Bad Call at Second

It’s November 8, 2020, the last game of the World Series: the White Sox vs. the Cubs. A first. The stadium is also a first. It’s electronic. No need for umpires. 76,000 hidden sensors strategically located throughout the park, rule balls, strikes, foul balls, stolen bases and close plays. Even the players’ clothing and mitts are embedded with sensors.

The world underneath the ball field resembles the NASA Space Control Center—high definition screens sparkle with synchronized data fed by state-of-the art electronics all orchestrated by one man, nicknamed The Conductor. He pounds his fist down on his thigh as he zooms in on the infield. Ball four pops up on the scoreboard. Immediately his look of disappointment transitions to a smirk of optimism. Suddenly the fingers of his right hand dance over the keyboard while his left hand remains on the red control lever.

The Conductor was an inner city kid who had graduated first in his class at MIT in 2015. As a student he was credited with over twenty-five high-tech inventions, most of which are in the ballpark and are why he is working there. His employer S. E. Technology installed all the electronics. They also provided his scholarship to MIT and funded of all his inventions.

It’s the sixth inning. The Cubs are at bat. The game is tied, 3-3. There is one out. Speedy takes a wide lead off first. He rubs his platinum new wedding band for good luck. Sure-Hands, the second baseman, drifts closer to the bag he safeguards. These are the best two players in the league. The TV announcer predicts that one of them will win the game for his team, and earn the MVP title for himself.

All attention is now on home plate. The Cubs’ home run king is at bat. He kisses the bat handle for luck. The White Sox pitcher steps off the mound to buy time, perhaps hoping the batter’s good luck kiss will wear off. At last he releases the first pitch. The home run king lets it pass for a ball. The next pitch is a fastball, just the pitch the king is waiting for. He takes a full swing and hits a blistering drive down the right field line. As the ball touches ground, sensors send a signal to the electronic scoreboards. Foul, foul, foul flashes everywhere; a video clip shows the metallic lace of the ball landing 1/8 inch right of the foul line that now sparkles red. Strike one. Half the audience cheers, the other half boos.

The ballplayers drift back to take their positions. The scoreboards read one ball and one strike. The first base coach looks toward the dugout, expecting the Cub’s manager to give the signal for Speedy to steal second. The Manager, Crusty, isn’t on the bench. He’s on the phone, hidden from view. Speedy is going nowhere.

“Get Lightning ready to pitch the next inning,” Crusty orders his pitching trainer. “Sure-Hands will be leading off. He’s the one player on their team that we must curtail. He’s our number one enemy.”

Crusty clenches his fist as he listens to the trainer’s response. Then he replies in anger, “So what if his temperature is 103 degrees? He’s still the best pitcher I have. Heck, when I was in Iraq and far sicker than he is, I had to apply my sharpshooting skills every day and never complained. Nothing was more important than winning. The same goes here. I want to be the Manager that leads the Cubs to its first World Series Championship in over 100 years. Nothing matters but this. He’s pitching the next inning even if it kills him!” Crusty slams the receiver down and returns to his post in the dugout.

All the spectators have their attention on the mound. The pitcher shakes off the first two signals from the catcher and accepts the third—a sinker. He begins his windup, hesitates and looks toward first. Satisfied that Speedy isn’t going to attempt to steal, he completes his turn and then releases the ball toward home plate.

The Cub’s home run king is tempted but doesn’t swing. Sensors feed hundreds of computers and a dozen scoreboards that the pitch traveled at 87.6 MPH, broke left and downward and was ½ inch wide of the outside corner. Ball two is displayed on the screens. Red, the White Sox manager disagrees and races out of the dugout to contest the call, but there isn’t an umpire to argue with. The new field will take some getting used to. She hates to look foolish. In an attempt to cover up her mistake, she walks over to talk to her first baseman. She makes matters worse by stumbling into Speedy. Speedy helps her up, holding her a little closer than is appropriate. He is on the other team after all. Embarrassed, she returns to her position on the dugout steps.

“We love Red! We love Red!” the White Sox fans chant in support of the first female manager in baseball. She wishes they wouldn’t.

In many ways, Red’s life has been a breeze: she’s the only child of a wealthy, doting father. Steve Ellsworth owns the largest electronics firm in the country. He also owns the White Sox. Most believe that is the reason Red is the team’s manager. Red has a lot to prove.

Red is smart (PHD in chemistry from Harvard, Class of 15, Summa Cum Laude), stunningly beautiful and elegantly feminine. In college, she invented the only antidote to anthrax. Not exactly the stereotypical crotch-scratching baseball manager. Red is recently remarried to a ballplayer she adores. Her marriage to her MIT college sweetheart had ended amicably despite the emotional scar it left on her husband.

The crowd quiets with the expectation of the next pitch. The sudden silence is spooky. It’s like the calm that follows a lightning strike. The pitcher nods approval of the catcher’s signal, fastball down and out. With ball in mitt, he wraps his fingers high on the ball’s laces. He drills his right foot into the hole in front of the rubber. He’s ready. He lifts his left leg, pulls his right hand back slowly, and then once again hesitates and checks on Speedy. The fans stand in anticipation.

The pitcher completes his turn and motions powerfully toward home plate. The ball jettisons from his fingertips at lightning speed. A split second later the batter makes contact, a grounder to third, fielded easily and tossed to second to begin what should be a double play to end the inning.

But Speedy gets a good jump on the pitch. He slides headfirst into second, beating the throw from third. The base lights up green. He’s safe. The throw from second to first, however, is on time. The base turns red—electronic umpires at their best. Or are they?

The dust from Speedy’s slide takes a few seconds to settle. When it does, Speedy is still lying face down with his wedding hand on second. Speedy isn’t really safe after all. Speedy is dead.

The autopsy report reveals that Speedy was in excellent health—he didn’t die from natural causes. It also dismisses a broken neck resulting from his headfirst slide. It was foul play—murder!

 

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