5. The Missed Call

A Hitman Jake story by Preston Pairo

“Do you like baseball?” the man asked.

Jake assumed it was a rhetorical question—an ice-breaker before getting to the business at hand, which, given Jake’s line of work, would be the identity of whoever the man wanted Jake to kill.

Jake wasn’t much for small talk but was trying to adjust to how the world had changed.  Everyone now seemed to want to talk everything to death—in some cases, literally.  But Grace was always telling Jake he had to be more understanding.  He had to consider customer relations.  If someone felt the need to talk a little before hiring him, he should be compassionate enough to listen.

Jake didn’t see it that way but loved Grace dearly and found that, more times than not, she was right.  So instead of glaring at the man in response to the question whether he liked baseball (the way he would have a year or so ago) Jake replied: “Not really.”

“I love baseball,” the man responded.  “It’s been my favorite sport since I was a boy.”  He spoke with a sense of heartbreak and gulped between sentences.  The way his mouth pressed into a forced smile made it seem as if he was suppressing the urge to sob.  “Such a wonderful sport.”  Seated in a cane chair at the smeary window of his ramshackle attic apartment, the man looked out onto Calvert Street.

The man who loved baseball was in his late 30’s, thin, and underfed.  His head of black hair was not just uncombed but of uneven lengths, as though he was his own reckless barber.  His name was Jerry Adair.

Near where Adair sat, hung on a wall of peeling floral-print paper in an inexpensive frame, was a signed black-and-white photograph of a Baltimore Orioles’ player from the 1960’s of the same name.  Jake, practicing his small talk, asked if the ballplayer was Adair’s relative.

Jerry Adair shook his head sadly, as if he wished the opposite was true, then added: “Just a coincidence.”

Jake didn’t know what else to say.

Still looking outside, peering up Calvert toward 33rd Street, Adair said, “Memorial Stadium used to be up that way.  The Orioles and Colts both used to play there.”

Jake remembered, having spent his entire 50-plus years in Baltimore, never imagining it would turn into such an accommodating city for a person in his profession.

Adair reminisced: “I don’t really remember the Colts being here, but my father always used to talk about them.  Unitas and Berry.  Lenny Moore.  Donovan.  Pellington.  Tom Matte.”

Jake hoped Adair wasn’t going to recount the entire historical roster.

“Orr.  Braase.  Ameche.”  Each name evoked such powerful memories for Adair it soon became too painful for him to continue.  He waved a hand across his face as though brushing aside ghosts that had invaded his sparsely-furnished apartment.

Loiza, Jake’s young tech-proficient assistant, who had been rapidly entering each name Adair recited into his phone, now looked up, waiting for whatever else their new client might say.

After a few quiet moments, Adair turned from the window, placed his palms atop the thighs of his wrinkled pants, and exhaled somberly. 

Outside under cloudy skies, a siren drew near.  Seconds later, an ambulance passed on its way to Union Memorial.

Jake checked his watch.  Seated on a dusty loveseat, his burly 200-pound frame nearly consumed both worn cushions.  He and Loiza had been in this sad little place ten minutes already, enduring lingering odors of uneaten Chinese carry-out that wafted from the kitchenette trash can.

When Adair said, “I had a daughter,” it seemed to take all his might to get the words out.  Gripping the thin fabric of his pants in his fists, he said, “Her name was Polly.”  He sniffled.  “And she loved baseball, too.”  When Adair’s tears began to flow, he jerked his head upright as if to cast them back into his eyes.

Loiza withdrew a neatly-folded and clean handkerchief from his hip pocket and offered it to Adair.  As he did that, Jake could almost hear Grace’s kind words: You know, it wouldn’t hurt you to be more like Loiza sometimes.  Jake’s Romanian assistant, tall and dark with romance-novel-cover good looks, was a never-fail-hit with women.

“Two years ago,” Adair struggled to continue, mopping his eyes, “Polly and I were at a baseball game.  In the third inning, a foul ball was hit toward us.  I reached for it, but it came so fast and hard it went by me.”  Adair couldn’t contain his tears.  “It hit Polly.  It hit her in the head.  And knocked her unconscious.  She was bleeding.  In the back of the ambulance, I kept begging her to open her eyes.  But she never did.”  He shuddered.  “She died two weeks later.”

Jake had been briefed that Jerry Adair was a hollow man—a shell of his former existence as a father, husband, and successful real estate appraiser.  After Polly’s death, Adair’s fall had been swift.  His business collapsed.  He and his wife had no other children, and all that now remained of their marriage was an ongoing divorce proceeding in which Adair was acting as his own lawyer.  That case was not going well.

“Polly was seven,” Adair sobbed.  “Only seven.  It should never have happened.”  His tone suddenly swelled with anger, repeating: “It should never have happened.”

Loiza tried to soothe their client: “You can’t blame yourself.”

