by K.C. Ball
Mandy found the last baseball umpire at a dingy sports bar called the Ugly Mug. The clock above the bar read six p.m. She had missed the last bullet train from D.C. back to Pittsburgh, and the fine print on her ticket had made it clear: No refunds on unused fares.
The Times-Journal only covered pre-approved travel costs, so the price of another ticket--and a place to stay the night--would be out-of-pocket. Mandy would be eating ramen noodles all next week.
It didn't matter.
She had lost the last vestige of her self-respect the day before, wheedling the assignment out of her old-dog city editor.
"C'mon, Jim," she had begged, almost on her knees. "You owe me."
"Don't owe you a goddamn thing."
"Nobody cares, kid. I'll get a cover from a 'net stringer--easier and cheaper.
"Not as good, though."
He blinked at that. "Jeez, kid, I got bosses, too. They'll chew my ass for sending you."
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In the end, she suspected he said yes because he had been a hard-core Pirates fan, back in the day, and probably still was--secretly--even though the team had moved to Winston-Salem.
He called after her, as she ran from the newsroom. "Tonight and tomorrow, kid, that's all you get. Bring me something good."
Three hours on the bullet in a common-fare plastic seat and six hours listening to mean-streets chatter outside her outside-the-beltway motel room, gave her ample time to dwell upon his final words.
The next morning, Mandy waited in the Supreme Court Gallery, with all the others, when the high court's rulings were handed out. Jerry Minar earned one dissenting vote. The other justices lifted an injunction a federal district judge set in place six months ago--two days after the 2020 World Series ended.
Justice Andrews wrote the majority decision: "The owners of professional baseball teams--collectively known as Major League Baseball--have the right to employ an artificial intelligence to determine strikes and balls at home plate during league play, as well as make safe or out calls at the other three bases."
With those words, human umpires became supernumeraries.
"Jerry didn't want to be here," Minar's ACLU attorney said. "Told me standing, waiting would remind him of the job."
"Where is he?" Mandy asked.
The lawyer glanced at her smart watch. She had only given Mandy a few minutes when she saw her press credentials.
"Some sports bar," the lawyer said.
"Does he know?"
"Can I have his number?" Mandy asked.
The attorney tapped a corner on her i-specs and pecked out a number on a touchpad only she could see. She touched her earbud and began to speak.
She glanced at Mandy. "A reporter wants to talk to you."
"The Pittsburgh paper." She touched her 'bud to end the call. "He hung up. Let's take that as a no."
"Give me his number," Mandy said.
The attorney shook her head and hurried off.
Mandy considered the situation. Without Minar, without quotes or photographs, she didn't have a story big enough to justify the trip.
Growing up, her grandmother Elsa had filled Mandy's dreams with tales of glory days as a newspaper reporter. The thrill of an exclusive. The rush of deadline. The notion of ink for blood.
"Print is dying," Mandy's Penn State professors said.
They had pushed her toward 'net news. She held out for print. A year ago, Elsa's name helped land a job at the Times-Journal, the fourteenth largest paper in the country still at press.
"Find him, Mandy," she heard Elsa whisper now. "You can do it."
She googled sports bars on her hand-held. There were twenty places within five miles of the court. Mandy considered hailing one of the little robot cabs that overran the D.C. streets, but good sense prevailed. She had no wish to eat ramen for a month. She began her hike.
It was a warm late April, even for D.C. Mandy was worn out by the time she left the third bar. Four hours later, she entered the Ugly Mug. The air-conditioning fell on her like a cold sheet of gauze soaked all day in beer.
The place was crowded for a Tuesday afternoon, but she spotted Minar sitting alone at the far end of the bar. Mandy stopped a stool away from him.
"Mr. Minar?" she asked.
He turned his head. "Yeah?"
"Mandy Dallas," she said. "The Times-Journal."
"The Pittsburgh paper?"
He glanced toward the door. "Brenda tell you where I was?"
Mandy shook her head. "She said you were at a sports bar. I've been searching for you all afternoon."
He turned back to his drink. "You're all I get, huh? One reporter, and a kid at that."
Mandy ignored the jibe and slid onto the empty stool.
Would you go away if I said please?" he asked.
He sighed. "All right. Ask your questions."
"Do you mind if I record?"
"Knock yourself out."
Mandy laid her hand-held on the bar and touched the flat screen to start recording.
"What did you expect to happen today, Mr. Minar?"
Minar finished his drink in one swallow and poured himself another round. "Call me Jerry," he said.
"What did you expect, Jerry?"
He held his glass, weighing it. "My day in court? A fair and honest determination?"
"You didn't really think that, did you?"
He grunted. "I didn't think I'd win, but I figured there'd be something more, even if I lost. More discussion. More attention. More outrage. 'Net coverage. Streamer cameras and bright lights. A crowd of people shouting."
She saw it now. He wasn't as old as her city editor, but he was an old dog, too.
"Nobody does it that way anymore," she said.
"Good for you. The others should care, too. I'm the last major-league baseball umpire. I shouldn't be the only one upset by that."
"There are other umpires," Mandy said. "Working umpires."
"Actors," Jerry sounded tired. "They'll wear uniforms, sweep dirt off the plate, and spread their hands or hook a thumb, but they'll be repeating whispers from a god-damned computer."
"An artificial intelligence," she said.
"If you'd kept your mouth shut, you'd still have a job."
"Not a job. A joke, and not a very funny one."
She changed directions. "Did you ever play?"
"High school and college."
"Ohio. Grew up in Cleveland. Nine, first time my old man took me to an Indians' game. Had season tickets. Saw every home game 'til my sophomore year. Always took my glove."
"What happened sophomore year?"
"Dad died. A heart attack."
"I'm sorry," Mandy said.
"Yeah," Jerry said. "Me, too."
"What happened then?"
He finished off his glass and signaled for another bottle.
"No money for college. Got into Kent State on a baseball scholarship. Junior year, coach told me I wasn't good enough to make the show."
The bottle came; Jerry filled his glass.
"Found an umpire school in Florida. Started in the minors. Made it to the majors before I hit thirty-two. That was twenty years ago."
"Were you good at it?"
"Hardest thing I ever did."
He produced a laminated card. "Another umpire said this; I just wrote it down."
Jerry read from the card: "A photographer gets a camera. A writer gets a typewriter. Umpires get a strike zone. And after that, nobody will agree with you, no matter what you call."
They sat in silence for a time.
"I'd like a drink now," she said.
Jerry signaled for another glass.
"Can I take a few pictures?" Mandy asked.
He shrugged. "Where's your camera?"
Mandy held out the hand-held and keyed the photo app.
"That's your typewriter, too, isn't it?"
She nodded. The bartender brought the second glass while she was working. Jerry filled the empty glass, then raised his own to invite her to join him in a toast. She did.
"Here's to umpires," he said. "Newspaper reporters, too, and other dead or dying breeds."
He tapped his glass to hers and drained his in one swallow. She finished off her own in three long gulps.
"I'm sorry," he said. "I shouldn't have said that."
"I understand," she said.
Jerry pushed back his stool. "Time to hit the road."
She asked the question. "Will you go back?"
Jerry grunted. "To baseball? Wouldn't if I could."
"What will you do?" she asked.
"I'll find something," he said. "Who knows... maybe an old dog can learn new tricks."
He left the bottle. Mandy poured another drink. She tapped the hand-held, as she sipped the whiskey, searching for a cheap place to stay the night. As she searched, she considered what she would write... and where old dogs go when they can't bite.
Wherever it might be, she wondered if she should put in her reservation now.
This story was first published on Friday, January 15th, 2016
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