Saturday, December 12, 2009

MANSFIELD MYSTERIES #1: The Staring Umpire

Lazaro saw the umpire first, which showed there may yet be a promising career ahead for him.  Scouts had been raving over Lazaro ever since he was signed out of the Dominican a few months past his sixteenth birthday.  It’s been a long time since then.  The talent was always there, the instincts were not.  Maybe this was a sign that things were turning around.We were both leaning on the railing in front of the dugout, our usual spots.  Bottom of the third, Croakers already up by five.

I was watching the new reliever for the opposition, a lefty named Ballard with a good-looking curve and no life to his fastball.  He didn’t seem the right sort of guy to bring into a bases-loaded jam in the early innings, not unless he was hiding something in his warm-up tosses.

Lazaro elbowed me in the ribs.  “Hey, look.”

I looked.

Home plate umpire Robin Holt was staring up at the press box.  It was a confused sort of stare, a blank sort of stare.  Then he gave a little shrug and turned back to the field.

Lazaro spit out a sunflower seed.  “What do you think he was looking at?”

We craned our necks.  From our vantage point, it was tough to see anything in the press box, located cozily in the suite level at Duffy Ballpark.  I liked it better that way, it felt like real pro baseball to have suites above the seating bowl.  There were a couple of stadiums in the Dakota League that had their press boxes in the last row above the seating bowl, like an old high school park.  Those were the places where ants and beetles waged war in the hotel rooms, providing another reason why I couldn’t wait to get promoted up the ladder.

“Thought you’d be up in High-A this year,” said Lazaro.  “Not back with me in Mansfield another year."

It was not a subject I wanted to talk much about.  On the bright side, Baseball America had rated me #14 in the Twins system entering the season.  That’s not bad for a 24-year-old stuck in the Low-A Dakota League.  “Shows great patience and a quick bat at the plate,” they wrote in their profile of me.  “Played catcher at Michigan State, but has adapted well enough to first base to rate as a plus-defender.”  I was proud of that line.  Anytime they hung a ‘plus’ descriptor on a player, it meant he had Major League skills in that category.  I’d worked hard at the transition to first base after the Twins decided it would be easier on my back.

Ballard completed his warm-ups.  19-year-old Henri Carvajal was up next for us, the seventh-place man in the lineup, followed by Kasey Andrews.  There were a ways to go before I came up again in the two-slot, Lazaro preceding me.

I looked up into the row of stands next to the dugout.  There, as I’d hoped, sat Mansfield Chief of Police Bill D’Antona.  He never missed a game, not if he could help it.  All the dignitaries in Mansfield were like that.  During baseball season, they loved their Croakers.

He had just pulled out his radio and was examining it and its earbuds.

Our eyes locked.  I took a step out of the dugout and motioned him down.

Henri laid off a Ballard curve in the dirt.  It was rare for him not to swing at the first pitch, even one that dropped in two feet shy of the plate.  Maybe that extra batting practice was paying off.

Bill rolled up his program, stuffed it in his pocket, and negotiated his way to the front row.  “What’s doing, Roy?  Good start for you boys.  Up by five, threatening for more---”

Henri jammed himself on an 84 mile-per-hour fastball and popped out to first.  Two outs.  He fired his helmet into the dugout, slammed his bat into the bat rack, and stomped over to join Lazaro at the dugout railing.

Bill took a sip of his beer.  “Poor kid’s in over his head.  Needs to go back to rookie ball.”  He squinted down at me.  “Why’d you call me over?”

“Could be nothing,” I shrugged, “but I think you should check the press box.  No reason.”

“I’ve got my own reason to go up there anyway.”  Bill held up his radio.  “The broadcast came back from commercial with no Mick.  Just silence.”  He called up a few rows.  “Still nothing?”

An elderly woman in full Croakers orange shook her head.  “They’re playing more commercials again.”

Bill chuckled.  “Mick hasn’t been this quiet in 19 years.”

It was true.  Everyone knew how much Mick McGillicuddy, Voice of the Croakers, loved the sound of his own voice.  I don’t know what Mansfield thought of him, but the Croakers hated him.  He was loud and obnoxious and loved to start arguments on road trips over the most trivial of debates.  Whatever else Mick was, he was never quiet.

