March 13, 2012
The few people who knew him were fond of telling Ed Zachary that his parents must have been psychic when they filled out his birth certificate. Being a bit obtuse when it came to humor, Ed never got the joke. The fact was, though, that he was a perfectionist. Everything had to be just right. Ed Zachary.
Of course, that didn’t mean that perfection was easily achieved. Despite his near-perfect memory, and keenly analytical mind — earning his doctorate in Game Theory from MIT at the tender age of fifteen — he had failed utterly to hold down a job. His mental block with humor extended to other emotions, as well. Therefore, he was always blithely ignorant when his frankness offended superiors. He had been educated to present hard data in an uncompromising light, and it never occurred to him that such a method wasn’t suited to human interaction. An early indication of his future problems may have been questioning his tee-ball coach’s failure to keep a pitching chart.
His parents, while not actually psychic, had sufficient precognition to attempt to balance his early development. It was a losing battle, though. He was as ungainly and uncoordinated, physically and socially, as he was intellectually adept. Yet, their efforts did at least instill him with an undying love for baseball. Ironically, it would be that passion which would become both his saving grace and his ultimate downfall.
Ten years after leaving school, his career hit a dead-end. When his contract at Facebook was not renewed, after similarly short tenures with Apple, Google and several other tech giants, he decided to go it alone. His background in Game Theory led him to believe that he would have some success at the gaming tables. There was initial success at blackjack, but the casinos quickly caught on to his ability to count cards. He therefore made what he saw as a necessary lateral move, but the psychological side of poker eluded him. Worse, the inexplicable tendency of bad beats to congregate like those obsolete androids in I, Robot, was a factor that he could not reconcile. Not, at least, before his father decided that he would rather have a retirement fund than continue to subsidize Ed’s heavy losses. Talk about your black holes.
With neither a bankroll nor viable prospects for employment, Ed cast about for a way to earn a living. That’s when he rediscovered the subculture of Rotisserie Baseball. He didn’t need a 95 mph fastball or pinpoint control. He didn’t have to be an excellent judge of the strike zone or have great bat speed. His intuitive grasp of the alphabet soup that was Sabremetrics made winning fantasy leagues, especially those with hefty purses, as easy as insider trading. BA, OBP, RBI, HR, ERA, WHIP? These were simple expressions for beginners. He spoke fluently in the language of BABIP, CERA, dERA, EqA, LIPS, VORP, WARP, Fielding Runs Above Replacement, and, most impressive of all, the almost quantum methodology of PECOTA. The immortal faces carved on his Mount Rushmore were Bill James, Billy Beane, Tony LaRussa and Wade Boggs.
In half the time squandered on his Silicon Valley phase, Ed hauled himself up from rock bottom, repaid his father, bought a house on Long Island Sound, and seeded a six figure portfolio. His name was on the lips of rotisserie gamers everywhere. He gave regular interviews on ESPN Radio and his third annual Rotisserie Almanac had hit the stands on February 1st.
Still, his negative experiences at the casinos reminded him there was a human element. That was why he reinvested heavily in scouting. The numbers didn’t lie, but they didn’t tell the whole story, either. There were some details that you could only discover through first hand observation. Ed had unearthed some fantasy gems on his trips through the Cactus and Grapefruit Leagues. He had drafted Buster Posey into seventy percent of his teams before Opening Day of the sensational catcher’s rookie season. Still, for all his methodology, Ed had to admit that he still had those boyhood fantasies of trading places with King Albert or Roy Halladay.
This year, he was in the desert. He’d done Phoenix, Tempe, Scottsdale, Peoria, Maryvale and Hohokam. There was another joke that escaped him. Mike and Mike had asked him, on their show just the other morning, whether he’d ever gotten any good information taking in a game at Hohokam. When he answered earnestly that yes, he quite often had — why did they ask? — they’d snickered endlessly at him. Kept saying it was all Hokam, for some reason.
Today, though, it was Surprise. The stadium on the western outskirts of Phoenix, and just north of Luke Air Force Base, housed both the Kansas City Royals and the Texas Rangers. The Royals were on the field this afternoon, and Ed was keeping an eye on Wil Myers and Bubba Starling. Myers was being touted as another Buster Posey and Starling as the outfield reincarnation of George Brett. He doubted that the latter was ready for the big leagues, but Myers might make the roster of this young squad. That would be a pleasant surprise, indeed.
In the bright morning sun with the mercury already climbing over ninety, Ed stood watching a group of Royals prospects taking batting practice on one of the auxiliary diamonds. He had taken up a position three-quarters of the way down the leftfield line. It wasn’t the best spot for an up close look at the players, but he wanted to gauge the power in Myers’ bat.
The young man was in the cage, now. Three or four balls in succession were lined deep into the power alleys. Then the rookie got ahead of one pitch, sending the ball screaming high over Ed’s head to land in the scrub in foul territory.
Ed scurried after the ball, hustling past a family reading a placard that told the local legend a particular rattlesnake, named Schottsie. Appropriately named after the miserly and ill-tempered former owner of the Cincinnati Reds, Marge Schott, Schottsie often came out to the practice fields to collect foul balls, storing them in her hole, where she sat on them like eggs. The sign cautioned all ball hawks to give the addled but poisonous serpent a wide berth. Ed ignored the warning, focused singularly on discovering whether there was a pine tar mark that might tell him if Myers had caught the top or bottom half of the ball.
He doubled his pace, oblivious to the cries of the family, when he saw a white and red patch of color cresting a small divot. As he approached, the sudden hiss and rattle told him that he wasn’t looking at a divot, but Schottsie’s well camouflaged hide coiled around the ball.
Ed considered the problem for a moment. The safest course of action would be to leave the ball to Schottsie and back away slowly. A soft hiss from the reptile seemed to indicate her agreement with this option. However, Ed had long ago learned that science hadn’t progressed as far as it had without scientists taking risks. If he could somehow distract Schottsie’s attention away from the ball…
Feigning his departure, he backed away and searched the ground until he spied a dried branch of wood that might serve his purpose. Picking up the long thin branch, he then plucked a flower carefully from a nearby cactus. Fastening it to the end of the branch, Ed went back to Schottsie. The snake coiled closer to the ball and hissed threateningly. Holding the stick in his left hand, arm extended, and waving in tiny circles, he hoped that the brightly coloured flower would capture Schottsie’s attention.
For a moment, it seemed that the diversion was having affect, as the rattler shifted her position slightly. Ed crouched slowly, preparing to snatch the ball when the snake lunged at his decoy. Suddenly, though, there was a thunderous roar overhead. A fighter jet was taking off from LAFB. It was either an F14 or 16 from the sound of the turbines, Ed thought, glancing upwards for just a moment to check.
His foolishness was rewarded by a sharp sting to his right hand. As he yanked it back, Schottsie struck twice at his leg. Ed staggered backwards stunned, and Schottsie recoiled around her prize, then fled, skillfully rolling the ball with her undulating body.
Ed stood in place a moment longer, venom coursing quickly through his veins, hazing his vision and blurring his thoughts. Then he turned, staggering a few steps towards the practice field, where he knew there were paramedics. His right hand was already in considerable pain. Holding it up, he could see the swelling. He looked down at this leg, which hurt even more. His vision worsened as he stumbled further, and his mind became confused about where he was going.
He glanced at his left hand, which suddenly felt weighed down. No wonder. Replacing the slender branch was a solid Hillerich & Bradsby 32 oz. bat. Looking down, he discovered that he was sporting pinstripes and cleats. A shout reached his ears and he focused on the job at hand. It was his turn at bat, and he strode purposely to home plate, taking his stance in the batter’s box.
Squinting out towards the mound, he swallowed in fright at the pitcher who confronted him. It was Joel Zumaya. The reliever was known for his 100+ mph fastball. How was he ever going to hit that?
Zumaya went into his windup, and the ball streaked in, a blazing streak of white. Ed’s head snapped back to see the catcher pulling his hand back across his body, before coming out of his crouch and tossing the ball back to the mound. The umpire remained silent. It was a ball, low and outside, but Ed had barely seen it.
As Zumaya delivered the next pitch, Ed was startled to hear the butt end of his bat rattle, just like Schottsie. An instant later, there was a loud pop as the ball exploded into the catcher’s mitt.
“YeeaaaAAARRRRrrgH!” shouted the umpire. Really? Couldn’t the man just yell strike. The ball had stung the catcher’s palm, not his, after all.
Raising his throbbing right hand, he stepped out of the batter’s box to gather his thoughts. Why had the bat rattled this time but not the first? Was it because this pitch had been a strike? That would certainly give him an edge, though not much of one.
He knew that he had approximately 0.0025 seconds to decide whether or not to swing, if the pitch was in the 95 mph range, and Zumaya’s was typically 10 mph faster than that. Ed’s intellect could process information with sufficient speed, but his flaccid physique wasn’t capable of executing the resultant commands. He’d have to acquire a body like Alex Rodriguez — in the days when the slugger was still on steroids — to hit one of the fireballer’s pitches.
Amazingly, with that thought, his body transformed. His perspective altered, almost causing him to lose his balance. Although, his mind was still fuzzy, he felt far stronger — and taller. Incredibly, he realized, he had grown over six inches and his forearms had become corded muscle. What he’d give for a mirror!
Grinning foolishly at his good fortune, he stepped back into the box. Taking a single practice swing, he stopped the head of the bat belt high in the strike zone. Another distracting thought occurred to him. Why was this such a common practice? When was a pitcher ever going to throw the ball right where you asked? He giggled for a moment, then concentrated on the man on the mound.
Zumaya’s third pitch drew no response from the bat. Low and outside again. The next came breaking in towards Ed’s chin so fast that he barely threw himself out of harm’s way. He looked imploringly at the ump, who chuckled and shrugged. He glared out at Zumaya, who glared back. Ed jammed his batting helmet down and stepped in again. The pitcher was trying to intimidate him, and accomplishing his goal, but in doing so, he’d left himself no margin for error. The count was 3-1. He had to throw a strike. All Ed had to do was pick up the ball as Zumaya released it, and connect.
The pitcher went into his windup. His body whipped around: left knee, left hip, right hip, right shoulder, right elbow and hand uncoiling in rapid sequence. There was a white bead at the apex of the motion, that rocketed towards him. The bat rattled loudly, and Ed began his swing. To his surprise, as the ball approached, it seemed to slow so that he could see the stitching in rotation. The arc suggested that the pitch was going to arrive right in his wheelhouse, and he threw the bat head at it with every ounce of his newfound strength. The swing gave off a surprisingly familiar hiss, then there was a loud crack as he made contact.
The ball flew deep towards center field. As he jogged towards first base, Ed watched its flight, casually flipping the bat to the ground. It seemed, from the corner of his eye, that the bat transformed into a snake and slithered towards the dugout. Ed was untroubled by the hallucination, though. He’d heard they were common when you were on ‘roids, and as far as that ball was going, he was as jacked up as you could get.
He rounded first base and the ball descended into the statue of a coiled snake beyond the centerfield bleachers. Raising his fists in triumph, Ed dashed around the bases, his eyes catching the JumboTron screen as he passed second. He looked just like A-Rod. Another giggle escaped his lips.
Turning third, the coach tried to hold him up. That was strange. The ball had gone straight over the wall. Why would he stop? The team had cleared the bench and were waiting for him at the plate. He glanced back at the coach, who was still frantically gesturing. The roar of the crowd was in Ed’s ears, and this close to the stands, he could pick out some of the voices.
“Are you alright?”
“Stop running, we’re here to help!”
What was happening? Suddenly, he was feeling less like A-Rod and more like himself, all the strength seeping out of him. His legs were leaden and his right hand felt like a balloon ready to burst. He looked to the plate, but his teammates had disappeared, replaced by a pair of umpires. He had intended to jump onto home plate and celebrate, but something wasn’t right.
Shouldn’t there just be one?
He inspected them closer. They weren’t National or American League officials. Their blue shirts said EMT, and one of them was holding a dripping syringe. Ed and Alex giggled together.
“Is it time to go on the juice again?” they asked.
The EMT with the syringe nodded. In a strangely hollow, offspeed voice, he said, “Ed Zachary.”
For the first time in his life, Ed got the joke. A-Rod giggled along with him.
That’s when home plate hurtled up to greet them.
Surprise by Martin Palazzotto is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.