Saturday, December 12, 2009

MANSFIELD MYSTERIES #2: Caught Stealing

A baseball player in the Class-A Dakota League gets only about $1,000 a month, plus $20 per diem.  Some of that money goes to rent and some to food, and then the rest of it generally vanishes, gone to women, bartenders, and the random casinos that pop up on road trips.  Clothing stores claim a lot of the guys’ cash, too; you can always tell the players on each team who spend their free time looking for stylish new shirts to wear out on the town.

What happened to Dusty Younger’s money on the trip to Minot, that was a new one on all of us.

Dusty was one of the high school kids on the Mansfield Croakers, signed for a quarter of a million after getting drafted in the third round by the Twins.  He had great speed, great athleticism, and great power potential, the usual hyperbole from the scouts, and it was clear that he’d spent the off-season reading every inch of his hype.  He rubbed a lot of guys the wrong way in spring training when he started flashing the cash from his signing bonus while complaining about the early wake-up times and strenuous workouts.  That cash was with him all the time, bulging from his wallet, and you knew there’d be trouble somewhere along the way.  But the trouble, as it turned out, was located between the white lines rather than outside them.  He struggled defensively, had difficulties getting enough of a jump to steal any bases, and couldn’t catch up to a good fastball, let alone solve a curve or a change.  It’s tough to flash any speed when you’re striking out or popping up every at-bat.

It was before the series opener in Minot, a month into the season.  The Croakers were in first place but had struggled in a series against Grand Forks.  You could tell everyone was just itching to go out there and rip Minot apart.  The bus arrived at the ballpark and athletic trainer Chris Crenshaw went through the aisles, collecting everyone’s wallets and valuables and locking them away.  Then we piled off, unloaded the bags, and hit the clubhouse.

We were just getting situated and trying to find something good on the clubhouse television set when manager Trev Tillery brought Dusty into his office for a closed-door meeting.  I nodded at Lazaro Aguila, the starting shortstop and my best friend on the team.  The two of us had seen this coming for a while now.  The kid was getting sent down.

The door opened and Trev called me into his office.

I looked at Lazaro.  He offered me a fist bump.

“No,” I said.  “There’s no way I’m getting promoted.  It’s too early.”

“You’re not getting demoted either,” he countered.

I headed over to Trev’s office and sat down on the old couch facing the manager’s desk, hitting coach Arturo Escalona shutting the door behind me.  “Dusty wasn’t sent down,” I guessed.

“No, he wasn’t,” said Trev.

I decided to beat them to the punch.  “You want me to take him under my wing?  Babysit him?”

They laughed.

I was confused.  “What, then?”

Trev spit some tobacco into a plastic bottle on his desk.  “You’ve kept your distance from him.  Stop.”

Arturo, a big man with thinning hair, spoke up in his accent-tinged, gravelly voice.  “Kid admires you, Roy.  You knew that?”

I snorted.  “The kid’s biggest hero is himself.  Probably wishes he could ask for his own autograph.”

Trev chuckled and spit some more into the bottle.  “You’re the man of the team, Roy.  You’re 24.  You won the championship for the Croakers last year.  You think he doesn’t know that Baseball America considers you a top prospect?  You’re a star in his eyes.  And there you are, avoiding him, hanging out with Lazaro and Carlos instead.”

I was staggered.

“The Twins are thinking they pushed him up the ladder too fast,” said Trev.  “Arturo and I think Dusty can handle it and we just told him as much.  Nobody else in that clubhouse agrees with us and that includes you.”

It was true.  I thought the kid was in over his head.

“It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.  If the kid thinks he’s going to fail and all of his teammates think he’s going to fail, he’s going to fail.”

Arturo smiled.  “Kid can hit, Roy.  You watch.  He’s got more talent than anyone on the team except you and Carlos.”

“More talent than Andre?”  Andre Cousins was our designated hitter and the back-up to me at first base.  He was also leading the league in home runs and RBI.

“Andre.”  Arturo rocked backward on his heels and looked at the ceiling.  It hurt him to speak ill of one of his hitters.  We’re family as far as Arturo Escalona is concerned.  “Andre’s pull-happy and cheats on the fastball.  He’ll have trouble next year in Double-A.”

Trev leaned forward.  “Stop giving the cold shoulder to the kid, Roy.  Let him know you think he can play.  The team will be better for it.”

I shook both of their hands.

Dusty regarded me suspiciously when I left the office.  “Did Trev tell you to babysit me?  I’m no Nuke LaLoosh.”

“And I’m no Kevin Costner.”  I grinned.  “Trev wanted to tell me you liked playing Spades.”

Dusty’s expression melted.  “Yeah.  That’s right.”

“Grab a partner,” I said.  “Lazaro and I are challenging you.”

Dusty grabbed second baseman Mitch Bourquin, a kid out of San Diego who walked around with a permanent smirk.  Not the right sort of guy to have as your best friend on the team.

Still, as it turned out, Bourquin was the right sort of guy to play Spades with.  Mitch and Dusty won handily.  Bourquin sneered at me and sauntered away.  Dusty shook my hand.

“We’ll get you tomorrow,” I said.  “Before batting practice again.”

He smiled faintly.  “You’re on, Roy.”

We both got dressed in our warm-ups and hit the field.  After stretching and throwing, we went out to our positions for defensive drills.  Dusty kept with the outfielders and I kept with the infielders.  No chance to talk.

The chance came during batting practice.  Trev made a move, shifting Dusty into the third group with me, Andre Cousins, and third baseman Kasey Andrews.  The kid had been in the first group, fooling around with Mitch Bourquin and the utility guys, infielder Vern Larson and outfielder Darvin Johnstone.

I sidled over to Dusty as the second group finished up.  “Drop down some good bunts,” I muttered.

He was surprised and slightly annoyed.  “Why?”

I gestured subtly to several men chatting it up in the bleachers already.  “See them?  Scouts.”

“Yeah?”

“They’re always watching.  Especially during batting practice.”  I nodded at Bourquin at second base, in the midst of attempting a behind-the-back flip toward Lazaro.  “They see that and report back to their bosses.  It doesn’t matter how much talent you have if you don’t work hard and treat the game seriously.  Now drop down some good bunts.”

Dusty entered the cage, mouth tight, eyes hard.  He popped up a bunt down the first base line, but rebounded with a solid effort down the third base line.

I stood beside Arturo and Chris Crenshaw at the back of the cage.  It was the usual spot for the hitting coach but unusual for an athletic trainer.  Usually trainers relaxed in the dugout during batting practice.  Not so for Crenshaw.  He was a true fan of the game, a long and lithe former college pitcher only a couple of years older than me.  Chris had been the Croakers trainer last year as well, his first year in the Minnesota organization.  Rumor had it that the Twins wanted him on the fast track up the minor league ladder.  His medical acumen was unquestioned and the strength of his character was unmatched.

Crenshaw regarded me with some amusement as I grimaced at the sight of a poor swing by Dusty.  “Trev talked to you, didn’t he?  Wants you to watch the kid.”

“I’m no babysitter,” I said.  It was true, though, that I was watching Dusty Younger carefully in the cage.  He was struggling.  It wasn’t that he had poor form, it was that he lacked confidence in himself.  Arturo tried to give him some advice and the kid reddened and swung harder and poorer, catching the next pitch off the handle of the bat and sending painful shockwaves through his fingers and palms.  The pitch after that shattered his bat completely.  It’s embarrassing to break a bat during batting practice.  Standing to the left of the cage, Kasey Andrews gave a high mocking laugh.  The kid reddened some more.

The game went as poorly as possible for Dusty Younger.  He struck out in all three of his at-bats and badly misjudged a costly fly ball in the seventh inning.  We lost, 5-1.

Things worsened after the game.  When Chris Crenshaw opened up the locked box of valuables, the kid discovered that his wallet was empty.  All of his spending money, some $150 or so, had been stolen.


*

I couldn’t blame Dusty for blowing up like that.  It had all been building up inside him for a while and this had been the last straw.  Still, there was no quick way of calming him down and so I wrapped my arms around him and dragged him off the bus.

Trev gave me a nod and tapped Hub Pollock, our bus driver, on the shoulder.  “We’ll come back for ‘em.”

The bus started to pull away.  Then it stopped suddenly and the front door slid open, allowing Chris Crenshaw to jump off, metal box in his hands.  He stepped out of the way and the bus was en route to the hotel.

Dusty stared daggers at the athletic trainer.  “Did my money suddenly show up?”

“Of course not,” said Crenshaw.  “I wanted to show Roy what the box looked like.”

“I know what the box looks like,” I said.  “I put my wallet and watch inside it every road game.  Why?”

“Because you’re trying to solve this, right?  That’s why you got off the bus with Dust.  You’re trying to figure out who took his money.”

“Hey,” said Dusty Younger slowly, starting to take deeper breaths.  “Yeah.”  He clapped me hard on the shoulder.  “Thanks, Roy.  I appreciate it."

I was thunderstruck.  “I got off the bus with the kid because I wanted him to cool down, Chris.  Who said anything about solving anything?”  But the seed had been planted and now I was intrigued.  I turned to Younger.  “You lost how much?"

“$163,” said Dusty with certainty.

I took the box from Crenshaw and inspected it.  It was simple and rectangular, a solid, black container without any signs of scratches around the lock.  I had always trusted that when I put my wallet inside, it was safe.  Then again, I only carried thirty bucks around with me.  I hadn’t received a quarter of a million to sign.

I paced in the darkened Minot stadium parking lot, trying to make sense of it all.  “Dusty, you put your wallet in with everyone else’s, Chris locks up the box, we play ball, we come back, Chris unlocks the box, and your wallet’s now empty.  Isn’t that it?”

Both of them nodded.

“What happens to the box while we’re at the stadium?”

“Hub keeps it on the bus,” Crenshaw supplied.  “He puts it into a locked overhead bin, and then he locks up the bus.  I watch him do it.”

“You don’t have to be a detective to figure this out.”  Dusty folded his arms and his young face hardened.   “It was Hub.  He’s got the key to the bus and the bin.  He took my money.”

“And I’ve got the key to the box,” shot back Crenshaw.  “You think I had something to do with it?”

I shoved Dusty away before he could say anything to make the situation worse.

“Hands off me, Roy!” he blustered, nearly falling over the curb.

I pulled him in to me.  He was listed at four inches taller than me on the roster, but at that moment we looked eye to eye.  “You listen to me,” I warned.  “You’re upset right now.  I get that.  But you do not make an enemy of Chris Crenshaw, one of the finest men you’ll ever meet.”  I let him go.

Dusty sat on the curb and stared sullenly at the pavement.

I went back to Crenshaw.

“You know Hub’s completely trustworthy,” he said quietly to me.

“I sure do,” I said.  “Best bus driver I’ve ever known.”

Crenshaw glanced at Dusty.  “I’ve been waiting for the kid to get demoted for a couple of weeks now.  He’s been asking for it.  You?”

I shook my head.  “If Trev and Arturo believe in him, then I will, too.  Let’s figure this out.  Could anyone have taken that money after we left the bus?”

“No chance, Roy.  Impossible.”

“Well,” I said, “if that emotion Dusty’s wearing is legit, someone stole $163 from his wallet between the time he put it in the box and the time he took it out.  Whether you think it was possible or not, it happened and we’ve got some twenty-three suspects or so.”

The trainer stared at me.  “You think a member of the team robbed the kid?”

Dusty Younger heard him and stood up.  The redness returned to his face.  “It was Kasey Andrews.  He stole my money.”

“Why Kasey?” I asked.

“He laughed at me during batting practice,” the kid said sulkily.  “After I broke my bat.”