Bill turned back to me.  “I’ll check it out for you, Roy.  Tell the boys to double the lead while I’m gone.”

Henri angrily spouted a few quick words in Spanish when I joined him and Lazaro at the railing.

A gleam in his eye, Lazaro retorted in kind and then translated for me.  “Henri wants to know how you can talk to a fan during the game and Trev doesn’t mind.  I told him when he starts hitting .330, he can talk to whoever he wants.”

I smiled faintly at this, though I also snuck a look down toward Croakers manager Trev Tillery, pacing about in the third base coach’s box.

Kasey Andrews singled in two and Dusty Younger grounded out to third to end the rally.  7-0, Croakers going to the fourth.

I grabbed my glove and a ball and jogged out to first base, taking my usual leap over the foul line.  It’s not about superstition.  There are some fates you don’t tempt.

Lazaro loped his way to shortstop, while Henri trotted his way to center field.

I started to loosen up the infield.

Then, sirens.

Kasey at third backhanded my toss to him and motioned with his glove at the police cars pulling up in the parking down the left field line.  At shortstop, Lazaro gaped openly.  Second baseman Mitch Bourquin was too busy scoping out the crowd to notice.  On the mound, Corey Coles didn’t hesitate one beat.  He completed his warm-ups and catcher Carlos Arrutia pegged an accurate throw down to second.

I watched Robin Holt down at the plate.  Just like me and Lazaro, he was clearly curious about the police presence.  He dusted off home plate.  It took him longer than it should have.

Holt’s a good umpire, a big blond Iowan farmboy a year younger than me.  I was so used to having middle-aged men umpire my games through high school and college that it gave me a moment’s hesitation in my pro debut to see someone around my own age wearing the blue suit.  Most baby-faced umpires are conscious about how young they look behind the mask and make up for it with a quick temper, a bad combination with an inconsistent strike zone.  Not Holt.  He stands back there, calls a good game, and lets you say your piece if you disagree with him.  Every now and then, he might say something to someone who’s taking too long to get into the batter’s box or to someone who’s trying to show him up in front of the crowd, but those moments are rare.  I’ve gotten to talk to him on the days he works the bases while his partner, Paul Maurer, works the plate, and I’ve found Holt has a good sense of humor, too.  That’s a fine quality in an umpire, especially considering the hotheads and headcases on every team at every level of organized baseball.

The Badlands’ center fielder dug his way into the batter’s box and we were ready to open the fourth.

It was an easy frame for Corey, requiring only six pitches.  Seemed like we had spent more time watching the police cars roll in than we had playing defense.

I ducked down into the dugout and grabbed my helmet and bat.  Lazaro was scheduled to lead off, I was on deck.

“Roy!”

I looked over my shoulder.

Bill D’Antona was jogging down the stands.  He didn’t waste any time stopping in the first row this time, he went right down to the open area behind home plate.  Ripit, the Croakers’ cartoonish toad mascot, gave him a suspicious bulging-eye gaze.

I brought my bat up to rest on my right shoulder and walked to the protective net rising up from the backstop to the suite level.  “What’s the news, Bill?”

His voice was low, as if he didn’t want Ripit eavesdropping on us.  “Mick McGillicuddy’s dead, Roy.  Someone knifed him in the back.”

The bat felt heavy on my shoulder.  I looked at the ground.

“I’m going to keep things quiet for now, no need to disrupt the game.  We believe the killer’s one of the people in the press box.”  Bill’s voice was hard, like his eyes.  “What made you think something was wrong up there?  What’d you see?”

“I didn’t see anything in the press box,” I answered.  “Lazaro and I saw the home plate ump staring up there last inning, that’s all.”

“Think the ump saw something?”

The first pitch from Ballard to Lazaro was a flat fastball left up in the zone.  Lazaro stung it into left-center for a lead-off single.

“I’m up,” I said.  “I’ll ask him.”

Usually with Lazaro at first base, I need to stay conscious of the potential for a stolen base or a hit and run.  Not in a 7-0 game, though.  In a 7-0 game, you wait for your pitch and see what you can do with it, nice and simple.

I climbed into the right-handed batter’s box, digging my right heel into the back edge.

“How you doin’, Roy?” said Robin Holt in his easy Iowan drawl.

“Good,” I said.  “These catchers taking care of you all right?”

Holt patted the back of the opposing catcher, Newton.  “This boy’s solid.  Your kid needs some help.  He’s caused me a couple of bruises already today.”

Newton cracked a smile behind his mask.

Ballard’s first pitch came in, a curve that ballooned inside.

I stepped back.  “Robin, did you see something out of the ordinary in the press box last inning?”

Holt received a pair of fresh baseballs from the batboy and deposited them into his right hip pocket.  “When?”

“When they brought in this lefty.”

Holt thought back.  “Nope.”

Ballard wound and threw.  Fastball at the knees, outside corner.  I didn’t need Holt to tell me it was strike one, but he did anyway.

“How about the broadcast booth?”

"Nope,” said Holt.  “The booth was dark, Roy.  That’s the way it always is with your radio guy.”

He was right.  Mick McGillicuddy was the only broadcaster in the entire league who never turned on the lights in his booth.  He claimed that the lights of the field illuminated his scorecard for him.  Other folks said it was because he was too lazy to get up from his seat during the game to switch the lights on.

Another fastball came in, outside corner at the knees.  Apparently, Ballard and Newton thought they had diagnosed my weakness at the plate.  As Holt would say, nope.  That outside corner’s my wheelhouse.  I drilled the pitch into right-center.  It looked like extra bases at first, but the right-fielder made a fine sliding stop.  I had to be content with a single while Lazaro sped his way to third.

First baseman Kenny Butler, my opposite number, kicked at the bag in disgust as I returned to it.  “We’re in last place with a loss today,” he said to me under his breath.  “Do you guys ever stop hitting?”

I gave him a sympathetic smile.  It was looking like it was going to be a long year for Butler’s squad.  They had been our nemesis the year before, battling us for a playoff berth all the way into September before we finally outlasted them on the strength of some key hits from myself and Felix Quevedo.

Felix was now in Double-A, tearing up Eastern League pitching.  Every time we talked on the phone, I found myself trying to defuse his anger with the Twins’ decision to keep me in Low-A.  “You’d eat up these pitchers here!” he ranted last week.  “But you’re in Mansfield and I’m stuck with a 21-year-old stiff at first base who can’t reach below his knees to grab any of my throws!  I wake up each day with another error in my stats!”

The 21-year-old stiff, I told him, was ranked as the Twins’ #4 prospect by Baseball America, selected in the second round of last year’s amateur draft.  They sunk a lot of money to ink him to a contract.

Carlos Arrutia signed for a chunk of change, too.  The first offering to our catcher was cranked high over the left-center field wall.  10-0, Croakers.  It was Carlos’s eighth homer of the season, more than making up for his defensive deficiencies.

Bill met me as I returned to the dugout.  “What’d the ump see?”

“Sorry,” I said.  “Holt didn’t see anything.  He’s an honest man, too, even if he is an umpire.”

Bill swatted at the net with his team program in frustration.  “It would’ve helped us out a lot.  We know when the murder was committed.  Mick took a commercial break for the pitching change and was dead when the break concluded.  The suite greeter said no one left the press box at any point after the second inning.  As it is, we’ve got a whole box full of suspects.”

I squinted up there.

Bill read my mind and ticked them off for me.  “Jarred Belle, the Mansfield Observer beat writer.  Marie Galloway, the sports anchor for KMQ-TV.  Norman Ward, the official scorer.  David Warrington, the team photographer.  They were all in the main press area.  Any one of them could’ve done it.  The Badlands franchise doesn’t have their own broadcaster, so the visiting booth was empty.  The control room has Angelo Ribeiro, the public address announcer.  You know Angelo.  The rest of the control room is made up of college interns, three boys and one girl.  Angelo swore by those kids and that’s good enough for me.”  He sighed.  “There you go.  One of them did it.  I’ll see if I can figure out who.”

“And why,” I put in.

Bill rolled up his program.  “If you have to ask why, you didn’t know Mick McGillicuddy too well.”

“Roy!”  It was a warning hiss from Lazaro. 

I understood.  “Gotta go, Bill.  Good luck finding the guy.”

“Thanks, Roy.”  He gazed out at the field.  “I know you deserve to be in High-A or Double-A, but we appreciate having you here.  The Croakers hadn’t been good for a long time before last season.”

It was a nice sentiment and so I thanked him.  I walked back to the railing and stood beside Carlos and Lazaro.

“Trev was watching you,” supplied Lazaro at the railing.  “Carlos saw him.  Thought you should know.”  He paused.  “Does this make us even for that night in Bismarck?”

I chuckled.  “You’re halfway there.”

Designated hitter Andre Cousins stood at third base while Mitch Bourquin stepped off his lead from first.  There was one out, Henri Carvajal due up.

“The skipper’s still eyeing you,” reported Carlos.  “He’ll want to talk after the inning.”

Sure enough, shortly after Henri grounded into an inning-ending double play, Trev Tillery cut me off on my way out to the field.  Trev was in his early thirties, a former infielder in his third year skippering the Croakers.  He was a good manager, too, one of the main reasons we won the Dakota League Championship last season.  As always, he went right to the point.  “What’s going on?”

“You mean with Bill?”

Trev tilted up his orange Croakers cap and rolled the tobacco around his bottom lip from one cheek to the other.  “There are four police cars out there, Roy, and I’ve watched you talk to Bill D’Antona three times in the last two innings.  Either something’s happened or something’s going to happen.  Which one?”

“Mick McGillicuddy was murdered.”

Trev nearly swallowed his chaw.  “When?”

“Third inning, during their pitching change.  Bill’s trying to figure it out.”

“No kidding.”  Trev took off his cap and wiped at his forehead.  “I didn’t like him, but--”  He put his cap back on and looked up at the press box.  “Don’t want to see that happen to anyone.  All right.”

I hustled out to first base, the names of the press box suspects pinballing through my thoughts.

First impressions could have told you that beat writer Jarred Belle was a strange man.  He had thin pale legs and an enormous belly, wore a scraggly black beard, and had a way of wearing nice clothes so that they looked awful.  We grew used to him coming into the clubhouse for post-game interviews with his button-down shirt half undone and stained from his dinner and his khaki shorts belted far too high.  Belle was a sensitive guy, too.  Last season, Lazaro made a crack about his appearance in the first week of May.  Belle held a grudge against him the entire rest of the year, jumping at the opportunity to write about Lazaro’s latest strikeout or throwing error while ignoring all of his clutch hits and defensive gems.

Each of his game stories was generally the same:  a mention of the game’s heroes, a quote from Trev on how the team was really coming together or fighting through a tough spot, and a look at the upcoming schedule.  A lot of the guys when they first joined the Croakers, me included, were disappointed that Belle never did anything more with our big wins than write five paragraphs on Page 4 of Sports, but Trev found out that was all the Mansfield Observer sports editor allotted.  Since most teams in the Dakota League don’t even have beat writers, he decided that Page 4 suited us fine.

Corey Coles blew through the first Badlands batsman with three hard sliders.  We whipped the ball around the horn.

Marie Galloway seemed less likely than Belle.  She was an athletic brunette, tall and slender, apparently a former local standout in volleyball and softball.  She was an average sports anchor, smooth with interviews but rough when it came to her four-minute sports updates on the late news.  On the other hand, she was way above average in looks.   That’d be “plus-attractiveness” if the guys at Baseball America ever decided to rate women (which Lazaro and I are convinced they do in their spare time, just like we all do).

Someone, maybe Mick, started up a rumor that Marie was sleeping with Trev.  There’s no truth to it.  She’s with pitching coach Joe Patsos.  They hooked up less than a month into last season.  He fools around on the road all the same, but if you asked him to rank his women, Marie’s surely near the top of the list.  Now, if Joe Patsos turned up with a knife in his back, I think Marie Galloway would make an excellent suspect, although there’d be quite the assortment of other women that the police would need to bring in for questioning, too.

One of Corey Coles’ two-seam sinking fastballs was sizzled down to third, where it bounced off a diving Kasey Andrews into left field.  It was scored as an error by official scorer Norman Ward.  Kasey wasn’t pleased with the call, to put it mildly.  There had been a similar play in the third inning where Mitch Bourquin sent a hard bouncer down the line and had it short-hop the Badlands’ third baseman.  That had been called an error, too, sending up a groan of disbelief from our dugout.  Thankfully, the call was changed to a hit for Bourquin a batter later.

