Barry Bonds hit his historic 73rd home run Oct. 7, 2001 — the last game of the regular season — at San Franciso's beautiful Pacific Bell Park.
The ball sailed majestically toward the walkway behind right field and into the glove of a restaurateur by the name of Alex Popov.
Thus began a tale that raises issues my mother warned about.
“Your eyes are bigger than your belly,” my mother used to say. I don't think she meditated at length on its philosophical implications, but she was fond of reiterating this cozy maxim. Its timeless message did not fall on deaf ears or a forgetful memory.
“Wanting more than you need” is a simple definition of greed. I prefer my mother's version because it indicates what fools we make of ourselves when we travel along greed's perfidious pathway. I can easily imagine inhabitants of Dante's Infernohaving eyes that are literally larger than their bellies. This is a fit punishment, indeed, for a vice that makes lust larger than life. “Keeping up appearances” is not possible in hell, although “keeping up with the Joneses” is.
Which brings us back to Candlestick — pardon, Pacific Bell — park. The batted and bruised spheroid lingered in Popov's Spalding softball mitt for exactly six-tenths of a second, at which point a horde of anxious souvenir-seekers descended, unmercifully, upon the defenseless fan.
After a one-minute melee, Patrick Hayashi, a software engineer, emerged with the ball clenched tightly in his hands.
Does six-tenths of a second constitute “possession”? Is it permissible, according to the unwritten code of “fan culture,” to attack and mug a fan the moment he catches a fly ball?
It was obviously a matter for the courts to decide. Let us not talk about being sensible. After a year of litigation, a San Francisco judge ordered the two men to sell the immortal icon and split the proceeds between them. As a result, what Popov and Hayashi had refused to do by private agreement, they were forced to do by judicial decree.
The ball fetched a disappointing $450,000 at auction, far less than the $2.7 million that was paid for Mark Maguire's 70th home run ball in 1999. But greed's insatiable appetite then took an unexpected turn.
Martin Triano, Popov's lawyer, charged his client $473,500 for services rendered, $23,500 more than the ball's auction price and a whopping $248,500 more than Popov's share. Triano is now suing Popov for the sum, which the latter regards as “way overblown,” while Popov himself is exploring the option of suing his former attorney on the grounds of “legal malpractice.”
St. Thomas Aquinas had a more elaborate definition of greed that included other vices it set in motion. For the angelic doctor, greed can be “a sin directly against one's neighbor, since one man cannot over-abound (superabundare) in external riches without another man lacking them … a sin against God, just as all mortal sins, inasmuch as man contemns things eternal for the sake of temporal things,” and also a means by which “man sins against himself, because it causes disorder in his affections” (Summa TheologiaeII-II, 118, 1. ad 2).
St. Thomas was right. Greed involves more than mere covetousness. It includes un-neighborliness, injustice, injury to self, an inordinate concern for material things and contempt both for God and things eternal. Geoffrey Chaucer once warned, “Radix malorum est cupiditas” (the root of all evil is greed). And Dante spoke of how greed can “submerge mortals” and render them powerless “to draw their eyes from” its “blinding surge.”
The retail value of an ordinary Major League baseball is $14.99. The price of greed is considerably higher. Moreover, greed has an insidious way of causing the appetite to grow by feeding it. This is a most frustrating and vexing predicament. We thus become hungrier the more we eat. If we are not content to want merely what we need, how much beyond what we need will it take to make us content?
Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard talked about the “bad infinity” (das schlechte Unendlichkeit), the endless craving for things that will never bring us spiritual satisfaction. In other words, if we are not satisfied by having what we need, we will never be satisfied and will be doomed to eternal frustration. Greed intensifies the very dissatisfaction it is supposed to placate. Like all the other deadly sins, its mode of operation is essentially diabolical.
The opposite of greed is temperance, that wonderfully balancing virtue that properly proportions our eyes and our bellies so we would not be humiliated if people could see us exactly the way we are. If my mother speaks to me in the next world, I hope she will tell me how suitably proportioned my eyes are in relation to my belly.
Don DeMarco is professor emeritus at St. Jerome's University and adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary.