Identity

by Shane L. Coffey

Joseph, a solitary hunter, has discovered an elven girl being chased by a search party through his woods. Though she calls him by a strange name, he agrees to help, hiding her in a secluded spot and striking out with some of her clothing to leave a false trail…

After another half-mile, he turned right and leaped out of the stream on the same side he’d entered, heading toward his most recent campsite. He hoped it would appear to the hunters that their quarry was trying to double back and confuse her trail. The dogs might pick up his real scent once they reached the camp, but he was all through these woods every day, half the time dragging bleeding game or offal. If they could pick up his freshest trail amidst all that, then they would eventually find him wherever he fled, so he pinned his hopes on the belief that they couldn’t.

With practiced movements, he scaled a large poplar and shoved the elf’s clothing scraps into a high fork that was invisible from the ground. When the dogs took to baying at an obviously deserted tree, with any luck it would force their masters to assume they’d lost the trail.

With a couple of deft leaps Joseph was back on the ground, retracing his steps to the stream as closely as he could without running into the hunters. He trusted his stealth, however, and ventured close enough to catch a glimpse of them through the underbrush as they passed; three large men on black horses with two more on foot looking for sign and holding the dogs. The riders were not heavily armored, but they sat their saddles as though accustomed to being so, and their faces were cold and stern.

He considered climbing a tree and felling them all with arrows, but he had no quarrel with them, no notion of why the elf girl had felt compelled to run in the first place, no just cause to do these men harm. Trusting his speed as much as his stealth, he observed them for a time, but they spoke little and gave away nothing that helped him to understand the strange goings-on in his woods.

Finally, once confident they would not immediately pick up his trail from the campsite, he sped back to the stream and the elven woman waiting in the bank dug-out. She was clearly overjoyed at his return, but he motioned for silence and she remained so.

“Now,” Joseph said quietly, keeping one ear open to the forest sounds outside the recess, “just what is going on here? Who are you?”

“I am Kaillë Windsong, daughter of the chieftain of the Windrider clan.”

“How do you come to be here, and in such a state as I found you?”

“My village was attacked. Many died and many fled. I have been running for nearly two days. I do not know why they still follow me.”

“Why do you call me Azrith?”

Now the elf was clearly puzzled. “I don’t understand.”

“I don’t know you. By your introduction, I take it you didn’t expect me to, but you seem to believe you know me, and you call me this name I have never heard. I would have that explained before things get even more out of hand.”

“It is the most ancient legend of the Windrider clan. In the hour of greatest need, when wicked men attack, the survivors will find Azrith, a man of the wood who will bring deliverance.”

“I am sorry, Kaillë, but I am not this man.”

“But you must—”

“My name is Joseph, and I’m a simple hunter. I don’t plan on ‘delivering’ anybody today.”

“But there was more, and everything rings true…apart from the name. Isn’t it possible—”

“It isn’t.”

“But—”

“I will hear no more of this! You say you do not know why these men are after you?”

“No.”

“Well, it’s plain enough you aren’t carrying anything, so it must be something about who you are. A chieftain’s daughter could fetch quite a ransom.”

“No,” Kaillë disagreed, “there would be no one to pay it. Father and the rest of my family did not survive.” Her voice was even and calm, betraying no pain or anger.

Damn her elven stoicism. Scream, weep, do something. “Alright,” he continued, “not for ransom…then what? What could they possibly gain by your death or capture?”

“I’m sorry, Az…Joseph… I truly do not know.”

“Well, I’ll…” Suddenly Joseph stopped speaking, tilting his head toward the mouth of the dug-out. “The birds are alarmed. Your enemies must be searching upstream. If they pick up a scent again, we’re done for. We have to run.”

Kaillë stood and Joseph was glad to see she had already gathered and tied his oversized cloak so she could move quickly. He motioned for her to follow, leaping over the fallen alder and dropping on the far side. Once there, he turned, reaching up to help the much shorter elf down from the crest of the fallen trunk. Just as their hands clasped, a raucous horn blast smote the woods, followed by the frenzied barking of two dogs. Kaillë had been spotted.

Joseph’s mind raced. He never doubted his skills in the woods, but they had not been pitted against human minds since the wars. Despite the strangeness of his situation, he felt a pang of guilt for failing to note the enemy’s approach before it was too late, but there was no time now for apologies. Instead, he clenched Kaillë’s delicate hands and dragged her down from the tree, pulling her into his arms as he darted into the woods, sensing the limp weariness in her frame as he carried her.

He had to move, had to get them into thick enough brush that the men were forced to abandon their horses, at the very least, for he could never hope to outdistance mounted hunters. Still, he realized even that tactic would not be enough, not now. As he moved from the stream, he knew the dark-clad men had seen him, however briefly. Now that they had reason to follow this other scent, they had no doubt picked up in his camp. Now that they were this close to a fresh trail, there would be no evading those dogs.

One problem at a time, Joseph chided himself. He knew of a place half a mile into the woods where he thought he could force the riders to foot, draw them into a marshy part of a feeder stream course, gain the high ground. He just wasn’t sure he could get there with a spent elf maid in tow.

He barely had the time to try. Charging uphill, he passed a deer run that paralleled the stream and was horrified to realize by the approaching cadence of hooves that the hunters had found it, thundering toward his path just yards behind. Digging his feet into the earth, he tried for a desperate burst of speed into the brush, but with the sudden hiss of a whip, the breath seized in his throat, his feet flying out from under him as Kaillë tumbled from his arms.

Author’s note: If the preview sparks your interest, click straight to Rogue Phoenix Press, Amazon, or Barnes & Noble to download your copy today! If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask via comments here or through the Contact form on my website, www.burnthemap.com. I look forward to reading your reviews of the story on all the sellers’ websites!

Blue Collar

A Short Story by Shane L. Coffey

“God my knees hurt,” Johnny thought as he adjusted his pads and crouched behind the plate. Another couple years of this and he knew he would be old before his time, not able to run or bike or kneel down to put ice on the shiner his son would get from a wild pitch. “One endorsement contract, just one,” he thought as the first pitch smacked into his mitt. He didn’t feel it. He made a sign. The pitcher shook his head. He made the same sign, a bit more emphatically. Danny Rico, the kid on the mound, had a cannon for an arm, but he still couldn’t read a batter for beans. Johnny was the best at that; every pitcher he’d ever caught said so. But his bat was mediocre and he didn’t look too good on camera. The game had given him a decent living, better than decent, but then his kid was born early and his mom got sick and if his wife had to put up with a ball player’s travel schedule then she at least wanted to spend money like a ball player’s wife, not that he blamed her, and so here he was, starting the second season after his knees had been yelling for him to quit. “Just one big endorsement contract,” he thought as the second pitch, the pitch he’d called, slammed home and the umpire yelled “Stroi-eek!”

Rico’s cannon had no shortage of ammo that day, and nine innings went by quick; the kid pitched a shutout and was only two bloop singles off a no-hitter, maybe the best rookie start in the history of the club.

Nobody would remember, even know, how bad he’d have gotten shelled without Johnny calling his pitches. Johnny went one-for-four with two strikeouts and no RBIs.

Three hours later, Johnny was sitting in an overstuffed chair in the office of a sports drink company’s advertising exec. “This is it,” he thought. “It’s been weeks of negotiating, but this is it. I’ll sign the papers, do a bunch of photo shoots and commercial spots, and in a few more months I can finally retire.”

The ad exec spoke to his agent like Johnny wasn’t even there. “Look, Ned…I know we all have a lot invested in this deal, but…the boys upstairs have decided to go in a different direction.”

“That’s bullshit, Gus, and you know it.” Ned was trying to sound offended, but he clearly wasn’t shocked. “What ‘direction’ are they going?”

“Well, far be it from me to cause any tension in the clubhouse, but… C’mon, Ned, you know Danny Rico’s a local kid, and young, great physique, great stats in the minors, tests off the charts with the key demos…”

Gus kept talking, but Johnny didn’t hear it. He just hung his head. Ned pretended to negotiate for about fifteen minutes, and then they both left.

Another 161 games went by slow, no post-season, and a winter spent wondering how long it would be into next spring before he’d get traded to God-knows-where. “God,” Johnny thought on opening day, “God, my knees hurt.”

Princess Beautiful and the Cat

A Short Story by Elizabeth Stuckenschneider

Hello there, Narrator speaking. And before you ask, yes, Narrator is my real name. My mother had high, high hopes for me. You see, names have power in this backward country of ours, and she loved me too much to name me something like Charming or Dashing because she didn’t want me to become a Hero and go running off to do dangerous things that would probably get me killed. Because that’s what happens here in the beautiful country of Fairytale: you get born, you get Named, and then you go one of several ways: Hero, Damsel in Distress, Villain, Wise Old Mentor, Writer, Narrator, or Villain. There are a few others I could name, the least wanted being Average Person. You know what you do when you’re an Average Person? You wait for a Villain to destroy your farm or kill your family. Then you wait for the dashing Hero to come and kill the Villain. That’s it.

Speaking of Heroes, I bet you’ve heard of Prince Charming. He’s young, he’s smart, and he’s good looking. And if that weren’t enough, he’s a chivalrous gentleman with a talent for slaying dragons and rescuing Damsels in Distress.

You want to know the truth? Prince Charming wasn’t any of those things when he became Prince Charming. He was a fat, middle-aged creep who lived in his mother’s basement. The only reason he got cast for the role was because his mother was a Writer. After that, he had to undergo a lot of plastic surgery and harsh training to make him what a Prince Charming is supposed to be. Even after all that training, he still couldn’t rescue the Damsel in Distress. He made the dragon so angry that it ignored the Script and ate the Damsel just to make him look bad.