Norm Ward was elderly and stooped, with tufts of white hair on his wrinkled head and thick glasses on his nose.  It took all of us aback when we first saw him walk into the clubhouse in order to bring the box score to Trev and the coaches; we were ready to hate him and we couldn’t.

It’s tough to find anyone in baseball who a player or coach despises more than the official scorer.  Maybe certain umpires, I’ll concede, but that’s it.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a teammate lose a clear base hit because the official scorer decided to call it an error.  I know Lazaro was convinced last year that my average was 30 points too low because of idiot scoring decisions, and that’s why I’m still in the Dakota League.  Maybe he’s right, but I don’t think it does any good to think about it.  Even if it was true, you couldn’t blow your top at Norm Ward, no matter how many poor scoring decisions he made.  Trev Tillery tried to blow up at him once over an error called on Bourquin and old Norm got so flustered and pitiful that Trev stopped himself in the middle of his rant in order to apologize.  After that, Trev asked Mick to go over any controversial scoring decisions with Norm so that he wouldn’t have to.

Corey fell behind The Badlands’ left fielder with a pair of overthrown fastballs.  Lazaro walked over to settle him down.

I thought about David Warrington.

Warrington was an embarrassing photographer, even by Dakota League standards, but he worked cheap and that was enough for the Croakers ownership to keep him aboard season after season.  He was tall and thin, with a classic case of male pattern baldness, and thick glasses that always got into his way as he tried to snap a picture.  The fruits of his labor could be seen each year in the team baseball card set:  out of focus, blurred, and zoomed-out action shots.  On the rare occasion he lucked into a great shot, it always featured the worst moments possible, like a perfect capture of Trev sending a struggling pitcher to the showers.

He was a good guy, I’ll give him that.  He never got in our way as we went about our business on the field.  He would come down to the area behind home plate, snap pictures through the first couple of innings, then come back down in the late innings to capture any Croakers heroics or post-game fireworks shows.  I e-mailed one of Warrington’s picture to my parents last year after I hit the walk-off homer against Pierre in the Championship Series.  It was out of focus, but you could still make out the joy on my face as I jumped into the waiting mob at home plate.  So, yes, Warrington might be an awful photographer, but there was a soft spot in my heart for the man.  If ever someone taught him how to properly use a camera, there was hope for him.  David Warrington seemed a nice guy, not the sort to knife Mick McGillicuddy in the back during a pitching change.

The Badlands’ left fielder sprayed a single into right-center.  Two on with one out.  Joe Patsos motioned down to the bullpen.  Middle reliever Potter Jones began getting loose, just in case.  I wasn’t worried.  Corey generally had a couple of rough patches each game where he’d lose his mechanics for a short stretch, but you could put him down for at least six innings each start, no problem.

I surveyed the press box.  To the farthest left was the open press area, and it was clear it was teeming with cops.  Then came the television booth, where they used to broadcast our games on local cable television.  It was dark.  Croakers games haven’t been on tv in five years or so.  The visitors broadcast booth came next, also dark, followed by Mick’s home broadcast booth, also crowded with Bill’s men.  The final area in the press box was the control room, home to Angelo Ribeiro and the interns.

Everyone in Mansfield knew Angelo, maybe everyone in the state.  He was the sweetest man you ever could hope to meet, carrying limitless optimism and enthusiasm with him wherever he went.  From afar he looked like Father Christmas, but he might have been even nicer than Saint Nick in person.  He had a huge white beard and a huge belly and a baritone voice that Ernie Harwell would have ached for.  I heard he was a local morning radio personality, but I never woke up early enough to listen to him.  There’s no reason for a ballplayer to wake up before noon during the season, not unless there’s a morning game or a bus to catch.

I first got to know Angelo through my community appearances.  A paper was placed in the clubhouse every homestand asking for Croakers to volunteer for events like Career Days at local elementary schools or the Mansfield Day parade, and Lazaro and I volunteered whenever we could.  It didn’t matter where it was, Angelo Ribeiro was there.  You couldn’t miss him, he brought a crowd wherever he went, leading cheers, welcoming strangers, and handing out hugs.  He loved us Croakers, too, hosting the big 4th of July team barbecue every year.  Last year’s finished with Angelo and the coaches harmonizing on “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”  It brought the house down.

No, there was no chance Angelo Ribeiro could have killed anyone, not unless it was with kindness.  I didn’t know anything about the college interns, but as Bill said, if Angelo swore by them, that was good enough.








Jarred Belle, Marie Galloway, Norm Ward, David Warrington, Angelo Ribeiro, and the interns... one of them a murderer, according to Bill D’Antona.  I couldn’t wrap my head around it.

On the mound, Corey Coles couldn’t find his rhythm.  He walked two in a row to force in a run, then served up a two-run single.  Out came Joe Patsos.  In the bullpen, Potter Jones warmed up with more purpose.

I walked over to Mitch Bourquin at second.

“See the girl in green behind the dugout?” he asked me.

“That’s Arrutia’s girl,” I told him.

“Really?”  His California-tanned face broke into a sly smile.

I didn’t like the look of that smile at all, but I ignored it and pressed on.  “Mick McGillicuddy was killed in the bottom of the third inning during their pitching change.”

The grin disappeared.  “The radio guy?  Really?”

“You were on base.  Did you see anything?”

He shook his head.  “When there’s a break, I’m not checking out the press box.  I’m checking out the crowd.”

“You saw nothing strange?”

Robin Holt wandered out to break up the meeting on the mound.  His appearance stirred something in Bourquin’s memory.  “I did see something strange, Roy.  I saw the ump staring up there, as if he was confused about something.  You say that’s Arrutia’s girl up there in the green?”

I ignored him and jogged back to my position.

Holt again.  Not only that, but his staring had been noticed by two guys in Lazaro and Bourquin, neither one known for his alertness.  There had to be something to it.

Whatever Joe Patsos said to Corey Coles, it didn’t work.  The right-hander’s next delivery was crushed off the wall in right-center for a two-run triple.  An RBI single later and the Croakers’ lead had been cut to 10-6.  That was all for Corey Coles and he knew it, handing the ball forlornly to Trev Tillery and dragging his way off the mound into the dugout.  Potter Jones galloped in from the bullpen, all six feet and six inches of him.

I remembered the pitching change in the third inning and watched Robin Holt closely.  He marched halfway out to the pitcher’s mound, then spun on his heels and looked up at the press box.  There was no confusion or blank stare this time.  Instead, he gave a wave.

Up in the press box, I saw a hand reach up and wave back.

Holt pointed at Potter.

A cold sensation hit my forehead and the back of my neck at the same time, a sensation of realization and understanding.

Potter’s very first pitch was drilled to my backhand.  I nearly was too late in reacting, diving back to my right to snare it.  I lunged to my knees and fired to Lazaro for the force at second.  Graceful as a dancer, he stepped lightly across the bag and flipped the relay back to first, Potter covering, to complete the double play and retire the side.

The Croakers fans roared.

Bill D’Antona was waiting for me back near the dugout.  “The knife belongs to David Warrington.  Told me that he brings all sorts of things with him in his backpack wherever he goes because he never knows what he might need.”  Bill leaned against the screen, watching Kasey Andrews take his practice cuts.  Kasey, Dustin, and Lazaro were due up for us in the fifth.  “He claimed someone in the press box took it out of his open backpack while he was up getting food at the press box buffet.”

“You believe him?”

“I don’t.  What do you think?”

“I’d like to talk to the umpire again,” I said.  “Then I’ll tell you what I think.”

Kasey Andrews lashed a slider down the left field line and burned his way into second.  Dusty Younger grounded out to first base, moving him to third.  Lazaro skied the first pitch he saw to shallow left.  Two outs.

My turn.

“Got any more questions?” cracked the catcher, Newton.

“I do,” I replied evenly, and swiveled to face Holt.  “Who didn’t you see in the third inning?”

He was taken aback.

“What kind of question is that?” Newton chortled.

“In the pitching change in the third inning,” I said to Holt, “you looked up to the press box and you didn’t see who you were supposed to see, right?”

Before he could respond, I was hit in the ribs with a fastball.

I tossed my bat away in frustration and pain.  Robin Holt’s voice stopped me in my tracks.

“That’s right, Roy.  I didn’t see him.  I don’t know where he was, but I didn’t see him.  Why?”

I wanted to shake his hand, but you don’t do things like that with an umpire, especially not in the middle of the game.  Instead I just said, “Thank you,” and went down to first base.

Carlos fouled out to Newton to end the inning, and I fairly raced back to Bill D’Antona at the screen.

He listened to me patiently but shook his head at the end.  “That’s not proof, Roy.  There could be any number of reasons for it.  It’s not enough.”

“It is enough,” I said.  “I know him.  He’ll confess.”

Bill still looked reluctant.

“Come down to the clubhouse after the game,” I said.  “See what happens.”  Before he could answer, I grabbed my glove and headed out to my position.

The rest of the game passed quickly.  We added another run on a solo homer from Andre Cousins.  On the other side of the ledger, Potter Jones mowed through Badlands hitters in the sixth, seventh, and eighth innings, then turned the ball over to C.J. Darby for a scoreless ninth.  The final score:  Mansfield 11, The Badlands 6.  It was our fifth straight win, keeping us tied with Grand Forks atop the division.

The clubhouse afterward was relatively subdued.  Trev Tillery had decreed from the start of the season that there would be no music blaring through the clubhouse.

Bill met me at the front door, a couple of officers with him.  “When?”

“10 to 15 minutes,” I said.  “Maybe 20 minutes, tops.”  Then I talked to a couple of the guys and hit the showers.  It was a quick shower.  The hot water didn’t work.

I was putting on my street clothes when Norm Ward shuffled in, several box scores clutched in his hand.  He made his way to Trev’s office, knocked on the door, and was received by the coaching staff.

Marie Galloway and Jarred Belle walked in next.  Marie found Carlos Arrutia, switched on her camera, and began asking him about his three-run homer.  Belle pinned down Potter Jones.

Bill D’Antona was on pins and needles.  “Now?”

“Almost.”

Ward exited Trev’s office.

Kasey Andrews spotted him.  He was young, only 20, and in his first year with the team, which categorized the sort of guy who would scream at Norm Ward.  Kasey blew up, shouting about the error he’d been charged with in the fifth inning.

Ward froze in the midst of his eyes-down shambling gait.  Extra pages of box scores shook in his fingers.

“Now hold on,” said Bill angrily.  “That’s enough--”

Corey Coles chose that moment to tear into Ward as well.

Marie Galloway gasped but did not turn off her camera.

Jarred Belle looked on, interested.

“That’s enough,” thundered Bill, and his voice cut through both Kasey and Corey’s tirades.  He took the shaking official scorer by the arm and led him into the hallway outside the clubhouse.

I followed.

The door shut behind us with a click.

My voice was gentle, but I still had to say it.  “You killed Mick McGillicuddy, Norm.”

He said nothing.

“You killed him during the pitching change in the third inning, Norm.  It was just after he changed yet another of your calls, wasn’t it?  You picked up the knife from David Warrington’s open backpack and you went to his booth.”

I could hear the box scores still shaking in his hand.

“The home plate umpire told me, Norm.  There was a pitching change and he looked up to you to signal that there was a new pitcher in the game.  That’s part of your responsibility.  But you weren’t in your seat or anywhere in the press area that he could see.  You were in Mick’s dark booth.”

Norm Ward looked first at me, then at Bill.  “You wouldn’t understand,” he whispered.  “The abuse I took -- the abuse -- about little things, hits and errors--”  His voice caught.  “It’s only a game, Bill, but-- you heard them.”  He looked at the clubhouse door.  “No one should go through that.  Not over and over, day after day.  That’s what it was like with Mick.  I couldn’t take it, Bill.  I couldn’t.  It was enough.”  And he broke down and sobbed.

The box scores fell out of his hand, drifting down to the dirty floor beneath our feet.

“You put them up to it,” Bill said to me, watching his officers lead the old man away.  “Andrews and Coles, you put them up to it.”

“They didn’t need too much prodding,” I said.

“Baseball’s a game.  It’s only a game.  How important could hits and errors be?”

I turned away from him and went back into the dank clubhouse.  I didn’t want to think about it.

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