The Mysterious Case of Shojiro Sano's Bats

I play "fake" sports games.

This is different from owning a "Fantasy" team. You know what a Fantasy team is, right? They're all the rage anymore, after all. A Fantasy team is comprised of real players from real teams. The players actually do exist. The "owners" of these teams can regale you for hours with stories of their great sports management intellect or with tribulations of deals gone sour.

Fake sports are different because in fake sports, the players exist only as bits and bytes scored into silicon hard drives. They get matched up in games that exist only inside a computer's processor.

To play fake sports requires one to imagine a lot. To play fake sports is to craft an entire franchise, to make "real" business decisions, and to grow the careers of the fake players in your employ. To play fake sports is to watch each individual game, to see a bench-warmer's success, to see an aging veteran decline week to week and month to month but be able to call on the magic at just the right moment. To play fake sports is to imagine the entire spectrum of the game's drama rather than just bask on the outskirts of true-life events.

The fake players, though they don't actually exist, can become considerably more real to an "owner's" every day life than, say, Barry Bonds or Miguel Caberera ever would be. (Yes, I know how insane that makes me sound. Deal with it.)

Against this backdrop comes "The Mysterious Case of Shojiro Sano's Bats." It's a story set in the same alternate world that my novels See the PEBA on $25 a Day and Chasing the Setting Sun are in. The story stands alone, but is most "properly" read before Chasing the Setting Sun. Regardless, this is one that pretty much wrote itself as I was scanning the box scores of my fake team one morning and thinking about the mini-slump my star third baseman was suffering. Strange things, slumps. They happen to computer generated players, too—though perhaps not for the same reasons.

Ron Collins

March 17, 2014

(updated October 4, 2014)

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The Mysterious Case of Shojiro Sano's Bats

The phone rings. The inspector picks up.

"Kanto Bureau. Inspector Ichihara."

He listens intently, interspersed with only the occasional "You don't say?" or "Interesting," as the voice on the other side of the line rises and falls in animation. "I'll have someone get right on it," Ichihara says before he hangs up. But there is no one else to get right on it because Suki is away on holiday, and, since it is Monday, Kahiro is out with his usual post-weekend flu. So Ichihara stands and straightens the crease of his shirt, then puts on his slicker and hat before leaving the office.

It's raining, which always slows traffic. And it's early May, so the rain frosts up the windows of his three-cylinder beater. The car smells of the tea he spills every morning while on his way to work and the cigarettes he's once again trying to stop smoking. Thirty-five minutes later he pulls into a parking lot at RKO Station, home to the Kawaguchi Transmitters Baseball Club.

It's not quite lunch time, and the team has already packed and left for Nogoya where they will begin a three-game series with the defending champion Shin Seiki Evas. He gets out of the car, and pulls his collar close against the rain as he legs it to the gate. The security guard scans his ID and lets him in. The chain-link door gives a metallic clatter as it closes behind.

The equipment manager is a small man with an odd hunch to his back. "It's here, Inspector" he says, directing Ichihara deeper into the clubhouse, then down a flight of stairs that had once been painted white. The basement floor is concrete with a single stress fracture that runs along one wall. Ichihara's eyes adjust to the shadows created by a bare 15-watt bulb that glows from the ceiling. He sees baseball bats laid in a row on the floor. They are still, silent, and beautiful to his eyes—eyes too old to play, but not so old as to forget what it was like to be a boy and to swing such pieces of wood. Though the room is dark, he sees the bats are all clean and smooth, not yet marred by pine-tar or resin, not yet introduced to the game itself. They lay like newly built torpedoes ready to be installed into the belly of some distant submarine.

"I don't understand," Ichihara says. "What is wrong?"

"Don't you feel it?" the manager replies.

The inspector peers more closely.

He kneels to see the handles are all labeled with #29, which is Shojiro Sano's number. Then he does feel it. Something is wrong. Mahou. Black arts.

"Why did you call me?" he says, peering up at the equipment manager.

"You believe," the manager replies. "And only one who believes can solve this problem."