Well, the Writers couldn’t have that. Prince Charming had to have a Damsel. They couldn’t have a story where Charming wound up alone because he was such an incompetent fighter. So they bribed the dragon with fifty carts full of gold and plucked a fair Maiden from her home Deep in the Forest and forced her to act out the role.

I can relate to that Maiden. Her name was something like Sunrise, or Lily, or Starlight. Don’t ask me which. The point is that she was chosen because of her name.

Like my poor buddy Maximir. They shipped him off to Villain School as soon as he could walk and speak, and all because his mother smashed the names Maximus and Vladimir together to create a Truly Villainous Name. (In her defense, she hadn’t meant to do that. She liked both names so much she wanted to combine them. Let this be a lesson to you, dear reader.) Now he’s the Dark Lord Supreme of Fairytale, and he’s currently looking for Evil Henchmen. (If you think you can do it, have at it. He’s only got three and a half at the moment—don’t ask me how.) I hope I get to Narrate whatever story Maximir winds up in. I’m going to give the Hero hell. Maximir doesn’t deserve to die, even if he did excel in Evil Laughter and Villainous Deeds while at school.

Now, Narrator, you may be asking, aren’t you supposed to be Narrating? Isn’t that what Narrators do?

To which I must reply: You’ve been talking to Mother, haven’t you? Fine, I’ll tell you the story.

Once upon a time, in a kingdom far, far away, there was a Princess named Princess Beautiful. Princess Beautiful lived in a Shining Castle and had a servant for everything she did throughout the day, spoiled brat that she was.

Princess Beautiful looked up indignantly. “You tell the story right, Narrator!” she said, flipping her long golden locks impatiently, “or I’ll tell Daddy on you and have you executed!”

I have no idea what the Writers were thinking when they cast this girl as the Princess. Being a descendant of royalty myself on my father’s side, this appalls me.

“Narrator!” Beautiful insisted, stamping one of her delicate, slippered feet.

Fine. Now, the wonderful, and charming Princess Beautiful had a secret: she was terrified of cats. So terrified, in fact, that the king had ordered all the cats in the kingdom be killed or otherwise disposed of. Which of course meant that it wasn’t a secret at all, and the rodent population in the country flourished. Dogs who could catch mice became extremely valuable, but they just didn’t have the finesse or efficiency that cats—

“Yes, we get it, cats are valuable. Get back to me!” Princess Beautiful snapped.

Maybe after the Story is over I’ll have an Evil Wizard turn her into a toad.

Anyway, because a certain SOMEONE likes to hear people talk about her, I’ll get back to the story. You see, a cat had jumped on her as a child and scratched her up, and Princess Beautiful never quite recovered. Then the Soothsayer told her that she was going to marry a cat and she went a little crazy. (Princess Beautiful raised one carefully shaped eyebrow—gracefully, of course.)

Now one day, a slim tomcat the color of goldenrod showed up in the kingdom, somehow avoiding all the dogs and farmers and royal guards (I admit it, I helped a bit). He arrived at the castle doors and sat there, patiently, until someone opened the doors so he could get in. The fact that a person who may or may not have looked like me was spotted near the doors is a complete coincidence and is unimportant to the story. The cat then proceeded to follow Princess Beautiful wherever she went.

Princess Beautiful, predictably, was unhappy with this. No matter what the guards did to get rid of the cat, it always returned, healthy and whole. Eventually they got tired of chasing the cat around and just decided to leave it be.

This made Princess Beautiful even more unhappy. Her extremely expensive royal panties in a twist, she decided to get rid of the cat herself by throwing it into the castle well. (Personally, I’m surprised she knew where it was.)

The very moment the cat hit the water, it transformed into a Handsome Prince. Unfortunately, wells are deep and Princess Beautiful lacked the strength to haul a fully grown Prince out of a well on a bucket (and she would never, ever allow herself to be caught doing anything remotely like work). So she called the guards to do it.

It was a very soggy and cold Prince that emerged from the well. Despite this, he managed to maintain his Princely Composure and declare his love to a very furious Princess Beautiful.

“YOU WATCHED ME CHANGE, YOU CREEP!” she screeched, smacking him.

Oh, don’t worry, they’re going to get married. That’s how these Stories work, you know. It took awhile, but the Prince got Princess Beautiful to marry him (the fact that he was as vain and selfish as she was and a hopeless romantic helped. And because no one wanted to marry such an unpleasant person that her father jumped at the chance to get his only daughter married.)

They’re living Happily Ever After, even though Princess Beautiful still isn’t over her little phobia and the Prince tends to amuse himself by letting cats loose in the castle.

Now, if you will excuse me, I have an Evil Wizard to find.

Questionable Call: How video review will clean up baseball’s act–and ruin cherished traditions

By Nick Straatmann

This April, baseball history was made, but not by any finely-muscled, superstar athletes. Instead, the record book has crowned men with expanding waistlines, a receding hairlines, and eligibility for senior discounts. I’m talking about the first major league managers to challenge an umpire’s call via video review, and the umpires who are the first to be called out, so to speak.

“I went into it with not the most open mind,” admitted manager Bill Richardson, who became the first manager in the minor leagues to challenge a call during the 2013 season, “but they put a lot of thought into the process, and they made it quick.” Richardson’s comment exemplifies the slowly but constantly changing attitudes that have altered baseball so much in the past 20 years. Expanding replay review is only the latest evolutionary step in a game defined by imperceptible change, but it will create controversy in ways that only baseball can. Fans will get their cleaned-up calls- but an unresolved debate endures regarding the tradeoffs of expanded replay review.

Umpire Bill Haller hooked a microphone to himself the afternoon of September 17th, 1980 before the start of a game between the Orioles and Tigers, and in so doing, captured one of the aspects of the game that will soon be ushered out by instant replay: the manager tantrum. After calling a balk against pitcher Mike Flanagan in the top of the first inning, Haller got an earful from Baltimore manager Earl Weaver, who would add to his record string of ejections that night (he would finish his 17-year career with 98 tossings). The microphone, which was being used to record material for a documentary on the life of an umpire, picked up Weaver’s colorful array of f—s and bulls—s and personal insults. Among the most hilarious was the exchange prompted by Weaver’s accusation that Haller had touched him.

HALLER: I didn’t touch you.
WAEVER: You pushed your finger on me!
HALLER: I did not! Now you’re lying! You’re lying!
WEAVER: No you are!
HALLER: You are lying.
WEAVER: You’re a big liar!
HALLER: You are a liar, Earl-
WEAVER: You are!

The scene was childish, but Haller’s microphone picked up something else during the argument that night— the raucous cheering of the crowd. Each time Weaver would renew the argument with a fresh string of cussing, the fans responded with a lively outburst of applause. Weaver was exercising a hallowed baseball tradition that dated back to at least the 1890’s, to players like John McGraw, who regularly became “overindulgent in conversation” with umpires (soft terminology for someone who was reported to have called an umpire a ‘low-lived son-of-a-b—h of a yellow cur hound’), and as recently as managers like Bobby Cox, who set the new standard for grumpiness with 159 career ejections.

Come April, the Earl Weavers and Bobby Coxes of the baseball world will no longer know what to do with themselves. In a game where discrepancies are now decided by slow motion video review instead of dirt kicking, there can be little reason for managers and players to throw the kinds of tantrums that have been an accepted and entertaining part of the game since its creation.

Phillip Wellman is a man with an all-too-intimate knowledge of the manager meltdown. With more accessible instant replay, he may never have been known among the general population of baseball fans. Today, however, he is a Youtube star and the widely-recognized creator of the “rosin bag grenade.” Back in 2007, Wellman exploded over a call and created one of the most over-the-top displays of manager displeasure ever seen. After engaging umpire Rusty Barrett in a classic shouting match, he took the show up a notch by kicking dirt over home plate and drawing an oversized version of what he felt was home plate umpire Brent Rice’s strike zone. He then began ripping up the bases, but the climax of the scene came when Wellman dropped to his stomach, crawled to the pitcher’s mound, and threw the rosin bag at Rice’s feet.

Wellman was already known for his temper before throwing his most famous fit, but he may not have realized until that outburst that the manager tantrum is marketable. “We were in Carolina playing the Mudcats,” he said of a later game, “and there was an elderly woman sitting right above our dugout in a wheelchair. I came in after the fourth or fifth inning. I ran from third back to the first-base dugout, and this woman stood up out of her wheelchair and looked at me and said, ‘Wellman!’ And I looked up, and if it had been somebody else I wouldn’t have acknowledged her, but she was an elderly lady in a wheelchair, and I said, ‘Yes ma’am?’ And she said ‘Do something!’ And I thought to myself, ‘This poor woman probably paid $5 to come out here to see if I was going to make an ass of myself.'”

Sure, the event will follow Wellman for the rest of his career, and yes, it was childish, but it would be impossible to ignore the popularity that the blow-up has garnered on youtube (there have been approximately two millions total views of the various clips of Wellman’s tirade). There’s also the fact that Wellman received a standing ovation from the fans in his first home game after finishing a suspension for his belligerence.

Wellman has toned down his act in recent years. He is now only one example of fans’ historical love of razzing the umpires, whether it is coming from the manager or the crowd itself. From 1939 to 1957, the Dodgers played host to a collection of fans known as the “Sym-Phony,” who would bring instruments to games and, among other antics, play “Three Blind Mice” after close calls that didn’t favor Brooklyn. The famed poem “Casey at the Bat” captures a similar, if more threatening scene:

From the benches, black with people, there went up a muffled roar,
Like the beating of the storm-waves on a stern and distant shore.
“Kill him! Kill the umpire!” shouted someone on the stand;
And it’s likely they’d a-killed him had not Casey raised his hand.

To this day, there are few events that illicit more noise from a crowd than a close call at a crucial moment. These realities then beg the question: If the umpires and the possibility of a mistaken call are an important factor in bringing fans through the gates, what will happen once instant replay shows up?

“We no longer spend time arguing,” Rob Manfred, chief operating officer for MLB, explained during a press conference in November. “In return, you have a right to challenge [a play]. What we want to avoid is, ‘You argue for awhile and then you challenge,’ because it’s obviously cumulative at that point.” Both Manfred and Commissioner Bud Selig took the opportunity to address the media after the team owners approved the motion for video review. Manfred made it clear that managers would lose the opportunity to challenge a play if they chose to argue a call with an umpire. The notion makes sense. After all, what would be the purpose of arguing when a dispute can be resolved without blaring tunes from a “Sym-Phony” or a show of impotent rage from a manager?

Interestingly, Manfred’s and Selig’s primary concern regarding the use of replay during games was not a diminishing level of entertainment in baseball. They were instead concerned with instant replay’s effect on the length of games. “The current thinking is that if a manager comes out and argues, once he argues, he can’t challenge that play,” Manfred said. “Thinking about pace of game, what we’d like to have is a tradeoff.” Tests in the Arizona League have shown that instant replay will have minimal impact in the length of a game- just around one minute (which is often shorter than the typical manager tirade). No mention was made by Manfred or Selig regarding notions of diminished fan entertainment as an unintentional tradeoff created by instant replay.

“Game Sixes are always funny,” said John Meyer, a die-hard Royals fan who witnessed one of the most controversial calls in baseball history on a cool night during Game Six of the 1985 World Series. He had attended the first two games, but passed on an opportunity to buy tickets to games six and seven after back-to-back Royals losses. He instead watched at home on TV during the ninth inning while the Royals and Cardinals traded out one player after another, finally resulting in a matchup between Cardinals’ pitcher Todd Worrell and pinch hitter Jorge Orta. When Orta hit a weak grounder between the pitcher and first base, Worrell covered first and caught the ball a step ahead for the out— according to instant replay. First base umpire Don Denkinger saw it differently, and the call inevitably resulted in an exchange of words between Denkinger and Cardinals’ manager Whitey Herzog. There was no call reversal. Shortly thereafter, the Royals would score to tie the game, then win Game Six, and then topple the off-balance Cardinals’ in Game Seven by a score of 11-0. For fans like Meyer, the call became the defining moment of the series, and it added something that would have otherwise been sorely lacking. “They would have been just a team that got a base hit when they needed one,” Meyer said excitedly, in the way that only a dramatic turning point can produce in a sports fan. “But the fact that the call was clearly wrong has created all this discussion. Without that, this is just another baseball game. [Without that call] this goes from being in the top ten to just another game.” He paused for a time, then added musingly, “But you never know what would’ve happened if he’d have called him out.”

Despite the excitement created by Denkinger’s call, Meyer’s experience has not turned him against the coming change. “I want those calls to be right,” he said, adding that “People are going to whine and complain about longer games, but if you’re a baseball fan and like to go to the ballpark, you’re just getting more for your money.” When asked whether he’ll miss the tradition of manager meltdowns, he quickly opined that “People aren’t going to stop arguing because there’s instant replay, especially on plays [that] aren’t reviewable… You won’t get the arguing out of baseball.” At the moment, he is right. Even video review will still have some limitations in 2014. It will be used primarily for reviewing plays on the bases and in the outfield, which still leaves managers the opportunity to explode over calls on balls and strikes. Fans are left to wonder, however, if it is only a matter of time before every decision is reviewable. 2014 will push forward the original limits set in 2008, which restricted video review to homerun calls. The upcoming changes support the idea that MLB’s decision to incorporate video review in 2008 was simply the opening of a Pandora’s Box that will eventually result in a game where no umpire’s decision is beyond question.

Although fans like Meyer have occasionally rallied around video review, recent evidence suggests that the majority of players and fans are still happy with the old-fashioned approach. In 2010 ESPN polled 100 major league players regarding instant replay shortly after umpire Jim Joyce made a call that deprived pitcher Armando Galarraga of a perfect game (instant replay later showed that Joyce had blown the call). Still, only 22 percent of players favored replays for calls on the bases, and only 36 supported replay on fair/foul calls. In fact, 53 players even named Joyce as one of the three best umpires in baseball. Those numbers suggest that the players were content with the game just as it was. The same could be said of the fans according to Commissioner Selig, who announced during the 2010 All-Star break that, “I talked to a lot of players, talked to a lot of fans, and there is little appetite for more instant replay.” He went a step further by saying, “at this point in time I agree with that.”

TV ratings also reveal that fans prefer a dash of controversy in their game. During the 2013 World Series, TV viewership jumped by over three million in Game Four after a controversial obstruction call at third base won Game Three for the Cardinals. Were fans divided over the decision? Sure. Were they tuning in as a result? Absolutely. In the entertainment industry, any publicity is good publicity, and occasional controversies like blown calls are precisely the kind of issues that have stirred fan interest for generations.

