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THE REPLAY ZONE - JUNE 2014
 
By Jeff Polman
 
June ruminations from your trusty Strat-O-Matic replay addict. Check out “Ball Nuts”, my new “fictionalized” replay book on the 1977 season.
  
Last week, I was lucky to attend four days of the annual ECBA League convention, held in Larry Fryer’s comfortable house outside of Baltimore, MD. Larry was the runner-up in the Ultimate Strat Fan contest back in 2011, and with winner and Guinness World Record co-holder Brett Carow joining the league this year (managing his Birchwood Poster Boys), the competition will only get fiercer. As I detailed in a column the last time I attended, the ECBA (East Coast Baseball Association) is a combination face-to-face/play-by-mail draft league using current teams that in 2014 is celebrating its incredible 40th year. At their annual gathering, I would roll 45 games with five of the managers, but little did I know that mystery and diabolical intrigue awaited me…
 
 
“CARD MYSTERY AT FRYER MANOR”
 
An unpublished dice-rolling drama by Agatha “20-Sider” Christie
 
 
CAST OF CHARACTERS:
 
--Sir Lawrence Fryer, distinguished owner and host of Fryer Manor, and manager of the Sabres
--Lady Sandra Fryer, gracious hostess and wild blueberry collector of Fryer Manor
--Lord Sebastian Jimnasium, manager of the Surf and many-time league champion.
--Kevin F., Lord Jimnasium’s trusted manservant, traveling companion from San Diego, and manager of the Fisher Cats
--James and Thomas of the Pennsylvania House of Beltz, brothers and managers of the Trail Runners and Bootleggers, respectively
--Marcus Gratkowski, a Slavic nobleman and manager of the Maryland Mayhem
--Colonel Alan Ringland, the legendary 72-year-old manager of the Sickies, journeying from Texas without his son Warren this year
--Cooper and Minty, the fuzzy-eared, tail-wagging butler and chambermaid of Fryer Manor
--Hercule Polmo, our keen-eyed, deductive narrator, and manager of the Culver City Skanks
 
* * *
 
Dawn mist crept over the stately grounds of Fryer Manor as I arrived in Marcus Gratkowski’s blood-red Honda hansom. Only Lady Sandra was stirring at that hour, and after my all-night cross-country flight, a large spot of coffee amply prepared me for my opening skirmishes with the Mayhem. 
 
My Skanks were barely prepared. After Yu Darvish smote his rivals with 13 strikeouts, I proceeded to lose the next four matches, many of them in decidedly rude fashion. Jason Grilli, chosen in the March draft to be my ninth frame savior, lost not one, but two times at the game’s witching hour, and on the second occasion following home runs to Kole Calhoun and Matt Joyce to shockingly lose Game Four, I had to stand and pace the front parlor floor like a condemned criminal.
 
“I despise my team,” I declared to all within view, “despise them!”
“Have you not won more than you have lost?” asked Lord Jimnasium, lightly chewing on a fresh blueberry muffin.
 
“Yes, but I—Oh, dash it all, never mind.”
 
It was obvious. I needed a change of scenery before taking on Sir Lawrence’s Sabres and his deadly speed demon William Hamilton, who he acquired from the Redlegs in our annual cattle and card auction. For added torment, Sir Lawrence also was in possession of a rare spinning “20-sider ring” he obtained from a “mathematically advanced tribesman” in remote Tibet.
 
 
Fryer Manor normally finds two sets of games being played upstairs, and two or three more series down in the sprawling lower chambers. In the kitchen, Colonel Ringland was regaling James with his stories of baseball past, both Strat-playing and otherwise, so venturing into the bowels of the Manor seemed the appropriate move for your narrator.
 
I fared better against the Sabres, despite Hamilton picking my pocket for seven sacks in the five games, and captured three of the contests. My next opponent was Thomas Beltz, a jovial fellow and always enjoyable in duels. I took three more from his Bootleggers, at one juncture scoring 14 times in consecutive games.  David Ortiz, Adrian Beltre and Jean Segura had gone positively dotty for me.
 
Thomas’ brother James and his Trail Runners were next, and affairs with them were always tense and very competitive. After Darvish allowed long balls to Chris Davis, Adam Jones, Josh Donaldson and Scooter Gennett in an 8-2 Trail Runner romp in the first game, I was on edge. My Skanks scored three times in the 8th of Game Two to take a 5-3 lead. With Jason Grilli coming on for the save, I momentarily excused myself from the chambers to fetch a glass of Lady Sandra’s delicious iced mint tea.
 
Upon returning minutes later, though, I suddenly stopped short of the gaming table and looked down in horror.
 
My Jason Grilli card lay on the cold floor, neatly ripped into two pieces.
 
“Good lord!!” I shrieked, “Who did this??” James looked up from his score sheet with a baffled expression. Kevin F. and Thomas, playing one of their matches across the room, did the same. Sir Lawrence heard my exclamations and appeared seconds later. Took one look at the murdered card and turned as white as a winter meadow. Sir Lawrence, being an avid collector of Strat-O-Matic cards and insisting on placing each of his teams inside protective clear paper sleeves, was visibly appalled.
 
“It’s just…uncanny!” he cried, and led me out of the chambers and up the staircase, where he neatly taped together Grilli’s pieces the best he could.
 
The sight of Mr. Grilli’s stitched–together cardboard body would also haunt me the rest of the weekend. I had to solve this mystery, and find the person responsible.
 