Ichihara bends further and runs a finger over the barrel of one bat. He senses the aura around it. He understands what the equipment manager has said. In this modern world of electronic surveillance and of forensic science as seen on a hundred television shows, everything is cause and effect, rules and evidence, guilty and not. But even though he is just now coming to the age that his hair is thinning, Ichihara is old-school. Inspector Ichihara understands that things are not always as clear-cut as they seem, that while the eyeball deceives, the numbers never lie.

He understands, for example, that third baseman Shojiro Sano has come to bat 25 times in the first six games of this young season, and that Sano has struck out 10 of those times—a 40% rate. The inspector also understands that Sano has never struck out more than 20% of his plate appearances in years prior. Ichihara understands sample size. He knows 25 at bats don't add up to a hill of rice—except, of course, for when they do.

He bends over the bats again. Yes, he thinks. There is an odor here, a distant aroma of burnt reed mixed with the floral hint of jasmine. The bats are fouled.

Ichihara stands. "You have done well," he says to the equipment manager.

The inspector guides his car back toward his office.

He has little time to spare for the mystery of Shojiro Sano's bats. There is the monthly report that is already late, and there are the papers to file for a warrant to search the offices of the Oku pawn brokerage he suspects is holding stolen property. He has a court appearance scheduled for this afternoon, which he knows is a waste of time. The dealer will be processed. Perhaps he will be guilty and put in jail, perhaps not. Either way he will be free and roaming the streets in no time. This Sisyphusian task is his lot. It guarantees there will be no lack of work in his lifetime.

As he drives, the rain stops and he rolls his window down. Odors from the street come on a clean breeze. He's hungry and the scent of warming rice paws at his stomach. He has a bento box at the office, though, and he wills himself to make back there rather than stop and spend his yen in places he does not need to spend it. While waiting at an intersection, he thinks of Shojiro Sano's bats and of the Kawaguchi baseball club.

Like all fans in Saitama prefecture, Ichihara feels anxious about the Transmitters. On paper they will be a much improved team from the past, and their 24-run outburst against the Akira yesterday is like salve to an open wound. But the team has only two wins against four losses in this so-early part of the year. He wants more. This is why he had taken the call this morning. It is why he left the reports to sit on his desk unwritten and why he ignored the 11:30 meeting he had scheduled with Captain Mishuwata to discuss options for reassignment of his resources. This is why he paid his money to sit in the right field bleachers all of yesterday afternoon and watch as the team pounded out 25 hits, and watch as gaijin catcher Félix Lima set a new record for runs scored in a game with five, only to see mercurial infielder Masahiro Ito eclipse that record by scoring six times himself.

And it is also why, amid that outpouring of offense, he noticed how Shojiro Sano had struggled, achieving only a single hit in six plate appearances, and striking out a remarkable three times.

Inspector Ichihara had learned his place in life. He had little that did not entail the endless game of chasing down the darker side of humanity. He had no wife and no prospects for such. His only brother was in Spain, job-shopping as a retailer. His parents had passed three years prior, leaving him with barely enough to manage their transition into the afterlife. At one point in his life he had wanted more. He was sure of that, though the truth is he can't remember when the tides of his dreams had faded into the distance, leaving him stranded on the life he had today. At one point, though, he had wanted to make a difference. At one point, he thought being a police inspector—a fighter of crime—was a good and honorable way to do just that.

But that time had passed.

All Inspector Yuni Ichihara has today is a never-ending treadmill of petty criminals and his Kawaguchi Transmitters. And he knew, even yesterday afternoon, that something was wrong with Shojiro Sano.

This is why, at the last moment possible, Inspector Ichihara decides to detour. Rather than return to the office, he turns down a tight alley and into the harsher streets that Kawaguchi has too many of. The sky opens up with a new gale as he gets out of his car. He steps into a puddle. Wind bites at the folds of his coat, and he holds his hat to his head. Rain drops are like razor blades against his hand.