So what suddenly prompted the team owners to call for expanded replay? TV has been exposing the miscues of referees and umpires since shortly after instant replay was introduced in 1963, and the players and fans appear satisfied. It may be that the real force behind the change is our evolving media, and its influence may have been unintentional rather than directed.

“And he can’t make the catch! It bounced!” shouted announcer Brian Anderson, delivering a verdict on the play even before umpire Bruce Dreckman. This time controversy would take center stage during the one-game playoff eliminator between the Rays and Rangers in 2013. Centerfielder Leonys Martin had just recorded the third out in the seventh inning with a dramatic running catch. Dreckman, relying on only his eyes and the best angle he could get, incorrectly ruled that the ball was caught. As Anderson was able to see, with the help of slow motion replay and multiple camera angles, Martin had actually trapped the ball. Dreckman’s miscue cost the Rays a run that night— and a piece of his reputation. If there was a silver lining to be found for Dreckman, it was that the Rangers didn’t win. Since Tampa held its lead he was spared the agony of umpires whose decisions change the game’s outcome. That didn’t stop Dreckman from being fodder for criticism on sports shows nationwide the next day. By comparison, when umpire Hank O’Day made what is arguably one of the most impulsive calls in baseball history in 1908, it was Fred Merkle— a player— who was castigated. O’Day ruled that Merkle was out at second base, based on an inconsistently enforced ruling and a shady play made by Cubs shortstop Johnny Evers (it was never known for certain whether Evers was even holding the correct ball or a subbed-in replacement). O’Day’s call turned the game into a tie instead of a Giants victory, which forced a one-game playoff, which eventually lead to Chicago’s most recent World Series win. The pandemonium surrounding O’Day’s ruling highlights the contrasting unpredictability of MLB’s early days with the starchy organization of the modern game.

Although prolonged attention to blown calls is nothing new, the trend of grudge-holding against umpires is. In Si.com’s own ranking of “MLB’s Worst Blown Calls,” only three of the 13 listed took place before the 90s, and none predated 1970. Such examples highlight the increasing scrutiny brought on in recent years— whether intentional or not— by instant replay. Technology has made it easier to condemn from afar with HD television, digital film, and 1000 frame-per-second slow motion cameras as the standard instead of the exception. As a result, what announcers previously recognized as part of the game during the early years of instant replay is now grounds for a slow raking over the coals.

The next question, then, is why do media outlets and announcers ride these stories in ways that would seem absurd only a few years ago? Because of an increasing demand for material. With so many sports channels available today, it is easy to forget that as recently as 2008 there was no MLB Network to beam baseball headlines and talking points to our living rooms 24 hours a day. When Cal Ripken surpassed Lou Gehrig’s record for most consecutive games played in 1995, there was no Fox Sports Network to cover the story. ESPN has been around since 1979, but satellite channels like ESPN Classic and most of the big sports-only networks did not arrive until the 90s.

These channels now form a media giant that satisfies fans across America, but it comes with a large appetite. With so much air time to fill, the networks will milk any story for every drop they can wring from it, and that includes controversial calls. What would have remained a casual observation by an announcer in the early 90s is now a week-long scandal on these 24-hour channels. This spotlight effect has whipped up an increasingly large perception that there is an inherent problem with MLB’s umpiring system.

Still, some fans feel that the issue is more than just a perception of inadequacy. One benefit of modern media is the think tank it has created over the topic of instant replay. As with so many close plays, there are bound to be many viewpoints regarding the use of video review for call corrections. On one side, trumpeters for change have voiced their opinions. Don Denkinger himself has joined their ranks. “There are so many areas you can use instant replay,” Denkinger has told the New York Post. “Maybe instant replay can clean things up.”

On the other side of the fence are the traditionalists. “True,” they would say of Denkinger’s comment, “And paint thinner can clean up a canvas that has been dirtied by Monet’s paintbrush.” The debate surrounding instant replay forces fans to think beyond the issue of replay itself. It asks us to consider what baseball is about at its core. Of course, MLB’s primary goal is to entertain, and that is harder to do if there is nothing to debate or ponder. The outbursts of angry managers might be childish at times, but baseball is supposed to be childish. That’s why it’s called a game. That’s why the men who play the game wear oversized children’s uniforms. That’s why the men who watch the game do superstitious dances around their TV. That’s why hairy men who should never remove their shirt go to those games wearing nothing but jean shorts and a little chest paint. The quest for both the progressives and the traditionalists boils down to finding a middle ground where the tradeoff between excitement and fairness is minimized.