At dinner that evening, and at breakfast and lunch the next day, I gazed around at the manor’s inhabitants. Any of them could have done it. They knew Grilli was my closing pitcher; decapitating his card would have been a diabolical way to gain a psychological edge. Perhaps they resented me because I was the only manager scoring on college ruled notebook paper as opposed to official score sheets; one of the only managers not using a handcrafted “dice castle”; and the only one to refer to my Dead Sea Fielding Chart Scrolls, a timeworn relic that accompanied me everywhere, unsheathed from its transportation sleeve before my first game.
 
Sir Lawrence also delighted in showing me his spinning 20-sider ring. Was I not awed enough for his tastes? Did he want revenge for my three-out of five series victory?
 
Maybe it was Colonel Ringland, though I had yet to play him. Marcus Gratkowski had no reason to commit the crime, having beaten me four times already and three more in our second series. Grilli was serving up big late hits to him like roasted baby pheasants.
 
Cooper and Minty, the miniature house servants, often appeared ravenous, and either one could have torn the card in a quick, ferocious frenzy. I examined the ripping marks on the card with a magnifying glass but could deduce no signs of a mauling.
 
Lord Sebastian Gimnasium and Kevin F. were certainly in the running; being part of the same West division I was in, they weren’t scheduled to face me until later in the summer in California, but was that just their alibi? If one wanted to upset me ahead of time, wouldn’t tearing my ace reliever in half go unnoticed in a house filled with unsuspecting guests?
 
Regardless, after losing three to the Trail Runners, three more to the Mayhem, and three to the Bootleggers, my record at the manor was a ghastly 12-17. Even a completely healed Jason Grilli would not have helped. My men were stranding runners, grounding into double plays and making life easy for scampering opponents.
 
During our Wiffle Ball tournament one splendid afternoon, I attempted to question some of the guests, hoping they would reveal something about their whereabouts when the fateful card met its severed fate.
 
“Can’t say that I can recall,” said Thomas, as he launched yet another of his plastic blasts off the front of the manor, “Grilli, you say?”
 
He was playing dumb, which hardly omitted him from wrongdoing in my book. Back inside the next morning, Sir Lawrence took four more games from me, and William Hamilton robbed four more bases. Taking four of my last five from the Trail Runners was a relief, but losing three to a tired Colonel Ringland and his depleted Sickies squad was a backbreaker. I finished the holiday a perfectly gloomy 20-25, but as Derek Holland lost my final contest in hideous fashion, something sparked in my mind and I suddenly had an answer to the riddle. I turned to the others.
 
“Tonight, at our gracious celebratory dinner for Sir Lawrence and Lady Sandra,” I said, “I will reveal who ripped Jason Grilli.”
 
* * *
 
Hours later, at a famous local Japanese steak house, the mood was spirited but I couldn’t help noticing a tightness in all my companions’ faces. One of them was guilty, and that person undoubtedly knew it.
 
After a round of exotic cocktails, I stood to address our rectangular table.
 
“The reason I have been so baffled, my friends, is because of the obviousness of the crime. Yes, the Grilli card was ripped, but the fiendish act was not hidden. The card was left beside my chair for me to see. As if I were being taunted, or driven to the brink of madness. Who had I angered in past dice-rolling experience? Who would benefit from my discovery of a butchered reliever card?”
 
I stared from face to face. Lord Sebastian looked grim. Marcus Gratkowski gazed blankly into his menu. Kevin F. checked baseball results on his miniature telephone.
 
“Whoever perpetrated this crime can make things easier by confessing right here, right now,” I continued. “Because I promise you, first degree Strat card murder is a serious offense, and you will have a hard time explaining your arrest, conviction, and sentencing to your family.”
 
No one spoke, or even peeped. I marched over to Kevin F. and snatched his miniature phone away.
 
“Admit it, sir! You were in the room! Your team now stands at 35-50 and your only hope in winning some of our upcoming twenty games is by destroying one of my prize possessions—“
 
His eyes boiled. He lunged out and grabbed my pointing finger.
 
“What’s that?” he demanded.
 
“What’s what?”
 
He took two chopsticks from beside his plate, used them to pluck out a tiny piece of paper lodged under my fingernail.
 
“It’s from a Strat-O-Matic card!” he said, “I can make out an X from a fielding chart rating!” He abruptly stood. “Explain yourself, Hercule!”
 
“I…don’t think I understand what—“
 
“Yes!” cried Sir Lawrence, “Explain yourself!”
 
“WOOF!” barked Minty from his lap.
 
James of the House of Beltz suddenly stood, his gaze sharpening. Produced one of our score sheets from a waistcoat pocket and unfolded it.
 
“Yessss…I recall now. I was concentrating too hard at the time, you see. It was in our second game, Chase Utley was on second base with two outs and Grilli gave up three straight singles to Lowrie, Parra and Hanigan to tie the game! You picked up Jason’s card and…and…AIEEEE!!”
 
He fainted into his brother’s arms. I tried to run. Was grabbed and muscled back into my chair. The room blurred around me. Much like it did during that fateful ninth inning days ago. I had ripped Jason Grilli in two and was so traumatized I had blocked it from my mind.
 
 
EPILOGUE
 
Marcus Gratkowski’s Mayhem finished with the best mark for the week, at 31-19, but my convention was over. Never again would I be trusted to restrain my anger during critical game moments. My Skanks were truly in disgrace.
 
On the other hand, the Trail Runners’ Steve Cishek did boot a grounder to start the bottom of the 9th in that doomed game, and singles by Pedroia and Pence actually won it for me seconds later. If they hadn’t, it’s likely I would have carried Grilli’s lifeless, mutilated form upstairs and cast him into the roaring fireplace of Fryer Manor, his 4-5-6 columns never to be read again.
 
That, you see, is how I roll.