The doorway is recessed into shadow. The walls are brick painted a dusky yellow-beige that's faded and peeling. It reminds him of Transmitter Gold and the franchise that hasn't played five-hundred ball for many seasons. Graffiti covers the left side of the entrance—kanji and the outline of masks, faces he knows represent Hakutaku and a slew of Goryô, the spirit-folk who ride the storms and seek vengeance. He is safe from the rain here, but the wind still cuts him.

Ichihara pushes through the door and into a hallway where he meets a tattooed man who demands entry fees. Ichihara has seen up-close the evilness that is in this world. He lives with it every day. He knows his badge has no power in this lair, so he pays the fee and continues on until he comes to a room whose doorway is covered by dangling rawhide into which is tied rotting remnants of lotus blossoms and the bones of rodents and other things Ichihara does not want to consider. He feels the yûrei and the oni here—the ghosts and the demons that gather to the source of energy sitting on the floor in the form of a woman.

She is old except for her hands, which are still supple and smooth. Her fingers dance on a loom as if they are those of a fifteen-year-old. The rest of her body is withered and bent in many directions. Her hair is grayed and coarse. Her eyes and cheekbones are covered with a porcelain mask, but her chin and jaws are exposed and are dry and cracked as if she may have been here for centuries.

"You said you would not come again," she says.

"I meant it."

"Yet, here you are."

"You did not tell us everything last time," he replies.

Her fingers pause, and he feels currents grow in the air as if a wave is imminent.

Ichihara thinks about the last time he had come to this woman. It had been nearly one year prior. He had been with five friends—all men, all wanting the same thing, all willing to sacrifice to see their team get on the right track. They had been drinking and complaining, and one of them bragged that he knew a woman who could help them for a price. He remembered the aroma of burning reed and the cacophonous noise of the demon-song she had used to call in her magic. They gave her their yen and asked for a change. They asked for victory. In return she promised change, but replied that victory can never be assured.

He remembered feeling cheated as he and his friends left the alleyway that day. It had been so anti-climatic. The spell work finished, the room went silent, and they were shown to the door. They spent the rest of the afternoon in the bars drinking and smoking and talking about days when they played the game. He remembered feeling silly as he returned to his tiny apartment that evening. He remembered his head spinning with something he blamed on too much drink.

The next day he woke up to the news that Hoso Kyokai, Sr., owner of his Transmitters, had passed and that the team's operations would be handled by Kyokai's son, a dynamic entertainer who was now flush with his father's money and rumored to be looser with his purse-strings.

Ichihara and his friends met that night to drink once more. This time, however, they were somber. They glanced at each other through slit eyes and questioned themselves with indirect gazes. At the end of the night they decided it was senseless to worry about their role in the elder Kyokai's death. The afternoon at the alley was nothing, no different from teen-aged girls getting their palms studied. Yet, for him the specter of guilt would not go away. Inspector Ichihara dealt in crime every day. He saw rape. He saw drugs and murder. And for the past year, Yuni Ichihara had chased the perpetrators of these crimes with single-hearted determination borne of the idea that he was probably not far removed from them.

"I told what needed to be told." The woman's voice is harsh.

"You did not say Kyokai-san was to be killed."

"You didn't stipulate a method."

"I didn't want him dead."

The woman gives a graceful, backhanded wave. The air in the room begins to circulate. Ichihara smells something wild and hears the distant sound of drumming.

"His body is gone," the Inspector says. "But the old man remains behind. He is still here."

"He is useful."

Ichihara understands fully now. The woman has used him. She took his money and his desire, and twisted them to her own devices. The elder Transmitter owner is dead, but his spirit remains chained to the basement of the Transmitter clubhouse waiting for her commands, and while it waits it has inhabited the bats of Shojiro Sano. Yuni Ichihara has, as always, been nothing more than a pawn in a game bigger than he can play.

He feels anger. He does not know why this woman wants Kyokai's soul energy or exactly how she is twisting it to do her deeds. But as he stands in the room he feels something inside him snap. This is it. No more. The inspector stands firmly. He throws his hat off his head, and shrugs off his rain-soaked coat.

