and so completely from each other that neither of them realized that they'd been locked up at the same time in the same camps, in Fresno and Jerome. They introduced none of the old rituals or language to Patrick and his siblings, so the children would have no accent and would blend in as swiftly and quietly as possible. So they would become like the people around them, quick to recognize opportunity and grab it: Americans.

Patrick scraped and sacrificed, working his way through college, and when he moved into his own apartment, he began watching documentaries on TV that showed all those impounded people staring from train windows, standing in food lines, wasting away lives they no longer recognized, never screaming no. He came to realize that he was staring at his parents, and maybe even himself. What would he do when his turn came, when someone tried to take what he felt was his and cast suspicion on him when he felt he'd done nothing wrong? What would he do?

"In Japanese culture you just go along with things, you don't create controversy," Patrick says. "But to give up now and give away what's mine would feel like what my grandparents and parents went through. I know that my parents had to buckle. I decided, no more."

Patrick hired Don Tamaki, a Japanese-American lawyer who in 1983 helped overturn the 40-year-old conviction of Fred Korematsu, one of three Japanese-Americans jailed for refusing internment. Patrick decided not to settle with Popov. He'd swallow his dread, step outside the shadows, outside his culture, outside himself, and fight this to the end. He'd scream no. For a baseball.

Here's a valuable object hit right to you, Alex, and then taken from your grasp. How are you going to react? Who are you as a person? What are you made of?

These are Alex's words. This is Alex's view of his war with Hayashi: A test, contrived by the cosmos, of Alex's character and will. What are you going to do? Here's what:

Wake up most days in darkness, on four to six hours' sleep, lift weights, do aerobics, shower, recite his 12 affirmations and report for duty on the 25th floor of the Shell Building early enough to greet his attorneys and their office assistants by first name as they file in. Plug in his laptop in the office assigned to him for the year, sip from a deep cup of green tea, slip on his headphones and cue up one of the 96 Kruder & Dorfmeister tunes he's downloaded—why not Deep S—-, Parts 1 & 2? Dig into one of the 300 computer files he's compiled on the case or the 250 hard-copy files he's jammed into four cardboard boxes.

Speed-dial the fast-food health-food restaurant he opened in Berkeley six years ago after quitting his job as a marketing engineer. Make sure the veggie burgers and air-baked fries are still sizzling across the counter and that his girlfriend, Stephanie Dodson, is still vertical after months of managing the operation so he can keep chasing that baseball and keep paying the $120,000 in lawyers' fees, phone bills, airfare and miscellaneous costs—likely to reach nearly a quarter-million dollars by the end of the trial—of preparing for his cosmic exam.

Risk. Big. Bet that he'll win, retaining his attorneys' services at $200 per hour rather than the contingency fee of less than 33% that Hayashi will likely pay his.

It feels sometimes like my head is about to explode. The ball has become my life.

Cram for the eight-hour deposition that his opponent's lawyers would put him through—a duel of words in which one misspoken phrase could impeach him and cost him the million-dollar ball—and walk away deciding that he could play this game. That he would compose the line of questioning for every witness his lawyers would depose: 40 pages' worth of queries, 40 hours of work, for Hayashi's deposition alone. How else could he afford his gamble, keep the $200-an-hour meter from running wild?

I'm not afraid to want something. Show me your fear, and I'll show you who you are.

Learn a whole new language and spend hours on the Internet studying case law so he can fling ex partes and pursuants and motions to compel right back in his foes' faces. Analyze each word of each deposition for new leads, discrepancies, impeachable testimony, cross-referencing it with dozens of other witnesses' statements, with law journal notes and with media interviews he records and transcribes and can flash on his laptop screen with a blur of his fingers. Work all day at the law offices, then go home and work some more.

Don't be afraid that you don't know. Just learn as you go and trust that you'll overcome the problems as they come up. You don't know where you're going to go and what obstacles you'll face—but that's the excitement of it!

Pay a videographer $1,500 to enlarge and enhance critical images during the 4 1/2-minute Keppel tape. Break the video down into individual images, each lasting one 30th of a second, then burn those images onto a CD and into his brain. Watch it in slow motion so many hundreds of times—with sound run through his stereo system and headphones so he can hear every utterance, or with no sound so he can focus on the most minute movements, with an erasable marker poised to scrawl lines and circles on the screen and compose a color-coded aerial map of witnesses—that he can tell you the names of a couple dozen people in the tangled heap and exactly what each will do next: Watch! My brother's about to get his hair pulled! Listen! Did you hear that? That was me calling for help. That sliver of black jacket you see here? That's Paul Castro. There's Russ Reynolds, see the back of his hair? There's the Asian girl. Look at her face—it's like the fall of Saigon!

Dart to Wal-Mart to purchase 60 blank tapes. Record the Keppel tape on each one while you're showering or sleeping, and mail them to media outlets across America.

Start a website, of course: www.bonds73rd.com, with pie charts and quotes from witnesses and a pop-up box with a photo of the unidentified, allegedly bitten teenager over a caption reading, "Do you know this person?"

Create a Christmas card, a three-photo strip showing him and his brother at the ballpark, Bonds's 73rd home run swing and Alex making the snag, along with the greeting, "Happy Holidays! May your New Year be filled with unexpected opportunity!" Invite strangers he has met to the "touching party" he will throw if he wins the case and the ball. Why not have some fun?

Even if the judge looks me in the eye and tells me I'm wrong, there's a chance to grow from this. Because at the end of the day, life is about experiences—not possessions.

