Los Angeles Times
At Dodger Stadium it’s Japan vs. Korea in the World Baseball Classic, but before the first pitch is thrown, Mas Arai finds himself in the middle of a murder. Mysteries layer atop mysteries in this sixth in the award-winning series featuring the most unlikely of sleuths, an aging, widowed, not-exactly-communicative gardener from Altadena, California.
Who is that unusual woman throwing knuckleball pitches to warm up the Japanese team? Who sent thugs to threaten Mas and accuse him of treason? And what were in the deleted files on the murdered sportswriter’s computerand did they hold secrets that led to his death?
The more mysteries Mas uncovers, the deeper he gets drawn into a situation that soon grows dangerousincluding the danger of losing the affection of the woman he might someday admit he loves.
“What makes this series unique is its flawed and honorable protagonist. . . . A fascinating insight into a complex and admirable man.”
Booklist (starred review)
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At first, Mas Arai thought it was a batboy playing some kind of prank. The figure on the mound could not have been much more than five feet tall. But this wasn’t a neighborhood park. This was Dodger Stadium, born in 1962 over plowed-down Latino homes and the oldest baseball stadium on the West Coast. In two hours, Japan would face arch rival South Korea in the 2009 World Baseball Classic. No time for a mischievous youngster to sneak up and pretend he was a baseball senshu. Weren’t the security guards standing on the sidelines going to put a stop this nonsense?
Mas’s eyes were bad, there was no doubt about it. Haruo, who Mas would never credit as his best friend, first nagged him about it and then Genessee, whose role in Mas’s life was also unspoken, even though they had been together for five years, took over. She finally drove him to her local Costco on her side of town to get a real eye doctor to do a check up. Mas resented being forced to recite giant letters on a screen and reading miniscule lines on cards. What fool could see those letters, not to mention one who was nearing eighty years of age.
Genessee advocated for colorful plastic-framed glasses that he saw young people wearing, but Mas was having none of that. If he had to wear glasses other than the readers from his local drugstore, he wasn’t going to go majime, book smart. He instead chose bank robber cool tinted gold wire-rimmed ones that actor Steve McQueen might have worn in the heist movie, The Getaway.
Mas slipped on his glasses now to make sure that he was seeing right. The person on the mound was in uniform, wearing a dark blue shirt with “Japan” in red emblazoned across it. The hair, which stuck out underneath a baseball cap, was a little long for Mas’s taste, but at least it didn’t looked streaked blue or purple. Mas then blinked hard, once and then twice. Sonofagun. The pitcher was a woman.
“That’s Neko Kawasaki. Plays on the minor leagues in Hawaii.” The voice came from in back of Mas. He turned his head to see an Asian man with dazzling white head of hair. He wore tinted glasses, not unlike Mas’s.
“Sheezu any good?” Mas asked, and as soon as he said, he knew that it was a stupid question. This was the pros, and not even limited to the United States, so she had to be good.
“She’s a knuckleballer. Not too many of them these days. Wakefield might be one of the last great ones. ” Mas knew about old-man Tim Wakefield, a fortysomething Red Soxer for what, close to fifteen years now.
“I’m Smitty Takaya.” The white-haired man extended his right hand.
“Mas. Mas Arai.”
“Lloyd’s father-in-law. You’re a gardener, right?”
Mas widened his eyes. He wasn’t used to strangers knowing anything about him before meeting him and it made him suspicious.
“Maybe you can take a look at our Japanese garden someday.”
Mas frowned. Maybe his ears weren’t working either. Who heard of a Japanese garden out in Dodger Stadium?
“One was dedicated out there past the edge of the parking lot. You could draw a line from home to centerfield and you’ll find it out there.”
Mas took a second look of the white-haired man. He wore a light blue polo shirt with the LA Dodger logo prominently embroidered on the lefthand side. Maybe this guy wasn’t fooling around. Maybe he was a big shot.
“I work in the front office.” Smitty gestured to the upper deck where enclosed offices overlooked left field. “I process his and the rest of checks for the staff here. Head groundskeeper, a nice promotion for Lloyd.”
It took five years, but Mas’s son-in-law was finally making good money.
“He told me that you would be helping us. Good at shaving lawnmower blades, I hear. Dozo yoroshiku,” Smitty added in perfect Japanese.
Mas widened his eyes. “You knowsu Japanese. You’zu Kibei?”
“I’m an all-American Buddhahead. From Honolulu. But I played in Japan for the Flyers, now known as the Nippon-Ham Fighters. They were in Tokyo Dome back then.” So he was a big-shot. The Japanese Baseball League was just getting back on its feet when Mas left Hiroshima in 1947. This Smitty was lucky to be Flyer instead of a Ham Fighter. But whatever he was, Mas was fully impressed. And that rarely occurred, or as his late wife Chizuko said, only the possibility of winning a Trifecta would get Mas Arai out of his easy chair on his day-off.
“First came in to help with international scouting after I retired from playing, but then I was always good with numbers, so I slowly moved up the ranks.” A thick gold ring with “World Champions” shone from his right hand. “I usually stay in the front office, but I guess they needed my bilingual skills. These fellows from Nihon, they’re supposed to study English in school, but their pronunciation is lousy.”
Mas’s face grew hot and he looked away. He had been born in America, but had been taken by his family to Hiroshima when he was only three years old. After spending close to fifteen years in Japan, he moved back to the states. Despite being here for sixty years, his language skills were definitely subpar.