"I disallow it. My power will not be used for this. Mr. Kyokai has done nothing wrong."

The woman's hands stop and the room grows suddenly still. "The casting is complete," the woman says. "The deed is done."

"You used my desire without consent. You owe me more."

"I owe you nothing."

"Would you make a new bargain?"

"You wish to free a chained soul?"


She looks at the inspector with an appraising eye. "You do not have enough money."

He swallows. "I have something else."

"What will you bargain?"

"My life for his."

It is the biggest sacrifice he has ever considered. Merely uttering the phrase gives him strength and makes him feel whole. It makes him remember something important about life that he thought he once knew.

The woman's laugh bites into his flesh. "I don't want your life."

Ichihara recoils. Of course not. Of course she would not find his life worthy of such a bargain. His life was nothing like that of the wealthy Kyokai's. How could he think that would be an even trade?

The woman reads his face. "You think too little of yourself."

"What do you mean?"

"You interpret my answer to say your spirit has no value. But the truth is that I can't use your life because it is too pure."

The inspector furrows his brow.

"You think Kyokai is undeserving of his fate, but I could not chain him if that were true. I wring his soul of its impurities, and those are what keeps him chained. Just as it was impurities in one who asked for the curse that provided the power to cast the binding in the first."

"I see," he says. But Ichihara does not actually see anything at all. Though it is something he longs to believe, this idea—this thought that he has a pure heart—is foreign to him. "I am not innocent," he says. "My spirit wished for Kawaguchi victory at this man's expense."

She does not reply.

He hesitates, seeing the truth as she waits. It was not him. Ichihara speaks in a voice colored with enlightenment. "The leverage for Kyokai's chaining came from one of the other of my party." The idea is like cold water in summer.

She smiles and he sees her teeth are yellowed.

"Still," he replies. "I cannot be party to this chaining."

"I thought as much," the woman says. "Perhaps there is something else we can work out?" There is a tone to her voice that suggests she has been waiting to utter those words for nearly a year.

Inspector Ichihara settles into his seat at the courthouse. It is late afternoon. He is tired from the day and drained from the events in the woman's lair, but he must be here or the dealer he arrested two days prior will be let free on procedure. Despite his fatigue, he has not felt such anticipation in a very long time. He sits on the hard bench and fidgets with his phone until his case is called.

The dealer is brought in, found guilty, and sentenced to three months probation. Ichihara has seen this man before. He has no doubt the man is guilty of many crimes beyond this one. But he also knows the man will be on the streets in a few hours, and Ichihara knows it is a safe bet the man will be stealing something before the sun rises again. He'll be pushing his junk to kids. He'll be working his girls or whatever other games he has on the side. Ichihara knows the streets.

He opens his phone and keys in a text, entering the dealer's name and address. He pushes the "send" button and knows that the information will find its way to the woman in her alleyway basement. He does not know exactly what she plans, but he knows it will be effective, and he finds it easy not to care about the rest.

As he leaves the courtroom he feels a lightness of being.

The dealer will pay a dear price. For the first time ever he knows this is true. For the first time he knows he has made a difference.

And he knows one other thing, too.

His Kawaguchi Transmitters will play Shin Seiki later tonight. Perhaps they will win, perhaps not. But if Shojiro Sano strikes out, it will be because he struggles with the high fastball or because his eyes failed to pick up the tight spin of a slashing slider. It will not be because six men asked for victory.

Ichihara exits the courthouse and stands on the marble entryway that leads to the sidewalk below. Men and women walk by him, talking among themselves, or into cell phones—going about their lives. The sun is peaking through the overcast sky. The sound of the city is a symphony.

He reaches into his coat pocket, retrieves a crumpled pack of cigarettes, and contemplates them for a moment, holding the pack in his open palm. Then he brings the fingers slowly together, crushing the pack in a crinkle of cellophane and foil. He tosses the cigarettes into a nearby trashcan, and descends the steps into his city.

* * *

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Read more about Yuni Ichihara and the League of the Rising Sun in Chasing the Setting Sun.

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