Fire off a 1 a.m. e-mail on the day's developments to his brother. Repeat his affirmations. Scan the net for new developments. Keep chipping away at his 50-page reply to the 42 Requests for Admissions and 105 Specially Prepared Interrogatories that Hayashi's lawyers have unloaded on him.

They want to see how much I can endure. Their strategy is to break me. They won't. Show me the size of the problem that bugs the man, and I'll show you the size of the man.

Look over, as his eyelids sag, at that photograph on his book shelf: the blond boy in the Little League uniform and blue cap. The kid whom people expected to bash balls off fences because he was taller and thicker than his peers, the one with asthma whose dad had that funny accent and no idea how to teach his son the game. The 12-year-old who found himself on second base with two outs in the last inning of a playoff game, his team trailing by one.

"Two outs, Alex!" cried the third base coach. "Run on anything! You're moving with the crack of the bat!" Crack! Alex obediently dashed toward third. The ball rolled to the one place those instructions didn't apply—third base!—and the third baseman gratefully slapped the season-ending tag on Alex. Incompetent! That's what everyone was thinking—he could see it in their eyes.

People can pile on and take the ball, but they can't take away that I caught it. I executed. They can't take that away from me.

He walked off the field in shame, his family about to depart for a summer on his grandfather's farm in Bethel, N.Y. He would never play organized sports again.

That boy in the picture, that's who was robbed.

Is there precedent in this case? Yes. The baseball is like the whale that Swift and Gifford were chasing in 1872 and the fox that Pierson and Post were pursuing seven decades earlier: an unowned moving object whose possession comes into dispute between two parties. That much, the lawyers of Mr. Popov and Mr. Hayashi agree on.

The whale was awarded to Gifford because his harpoon entered it first, and the fox to Pierson because his bullet mortally wounded it—each man thus exerting dominion over the contested object.

Surprise! Popov's and Hayashi's lawyers disagree dramatically over what constitutes dominion when the wild animal is Barry Bonds's 73rd.

Hayashi's lawyer, Tamaki—along with Cal law professor John Dwyer, his legal consultant—contend that that dominion is exerted over a baseball in the stands, by common practice established over decades, when a customer holds up the ball to display ownership, as Patrick was first to do. "It's not enough to throw a harpoon that grazes the whale or to shoot a bullet that hits the fox's ear," declares Dwyer. "The harpoon's got to stick in the whale. The bullet's got to kill the fox. You have to successfully assert ownership in the rule of capture." The moral of their story: A fan should be able to pursue a ball in the stands without fear of being sued.

Popov's attorney, Triano—along with Tulsa law professor Paul Finkelman, his expert witness—believe that Alex achieved dominion by spearing the ball from the sky with his glove. Any other interpretation, they say, rewards the violent behavior of those who separated him from the ball. "The rule of capture is designed to prevent the melee over the whale or the fox," says Finkelman. "[Tamaki's] interpretation of it encourages the melee. If the San Francisco police were doing their job, they'd go through the video and arrest everyone who can be identified and charge him with assault." The moral of their story: A fan should be able to pursue a ball in the stands without fear of being mugged.

"If Hayashi wins, would you bring your children into the bleachers when A-Rod's going for Number 756?" asks Todd McFarlane, the comic-book and toy tycoon who watched the value of his McGwire No. 70 ball plummet an estimated 75% thanks to Barry Bonds. "How do you know some 250-pound guy won't do a belly flop for the ball and permanently compress your child into the bleachers? Whoever catches it first should be the guy who gets it. But we'll probably wait till an eight-year-old gets his ribcage crushed."

"Mr. Popov's crying over spilt milk," counters Michael Barnes, the agent who helped broker the sale of the ball to McFarlane. "He had a glove on and couldn't hang on to it. Popov has nothing to blame except his own lack of baseball skill."

If Solomon were deciding the case, he'd no doubt award the ball to both men and have them split the proceeds from its sale—or award it to neither, and use the million bucks to buy baseballs for kids who can't afford one. But Solomon wouldn't have a prayer in an American civil courtroom, where it's all or nothing, and one party or the other must win the lawsuit and get the ball.

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.

Yes. That's what Nikolai said. Yes, because who knew better how it felt to have everything taken away, uncles and grandfathers, land and bread, in a place where there was nowhere to appeal? Yes, because if his son didn't fight to the end for justice when he felt he'd been wronged, then why had Nikolai trudged through Moldavia and Romania, through blizzards and mountains?

Yes, because of that Saturday when he'd sat in the car with Alex for hours in stoic vigilance outside the home of the boy who'd stolen Alex's skateboard, until at last he caught the boy on it and got it back.

Yes, because when one more horde overtook Nikolai's father's land in Bethel, in 1969—hippies trashing his farm as they overflowed the Woodstock Festival on Max Yasgur's place next door—Grandpa Popov, who could barely speak English, had a voice, had a lawyer, had a five-figure compensation that helped pay off the mortgage on the farm. And so he called Nikolai to come from California and walk the land with him. At last, said the old man in trembling Russian, he was back on his feet. At last he had what was taken from him nearly a half-century before. He said he felt like an American.

At the core of the ball in the metal box is a pellet of cork that once was bark on a tree that grew on the Iberian Peninsula. It was shipped to Maryland, ground into granules and transported to a plant in Batesville, Miss., where it was mixed with tiny flecks of rubber and cooked in molds to form the tiny ball inside the ball, giving it the pop, when struck properly with a bat, to rise toward a fence, toward a horizon, toward all those hands reaching for the sky.