Adair looked at Loiza through his tears.  “I don’t blame myself.  I blame the umpire.  The umpire killed Polly.  He missed the call.  The pitch just before that foul ball should have been strike three.  Plain as day.  They showed it on TV.  The ball was dead center over the plate.  The batter should have been out.  The inning should have been over.  But the umpire didn’t call it a strike.  He said it was a ball.  If he’d have made the right call, that next pitch would never have been thrown.  That foul ball would never have been hit.  And Polly would still be alive.”

Anticipating Loiza was about to provide philosophical counterpoint to Adair’s theory, which would likely delve into all inexplicable matters of the universe and human existence—fate, predestination, and other concepts Jake found much less certain than well-aimed bullets—Jake gave his deep-thinking assistant a warning glare, to which Loiza surrendered.  Because Adair finally seemed headed where Jake was interested in going.

“You have a name and address for this umpire?” Jake asked Adair, assuming that’s who he wanted Jake to kill.

“Yes.  But it’s not just the umpire.  I made a list.”  Adair got up from his seat and shuffled in his socks over painted hardwood floors to the darker half of his apartment.

Just beyond the closet-sized kitchenette, a single bed was tucked into a windowless corner.  Without bothering to switch on any lights, Adair opened a chest of drawers and withdrew a loose-leaf binder he brought back to the living room and handed to Jake.

Loiza, who due to a lack of seating options had been standing against the wall opposite Jake, came over for a closer inspection.

“These are all articles about an electronic strike-zone,” Adair explained of the first set of tabbed pages.  Unlike his apartment, Adair’s binder was neatly organized, with inches of pages inserted inside clear plastic sleeves and arranged by topic.  “How feasible and inexpensive it would be to have balls and strikes called by—for simplicity, say—radar.  The technology exists.  And it’s not expensive.  Especially considering the impact of missed calls.”

Stepping into the role of teacher—or perhaps, professor—seemed to put life back into Adair.  Indicating the next section of pages, he said: “These are cost analysis reports that sample-sized a hundred major league baseball players over five seasons and determined how their salaries were impacted by umpires making the wrong call during their at bats.  They like to call it analytics now, but it’s really statistics.  And baseball has always been more statistics-driven than any other sport.  Now, in some cases what this study found was that players are being paid millions more or less than they should be.  Not to mention how games were affected.  And not just single games, but championships.  World championships have been won by the wrong team.”

The contents of the binder, as well as Adair’s claims, registered low on Jake’s scale of interest.  To Jake, anyone who wasted their money or emotions on professional sports was a patsy.  Loiza, however, was fascinated and together with Adair ended up sitting cross-legged on the dusty floor, pouring over page after page for nearly an hour.

Jake, meanwhile, waited as patiently as possible, glad he’d never been a father so as to have to stare into space while his child—heaven forbid, children—ran around a playground in some city park.

“On talk radio,” Adair said to Loiza at one point, “they talk about the human element being a part of sports.  And it is, but that’s the players.  Not umpires or referees.  They make it sound like an umpire’s wrong call is like a dropped pass or ground ball through a shortstop’s legs.  It’s not.  The umpire isn’t a player.  He’s an adjudicator.  He’s God on the field.  He says what was right or wrong.  Safe or out.  And so often he’s wrong—look at this.”  Adair advanced to another section deeper in his binder.  “Over fifteen percent of the time—fifteen percent—the calls are wrong.  How can that be right?”

“It’s not,” Loiza responded.  “It’s not at all.”

Jake couldn’t tell if Loiza really agreed or was just being kind—that client relations thing again.

“And this isn’t some well-kept secret,” Adair opined.  “It’s public knowledge.  And here…”  He indicated another tabbed section.  “…is a list of all the executives in the front office of baseball who have known this and could have done something about it.  Ten names,” Adair declared.  “All equally culpable in Polly’s death.”  He offered the binder, opened to his list of ten names, to Jake.

Only Jake wouldn’t take it.  “I kill them all, it won’t look random.  Besides, I assume these people are important to baseball, which, who the hell knows why, is big business.  So, by the time I kill the first two, these others…”  Jake’s thick finger drew a circle in the air around Adair’s list.  “…if they have half a brain, they’re going to get antsy and start being careful.  Which makes them harder to kill.  Not to mention once I kill the umpire, maybe someone starts to put it together why these people are being killed, which might get them wondering who would want to kill these people, which might lead to you.”

“No.  I’ve been very careful not to discuss this with anyone,” Adair promised.  “And it’s been two years.  Nobody even remembers Polly anymore.  Nobody but me.”  He no longer spoke as a father who’d lost his way to the depths of mourning, but with defiance.

Jake said, “You never called any of these talk radio sports shows and said it was the umpire’s fault your little girl was dead?”

“No.”

Jake didn’t believe that.  Looking Adair in the eye, he said, “Pick one name off that list.  One.”

#

Weeks later, on a rainy spring day, a dead man with bullets in his head was dumped in an alley not far from Baltimore Cemetery.  Three days later, city police discovered the body.  Three days after that, the police determined the man’s identity.