That concept has not gone unnoticed by Bud Selig. “Baseball is a game of pace. We’ve got to be very sensitive and careful in the way we proceed,” he told the media during the 2012 All-Star break. So careful was he that baseball gurus Tony LaRussa and Joe Torre were recruited to analyze the incorporation of video review in a way that would be respectful to both the umpires and the spirit of the game. With the final decision now cast in favor of change, it seems that there is increasingly little value placed on unpredictable variables in baseball today. This is no longer the era when pebbles or clods are an acceptable feature on an infield. It isn’t convenient for score-keeping. It doles out luck unevenly and impulsively. It’s messy (“And exciting!” the traditionalists would remind us). Umpire authority, like a grove of untouched rainforest surrounded by civilization, will soon fall under the axe of video review.

In the long run, it is likely that baseball fans will evolve with their game, much like football fans in the 80s and 90s. In the short run, however, there may be a noticeable hole in fan’s hearts that only a good old-fashioned controversy can fill. No less an authority than Branch Rickey, grandfather of the minor league system and the man who brought Jackie Robinson to the majors, has observed that “baseball people, and that includes myself, are slow to change and accept new ideas.” So it goes in baseball’s evolutionary march from unpredictability to sanitized precision. Like the game itself, the transition will be complex.

Asesino

A Short Story by Nick Straatmann

The boat chugged along, emitting a lazy trail of smoke into an otherwise clear sky. Will looked into the water as he leaned against the stern railing, numbly observing whorls of rainbow-tinged oil seeping from the hull of the old vessel. The steady rhythm of the motor did nothing to calm his nerves.

A vacation, she had called it. He had agreed to go, but was struggling with a wave of apprehension which was just now cresting inside him. Reaching into his pocket, he produced a pack of cigarettes and a lighter.
Will wasn’t a smoker.

He fumbled with the lighter and had barely lit the cigarette before throwing it into the water. A school of small silver fish nibbled at the foreign object as the boat chugged away.

The tour guide up front began speaking in a thick South American accent to the small crowd gathered on deck. Will did not join them.

“Thees es the beau’iful swamplan’s of Florida. Home to many species of…”

His voice faded into the background as Will focused on the burbling wake behind the boat. A touch on the shoulder made him jump and turn. Eva squinted at him.

“You okay?”

“No.”

“You’re missing the tour. And you’re making me miss it too. Come on.”

She gave a gentle tug on his arm, but quickly ran out of slack. She turned back to observe the wooden features of Will’s face.

Behind them the tour guide continued. “We weel be entering most beau’iful areas soon. Jus’ at tall grass ahead.”

Eva opened her mouth, but before she could speak, the gasps of the crowd pulled their attention away from one another. The hull of the ship parted a high spot in the reeds. A flapping explosion of color burst into the sky; flocks of tiny screeching birds sprayed out in all directions. The life pulse of the area sent the tourists scrambling for their cameras. An electric clicking of shutters mixed with the droning trill of frogs.

Will did not share their interest in the sights. After a long silence he spoke; his features remained tight: “We decided to get rid of it.”

“Or we can get married.”

“Yes, we can do that too.”

Will crossed his arms and looked out at the water. Eva wrapped him up tightly at the waist. Sounds rang out all around as they watched the mangrove bushes and hanging moss sway in the trees.

“I don’t like this anymore.” Will pulled away from her.

“Your parents don’t even know about this.”

“Why do they need to know? It would just create headaches for them.”

“They should know about this.”

“No. I don’t want them worrying.”

“No, you don’t want them involved. Isn’t that why we’re down here?”

“Why?”

“So they aren’t involved.”

“I just wanted to do something special for us. You know, us together. We never get to go out. This is our time for it to be just you and me.”

The whirring of the cameras became less frequent. A nearby observer said something about a log in the water.

Will lowered his gaze. “Yeah. Just you and me.”

The boat carried on, the tourists gawking and the guide offering drinks out of a cooler.

“Cervezas?” said the guide, a large smile highlighted under his moustache and sun-darkened skin.

“Yes, please,” she said.

“No, thank you,” Will extended an arm in front of her.

“For both of us.”

“Are you a-right?” said the guide. “You look upset. Es a beautiful day ou’, enjoy yourself.”

He pushed the drink into Will’s hand. “Here. Free.”

Will let the beer stay in his hand. “Thank you. How long have you been doing these tours?”

“I been leeving here five years now. Me and my brother, we own our boats and start thees tours when we move.”

“That’s nice.” Will said it in a polite voice, although his gaze wandered out over the landscape around them. Eva smiled at the guide when she realized Will wasn’t going to smile himself.

“It’s a nice boat,” she added hastily. The guide nodded proudly and patted Will on the shoulder with a thick palm.

“You have beautiful girl on your arm, seńor. Jus’ enjoy the ride, okay?” The guide left them. They took seats under the overhang of the steering house on deck. The sun was getting high. Will donned his sunglasses.

“I like those glasses on you. Makes you look tough. You’d look even tougher if you had some stubble though.”

“Thanks.”

“Will, You know I really love you.”

“Yeah, I know.”