“If this had happened yesterday,” Crenshaw pointed out, “you’d have accused Corey Coles for making fun of your tattoos.  Or Potter Jones the day before for doing that impression of you in the weight room.”

The kid opened his mouth to protest but was interrupted by the bus, returning to the stadium parking lot.  The door opened wide, revealing the swarthy, thick-eyebrowed face of Hub Pollock.  “Kid cooled off yet?”

“He’s cooled off enough,” I said, getting onto the bus.  “Don’t go anywhere, Hub.  I want to figure something out first.”

“Roy thinks one of the Croakers robbed Dusty,” Crenshaw told Hub.

I was halfway down the aisle, lost in thought, when Hub’s rough voice stopped me.  “I say Bourquin.”

I turned.  “Why Bourquin, Hub?”

“You know why.  Rottenest guy on the team.”

Dusty’s face appeared at the front of the bus.  “What are you talking about?  Mitch and I are tight.  He wouldn’t steal from me.”  An uncomfortable silence greeted this assertion.  It was especially uncomfortable for Dusty Younger.

I broke the silence with a question for the kid.  “Were you one of the first guys to get your wallet out of the box when Chris opened it up?”

He bit his lip.  “I was late getting out of the clubhouse.  After a game like that, I needed a longer shower.”

The trainer filled in the rest while he returned the metal box to the overhead bin above his seat.  “Dusty’s wallet was one of the last things left in the box, Roy.  I was watching.  There was a huge rush when I first unlocked it, and then guys trickled over when they got onto the bus.”

I thought about this.  Then I walked to the front of the bus and went through the rows, seat by seat, just as Chris Crenshaw had done earlier, metal box in hand, allowing everyone a chance to store their valuables away.  The first few rows belonged to the coaching staff, with Crenshaw directly behind Hub.  Trev Tillery received the opposite first row.  Pitching coach Joe Patsos sat behind the trainer, Arturo behind Trev.

Lazaro and I were permanent third row denizens, each of us getting a pair of seats to ourselves owing to our veteran status.  The starting pitcher for each game sat behind me, which meant Corey Coles that night.  Andre Cousins received the row behind Lazaro, allowing him to stretch out his large frame as comfortably as he could.

A pair of comedian relievers, Potter Jones and Thad Sawyer, sat behind Corey.  Then there were the kids, Bourquin and Dusty, squeezed together behind big Andre.  It always gave the coaches a good laugh to see them squirming whenever the slugger decided to recline his seat.

Kasey Andrews sat behind Jones and Sawyer.  Usually he shared his row with a pitcher named Rey Carreno, but Rey had remained in Mansfield to undergo an MRI for a possible tear in his shoulder.  We were all hoping for the best for Rey, a good guy with a cruel slider.

I paused there.  I’d heard a rustle at my back.

It was Dusty.  Crenshaw and Hub were still at the front of the bus, regarding me with curiosity.

“What’re you up to?” spoke up the kid.

“I’m figuring out who took your money,” I told him.  “Who sat behind you?”

“Henri Carvajal and Carlos Arrutia.”

“That’s what I thought.”

“The starting pitchers take up the next two rows.”  Dusty pointed at the row behind Kasey’s seat.  “Those seats there belong to Larson and Johnstone.”

“And behind them?”

He grinned.  “Now you’re just testing me, aren’t you?  Matt Polk and Tanner Lee.  You want to keep going?  I’m brighter than everyone thinks, Roy.”

I didn’t grin back.

He took a deep breath.  “Look,” he said at last, “I know I’ve got the reputation of being a meathead, and I know I’ve earned it, too.  Baseball wasn’t always easy for me.  But then senior year, it was like all my hard work paid off.  I could swing late on a fastball and still hit it off the right field wall.  I could get picked off first base and still swipe second, no sweat.  I was the best in the county and it wasn’t close.  Here, everybody’s good.  I mean everybody.  Every pitcher has a breaking ball and a change-up and suddenly their fastball’s too fast for me.  It’s frustrating, man.  How am I gonna get to the bigs when I can’t even hit Single-A pitchers?”

“You work at it,” I said grimly.  “You put in the time, same as you worked in those early high school years, and you get better.  Every guy here was the best at some point, the star of his team, but that’s not good enough anymore.  If you want to make the Majors, you’ve got to keep working to improve yourself.  Understand?”

He didn’t.

“Dusty, you didn’t get paid a quarter of a million because of your high school numbers.  You got paid that money because of your Major League potential.  They don’t expect you to be a superstar right away, but they do expect you to get better and better, keep overcoming obstacles, and climb the ladder.  Then, when you’re my age, you’ll be ready.”

He was quiet.

“I played four years at Michigan State University and was named All-Big Ten.  You think I’m going to give it up and forget up my dream of making the Majors as soon as I start facing pitchers I can’t hit?”

“Pitchers you can’t hit?” he muttered.  “When’s that gonna happen?”

“Every year,” I said.  “It’s called a slump and it happens to everyone, even Hall of Famers.  Welcome to your first slump.”  I paused.  “Now, a slump, that’s something you have to overcome yourself.  There’s nothing anyone else can do for you.  This, here on the bus, was a simple theft.  I got this one.”

Crenshaw heard my words and stood up.  “Figured it out, Roy?”  He walked up the aisle to join us.

“It was Bourquin, wasn’t it?” called out Hub from the driver’s seat.

“No,” I said.

“Of course not,” scoffed Dusty.  “It was Kasey, wasn’t it?”  He stopped.  “What’d you mean by ‘simple’ theft?”

“Yeah,” Crenshaw agreed.  “What’s so simple about stealing money from a wallet in a locked box in a locked bin in a locked bus?”

“Taking money out of a wallet isn’t so hard,” I said.  “Everyone does it all the time.  All the thief had to do was make sure the wallet wasn’t locked in the box.”

Dusty shook his head.  “But my wallet was in the box.  I put it there and then took it out after the game.”

“That’s right,” put in Crenshaw.  “I watched him both times, Roy.”

“I trust both of you,” I said, “yet Dusty’s wallet was never locked inside that box.  The thief removed it shortly after Dusty put it in.  Then he carefully put it back into the box in the confusion of everyone getting their valuables and wallets after the game.”

Slow comprehension dawned on Dusty’s face.

“I don’t know how it’s possible,” Crenshaw stated firmly.  “I could understand how I’d miss someone putting the wallet in after the game, but I would’ve seen someone taking out Dusty’s wallet after he initially put it into the box.  After all of the guys put their stuff into the box, I brought it immediately up front, locked it up, and put it into the bin.”

“Just answer this,” I said.  “Did Potter and Thad crack you up at all?”

Chris Crenshaw laughed.  “Every time, Roy.  Potter can do an impression of everyone on the team.  He was imitating Andre today.  It was hilarious.”

Dusty was stunned.  “Potter does that to everyone?  I thought it was just me.”

“Everyone.  You should see his impression of Roy.  It’s dead on.  Have you seen it, Roy?”

“I’ve seen it,” I said.

“What does it matter about Potter anyway?” asked Crenshaw.

“It was the distraction the thief needed,” I said.  “I doubt Potter was in on it, but he distracted you enough that you didn’t see the thief remove Dusty’s wallet while putting his own wallet into the box.  As an infielder, he’s got quick enough hands.”

“Told you it was Bourquin!” rang out Hub’s voice.

I ignored him.

“How’d the guy know it was my wallet?” Dusty broke in.

“Well,” said Crenshaw, “it was stuffed to the point of breaking with all that cash of yours.  It stood out a little, Dust.”

“And it was right on top,” I said.  “Chris had just collected your wallet in the box and the thief was in the very next row with no seatmate alongside to keep him honest.”

Crenshaw frowned.  “Wait--”

Dusty tried to catch up.  “You mean--”

“You were right,” I said.  “Kasey Andrews.”

No comments: