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DEARBORN, Mo. – People wanted to believe. This was the sort of story that grows only from small towns with one restaurant that serves a dynamite catfish special and four churches that serve God however you please, with a Main Street that stretches all of half a mile, with a gas station that in the last year has sold two items of consequence: Confederate-flag license-plate holders and a $293,750,000 lottery ticket.
We wanted to believe it wasn't happenstance or chance or plain kismet that the six numbers on the middle row of Mark and Cindy Hill's five-line Powerball ticket – 5, 16, 22, 23, 29, 6 – were just numbers, because come on. Those aren't just numbers. Those are George Brett, Bo Jackson, Dennis Leonard, Mark Gubicza, Dan Quisenberry and Willie Wilson. Those are Kansas City Royals greats. Those numbers, just 45 miles from Kauffman Stadium, mean something, something more than an unthinkable windfall for a family reaping the cosmic payback of decades rooting for a woebegone team.
Those numbers morphed into a rumor that went viral linking the winning ticket and the win-starved ballclub. One ticket from Arizona claimed half the pot, and NBC News and hundreds of other outlets wanted you to believe the Royals had helped claim the other.
"Random," Cindy said.
It was too good to be true, as have been many things with the Royals, as the Hills of Dearborn and the Joneses of Kansas City and the Schmidts of Prairie Village and every other person that roots for this team can attest. This had nothing to do with the Royals today, nothing whatsoever, and still: There was a feeling attached to this, like it had to be true, because it was about damn time the Royals paid someone back.
"We love the Royals," Cindy quickly noted.
We wanted to believe this was a sign. That after more than two decades of abject futility, of wasted seasons, of hope neutered, Mark and Cindy Hill, high school sweethearts, represented something. They were a beacon. They were definitive proof that this would be the year of the Royals, with their great young core and dynamic bullpen and rotation that's just one top-notch piece away from launching this team into contention, and, oh, yeah, by the way, guys, just in case you have a little bit left over once the tax man cometh, kindly send some of that money to 1 Royal Way, Kansas City, MO 64129. At least that's what Billy Butler, your fellow millionaire, would like.
If not that, at least lie to us and say this was for the Royals. Lie and everybody would pretend the QP next to the numbers – quick pick, an automatically generated ticket – didn't exist, that this Santa Claus was, in fact, real. Don't spoil the whole thing by telling us this wouldn't even have been the ticket you chose.
"Frank White (20), George Brett (5), Hal McRae (11), Amos Otis (26) and, uh, I can't think of anyone else," Mark said. "There's more."
Freddie Patek, someone shouted.
"Freddie Patek (2)," Mark said. "Exactly."
What we wanted to believe, unfortunately, wasn't real. The real story, it turns out, was pretty incredible, too. Mark had been out of work for more than a year until latching on to a new job in February. Cindy had a job interview Thursday, which she flaked on because she sort of didn't need it anymore.
The Hills had raised three boys, all grown and out of the house, when they felt a calling to adopt. Jaiden came from China. She is now 6 and precociously pigtailed, and she wants to see the ocean one day, and to do that, mom and dad needed to work.
But what the hell, Mark said. The Powerball jackpot was $588 million. He handed Cindy a $10 bill and asked her to get 10 tickets. They're $2 apiece, she reminded him, so she got only five. And because the odds of winning the lottery are the only thing greater than that of the Royals winning the World Series, she didn't give much thought to the ticket and left it in the car overnight.
She didn't have her glasses when she checked it Thursday morning. She looked at it and looked at it again and started to shake. She called Mark.
"I think I'm having a heart attack," Cindy said.
When they met and saw this was real, they called their kids.
"Don't say nuthin'," Mark told his son, Cody, who held back until he noticed Dad had confirmed the news on his Facebook page. So much for nuthin'.
Lottery officials called the Hills. They had 10 minutes to pack before they were whisked to a hotel. They forgot a few items and stopped off at a convenience store to pick them up. Mark grabbed a tube of toothpaste.
"I found myself in the store still looking at the prices," he said. "Old habits are hard to break."
They tried not to think too much about the money, though how couldn't they? People were calling – family, yes, and others from whom they hadn't heard in who knows how long. In this town of less than 500, where everyone knows each other, where people stay forever, where they still packed Cook's Corner Café on the day the rest of the world descended to learn about America's newest ultra-rich, $300 million is more than everybody here is worth, and now they needed to learn how to live with it. How to talk with the media. How to protect themselves from vultures and criminals. How to use this for good, like spreading the word about adoption and endowing a scholarship at North Platte High School.
How, when Jaiden asked for a pony, to tell her not yet, baby, not now.
"We're just normal human beings," Cindy said. "We just have a little bit more money."
That is what they wanted to believe, and maybe their part of this story is the one that can come true. In a tiny gym at the high school, where a man masqueraded around dressed as a Powerball with four-fingered hands and the students were excused from class to attend the ceremony presenting the Hills with an oversized check for $293,750,000 and question after question came, asking things to which the Hills couldn't possibly know the answer – well, being normal wasn't an option, not today, not for a while.
Soon enough, they hope. Soon enough, like Royals fans have said all these years, if you just believe hard enough.
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