They heard curses from the Japan team catcher who was having a terrible time anticipating where the knuckleball pitch would land. Neko Kawasaki had him chasing balls in the dirt by the dugout. Or else the ball would bounce off the catcher’s chest protector, his glove moving much too late.
The batter wasn’t fairing that well, either. A young man with dyed yellow hair, the color of burnt hay, he couldn’t anticipate the trajectory of the pitch and ended up just swinging air.
“She’s getting them good. The knuckleball is tricky. I hope these guys will be ready for Jin-Won Kim.”
Mas drew a blank, and it must have been plenty obvious from the look on his face.
“He’s a pitcher for Unicorns,” Smitty explained. “Yeah, you heard me right, there’s a Korean team with that name. I guess me being a former Ham Fighter, I shouldn’t talk. But our fans called us the Fighters, okay.” He glared at Mas through his tinted eyeglasses, even though nothing was said out loud.
“It’s not about power, you know. You don’t need for the ball to go fast. It’s how you hold the ball with your fingernails.” Smitty pulled a baseball out of his pocket and simulated by placing his thumb behind the bottom seam and then digging two fingernails right above the top seam. And what was that in the center of the ball some kind of Japanese chicken scratch?
“Neva seen a girl play,” Mas murmured out loud.
“Well, let’s not get too far. She’s just helping the Japan team to prepare for Jin-Won Kim. Kind of a batting coach, what have you. Most of them have never faced a knuckleball pitcher. He’s the closer, the one who comes in at the end and sweeps everything up. And by the way they are hitting, it doesn’t look like they are going to fare too well today.”
“Dad, is everything okay?” Every time his son-in-law called him Dad, Mas had to do a double take. Lloyd, sunburnt and lean, looked different in his powder blue polo shirt, khaki shorts and cap. He wore wraparound sunglasses like he was pretending to be a movie producer instead of a glorified gardener. Mas always wanted a son, but never imagined this.
Smitty dipped the lip of his cap toward Lloyd. “You have a good father-in-law. He knows his baseball, that’s for sure.” He then spied some noise coming from the other side of the field. A crowd of photographers, mostly Japanese men, balancing heavy lens on poles that reminded Mas of black PVC plumbing pipe, were jostling for space. “I better see what all that is about.”
After Smitty was beyond earshot, Lloyd muttered to Mas, “I hope that you didn’t say too much to him. Smitty has more influence than you would think.”
Mas grit the back of his dentures. He hated oshabari, people who moved their traps without saying much of anything, and now his own son-in-law was practically accusing of being a chatterbox. He didn’t know if he liked this version of the giant gardener with his shaven golden locks. Before, Lloyd was a bura-bura type who didn’t seem to have much ambition nor cared much what other people thought of him. But now with this fancy title and job, he was suddenly Mr. Sensitive, Mr. Politics. His new-found respectability did buy him and his family a lot more things, Mas had to admit. There was only one problem. In spite of their increased income, they still weren’t moving out of Mas’s house in Altadena.
His grandson Takeo was now eight, a third grader at a private school in Pasadena. It was because of the school tuition that they weren’t making a move, Mas figured. And also Mari had returned to her first love, filmmaking. Seemed like everyone in the Arai family was doing things that they wanted to do. Everyone aside from Mas Arai.
“Whyzu you just tell them they gotta move out,” Haruo had said a month ago when they were working to fix a sprinkler leak at the home of his daughter, Kiyomi. Haruo had gone to therapy for his gambling addiction for nine months, which apparently made him some kind of expert on things of the heart. He spoke in a mysterious lingo with words like co-dependency and boundaries.
Haruo was one to talk. He had an adult stepdaughter Dee under his roof as well. But Mas wasn’t going to get on her case. He knew first-hand that most of Dee’s life had been a struggle. So he gritted his teeth and sat through Haruo’s amateur psychological analysis. Genessee claimed that his friendship with Haruo made Mas into a good man. Mas had been called a number of things, but never good. To hear it made him feel off-balance, unsteady.
Anyway, what would happen if Mari, Lloyd and Takeo really did move out? It would mean that the McNally house would be empty. There would be room enough for Genessee to move in, although she seemed more than comfortable in her home in Mid-City. And all the things that were unspoken may then have the space to be spoken. Mas preferred a crowded house to that.
He concentrated on the Japanese coaches and players again, seeing if he recognized any of them. Since they were all wearing the Japan team uniform, they were harder to distinguish from one another. There was the pitcher for the Red Sox with the ridiculous braided necklace sitting in the dugout. Someone was warming up on deck, swinging a black wooden bat. Mas placed his hands on his cheeks; he couldn’t even say his name out loud or in his head. The first thing that came to him was Uno. Uno-san, the master outfielder, in fact the first Japanese position player to be a Major Leaguer. Uno-san with the nobility of a samurai.
Mas and his all-American friend, Tug Yamada, who loved his Dodgers fourth after God, his family and friends, had both decided that Uno-san was quintessentially Japanese, not only in his playing but also in his attitude. While his teammates hung out and laughed while others batted, Uno-san was in the zone. He stretched, he meditated, he focused. His work ethic was world-renown. Uno-san was a private man and rarely gave interviews, but Tug’s son, another fan who bled Dodger Blue, had discovered a perfect example of Uno-san’s dedication on an Internet site. There he learned that Uno-san not only cleaned his mitt but also his cleats after each game on his own! This is a superstar earning several million dollars a year. To actually take care of his own soiled gear was unheard of.
Mas wished that Tug was with him now, so both of them could admire Uno-san’s form