Eva sat in silence for a prolonged moment before asking

“Don’t you still love me?”

“Yeah, of course I do. I’ve just got a lot on my mind here. I don’t get how you’re not freaking out over this or anything.” He exhaled heavily. “I need a drink.”

“You’ve already got one.”

“Another one.”

Condensation coated the bottles in the cooler. Will deposited the correct amount of cash into a rusty coffee can serving as cash register. He noticed a stillness in the air that hadn’t been there before. The lusty call of the birds was absent. Even the tree frogs had gone quiet.

He stopped the guide as he was going by. “What’s up with the swamp around here?”

“Thees place esn’t so nice. We ha’ to go through to geh’ back, but I never liked it so much. Thees area is thick with yacaré—ahlegators.” The tourists pointed at gnarled branches thrusting out of the water as they whispered about the reptiles. Eva came over and they peered into the glades together. The mangrove bushes swayed in the wind. In the reeds and on small mounds of mud alligators lounged in the sun. A splash near the hull signaled something submerging under the muddy water. Will peered over the edge in time to see the ripple, and, for a moment, what looked like a hulking, serpentine shadow disappearing completely from sight.

“It’s really neat.” Eva smiled, and Will followed suit.

The guide frowned. “Everyone luffs de ahlegators. There ees nothing to like abou’ them.”

Will watched a snake disappear into the vegetation. “They’re pretty cool if you’re not from around here.”

“Maybe,” said the guide. A series of loud splashes drew their attention to the bank ten yards away. One beast, twice the size of any other, slipped onto shore, scattering the inhabitants. It turned and stiffened its tail. A low rumbling sound pulsed out from its throat.
“Asesino.”

“What?” Eva asked.

“Asesino- murderer. Tha’s what I call her. I know thees one. She been living here as long as I can thing back. The ahlegators all are bad, but this one, she is worst.”

The creature clawed its way along the bank, head lolling back and forth, membrane retracting to reveal glassy black eyes. It stopped when it reached a large mound of mud, smoothed into a gentle hump.

Eva asked the guide “What is that?” No response. The scene attracted the attention of the tourists. They watched it tear away at the small hill on the ground. A nest of fleshy eggs revealed to the observers. “Is that her nest?”

“Proba’ly,” the guide answered.

Eva’s grip on the railing tightened. “Are they going to hatch?”

“Proba’ly not.”

The beast bolted forward and began devouring the eggs. Each closing of the jaw created a sound like wet laundry slapping on wood, followed by a muffled pop and ooze. A crimson rivulet trickled down the jaw, running through a pair of interlocked daggers and dripping into the muddy water, creating a black stain around the scene. The beast turned toward the boat as it passed.

“Gross. That’s sick,” Eva said as she held her stomach and got behind Will who continued to stare at the creature.

“Can you imagine being up close to one of those things?” said a nearby tourist to no one in particular.

Will remained still and silent as sunlight danced against his sunglasses. The reptile slid back into the water and disappeared from sight. The guide spat toward the ripples left behind by the creature, then ordered his brother to turn on the radio for the last part of the trip.

A mariachi band crackled to life over the speakers.

Will watched the ripples run out in all directions moving the mangrove plants and anything else near them. Several minutes went by with little but the sound of the radio and the boat’s motor. Eva finally looked up at Will and asked, “Do you like this kind of music?”

“Hate it.”

“Me too,” she smiled as she slipped her hand in his, “but maybe by the time we get back I’ll have a change of heart.”

Will rumpled his brow staring intently through his sunglasses as if trying to read some miniscule writing behind Eva’s eyes. She smiled, and then Will’s mouth crinkled into something that would perhaps bloom into a smile soon.

A single bird called out somewhere deep in the choked undergrowth, causing several tourists to crane their sun burnt necks. The boat continued on. A faint chirrup of tree frogs could be heard growing louder in the distance.

The Bully on the Bus

A Fragment from MY LIFE by Deborah L. Wymbs

“Big watery eyes.”
“Big crusty lips.”
“Baked up skin.
“Wept up skin.”
“Crusted up.”
“Scabby.”

“Go put some medicine on your arm. Get a shirt and put it over those wept up arms.”

My mother hated my skin. Once a week we would get on the bus and ride forever to the doctor. Dr. T. K. Lawless. He had a fancy office downtown. My father called him the world famous dermatologist. Dr. Lawless would make me comfortable and ask how I was and then he would give me a light treatment, inject something into my skin, and give me a thick as molasses salve to put over my rashes and outbreaks. Then he would talk to my mother and we would leave for the long bus ride home.

I hated those bus rides.

“Here,” and she’d hand me the tube of medicine on the bus and say, “use this now. No time waiting till we get home.”

“Put some medicine over that scab.”
“Why are your lips so baked?”
“Cover your arms.”

Sometimes she would not sit next to me at all on the ride home. Other times she would sit next to me and complain about how I looked. Either way, those long bus rides were some of the loneliest times in my life.