At first, the incident drew no more than a short paragraph in the newspaper because another murder wasn’t really news.  However, once the dead man was found to have been a major league umpire, the matter elevated through the heavy daily slog of Baltimore tragedies and made the front page of the sports section.

Loiza read the online article to Jake as they sat in Jake’s Cadillac inside the gated grounds of a handsome stone mansion in an established northern Baltimore County neighborhood.

The newspaper article referenced the usual shock among the dead man’s peers and employers, how he was a respected veteran umpire.  Some scorn was put upon the police for suspecting the death was the usual drug deal gone bad, but that was such a good theory when men of certain descriptions were found murdered in city neighborhoods matching the demographics of the alley Jake and Loiza had selected.

The article brushed upon the possibility that the murder could have been retaliation by some deranged baseball fanatic, but that concept didn’t have much stamina because no threats had been made against the dead umpire and this wasn’t Philadelphia.

What the news story failed to include were Loiza’s “analytics,” which Jake’s assistant had compiled with the help of his powerful array of computers set up in the basement of his fortune teller mother’s house in Rosedale.

Loiza’s conclusion was that the umpire they’d killed was crooked.  Evaluating the murdered man’s ball/strike calls for over 500 players over 10 years and 25,000 at bats showed what Loiza called “indicative bias” concerning certain players.

The umpire’s incorrect ball/strike calls favored or disfavored some players at a significantly higher percentage than the average of his errors.  And those so favored or disfavored were all players the umpire followed on the MLB app on his phone (which Loiza had hacked).  Other players seemed to fall in and out of favor, and Loiza later determined there was a remarkable correlation between those players being favored when they happened to be on the umpire’s son’s fantasy teams (which Loiza determined by hacking the son’s laptop).

Overall therefore, the pattern of the umpire’s errors indicated a majority of his missed calls weren’t mistakes, but intentional.

What all this meant to Jake was that Loiza had spent a lot of time fishing the Internet for ways to paint the umpire in a bad light, because Loiza was still uncomfortable being involved with killing people who didn’t deserve killing other than that someone was willing to pay Jake to make them dead.

Jake’s perspective on that sort of thinking was that if you looked hard enough everyone probably deserved being killed—if not for how they were living now, then for something in their past, a harm caused someone else, intentionally, subconsciously, or whatever Loiza wanted to call it.

What Loiza also found out was that Jerry Adair had lied to them—not about never calling a sports talk show to say the umpire’s bad call had killed his daughter, but in his description of how his daughter was killed.

Adair and Polly were at a baseball game.  And a foul ball did hit Polly in the head.  And that injury caused her death.  But that fatal foul ball wasn’t hit on the pitch immediately after the call Jerry Adair claimed the umpire missed (and the umpire did badly blow that call).  The fatal foul ball was hit two batters later.  Ten pitches later.  But perhaps more significantly, Jerry Adair didn’t try to catch the foul ball or deflect it from hitting his daughter.  When the ball came rocketing into the stands, Jerry Adair ducked behind the row of seats in front of him.

Perhaps Adair truthfully remembered the events exactly as he’d described them to Jake.  Perhaps erasing and rewriting his memory of the horrible incident that caused his daughter’s death was the only way Adair had been able to live with the guilt as long as he had.  But in reality: while the umpire should have called strike three on a batter that would have ended the inning before that foul ball was ever hit toward Polly, Jerry Adair didn’t so much as hold out his hand to try to stop it.

“To make matters worse,” Jake and Loiza were informed, “Polly didn’t even like baseball.”  This revelation was delivered to them by the refined-looking man in his early 70’s who came out of the stately house and handed Jake a thick envelope.  The man’s name was Jerry Karupka, a lawyer who had been using Jake’s services for decades. 

The Kroop never used to discuss the hits he hired Jake to take on beyond a name, an amount, and a timetable.  But lately Karupka had gotten more chatty, which Jake at first attributed to the lawyer growing older.  But maybe it was loneliness.  Maybe Karupka needed to hear a voice other than his own more than he used to.

Jake placed Karupka’s envelope in the center console of his Cadillac without bothering to count the stack of hundred-dollar bills inside.  Jake knew it would be $20,000, the amount he’d quoted Karupka to kill Jerry Adair—which Jake and Loiza had done moments after giving Adair the news about—and being paid by Adair for—killing the umpire.

Karupka shook his head.  “Adair’s wife kept telling him not to take Polly to any more games.   Over and over, she told him that.”

Adair’s wife had come to Karupka because she’d grown tired of Adair dragging out their divorce proceedings—that, and her eagerness to collect on Adair’s million-dollar life insurance policy on which she was sole beneficiary.

“But Adair wouldn’t listen,” Karupka said.  “He kept taking Polly to games.”  The lawyer, in his pressed shirt, expensive slacks, and shined Italian loafers, patted the window ledge of Jake’s Cadillac with both hands, then stood back.  “What are you going to do?  Guy just wouldn’t listen.”

“Bad call on his part,” Jake said.