Rob Manfred wipes the sweat from his brow and groans.
They’ve been hiking for over two weeks now, through forest and farm and field, on the most important mission of his career, hoping to assemble a crack team capable of handling the crisis his sport faces. He furrows his brow, inspecting the carpet of pine needles exposed below a dusting of frost and snow.
“Read me the message again, Jerry.”
The Mariners general manager chuckles as he reaches into his fanny pack. He rummages past a wealth of assorted protein bites before unearthing the wrinkled parchment. He pops a granola, flax, and raisin ball into his mouth as he unfolds the paper and reads, for the umpteenth time:
“Just NE of Washington and California - STOP. If you reach Moon you’ve gone too far - STOP. Find the gap in the teeth and squat - STOP. No phones - STOP. No cameras - STOP. Toothpaste appreciated - STOP.”
Manfred scowls. “It has to be here. It has to. We wasted too much time in damnable Idaho, and I can’t stand to grovel for Steinbrenner to lend me his space shuttle. But where are the teeth? Why couldn’t he be somewhere sensible, like Stroman?”
In frustration, the commissioner kicks a nearby maple, shaking it up its trunk and dumping its stored snow atop the petulant arbitrator.
“DAMN IT ALL! WHERE IS HE HIDING? I AM AT MY WIT’S EN-”
His wails are halted as his companion puts a gloved hand over his mouth, pointing intently at the tree recently struck. A glint of gold shines in the afternoon sun, uncovered by the disturbed snow. Dipoto reaches up to brush it off, revealing a polished gilded grill, welded into the very branch of the tree itself. He turns with a smile to Manfred, attempting futilely to keep snow off his neck.
“We’re here. Let’s have a look at the base of that tree.”
Both men begin to feel around the trunk, until Manfred comes upon a knot that offers a surprising degree of grip. With all his strength, he wrenches it out, revealing a rectangular hole the size of a ventilation shaft, with a metallic interior and rungs of a ladder built into it, trailing down into darkness.
The two men exchange glances. Dipoto fishes out a handful of homemade gorp, laced with cacao nibs and baked pumpkin seeds.
“Finders first,” he says with a grin.
Glaring daggers at his companion, Manfred grumbles, “If Dull hadn’t gotten himself whacked off in Canada last year we wouldn’t even be here,” before descending into the tree’s hollow. As Dipoto follows, the door closes behind them, leaving complete darkness as they sink, rung by rung, in search of their charge. After a few minutes, a light appears below, growing larger as they approach, until at last they reach a small landing with heavy metal door. A small slat slides to the side, upper chest-level for Dipoto, revealing nothing but a mouth, sporting a gleaming smile. The sound of locks unlatching echoes as the mouth begins to speak:
“I see you got my message, come on in.”
With relief, both men see the door slide to the side, revealing the pitcher they came to find. Dan Altavilla looks the same as ever - indistinguishable from a uniform cube of muscle save for a wide, beaming smile framed by a goatee.
The trio enters the room, well-illuminated, with all four walls lined with padding, showing the signs of repeated weighted ball impacts. A pitching mound stands in one corner, with a target and plate set opposite, and a slightly worryingly even array of dents in and out of the strike zone evident. Next to the mound is a full equipped squat rack and a small table of dumbbells. The opposite side has a spartan living arrangement, with a bed, small kitchen, smoothie maker. A curtain draws around the bathroom and shower, near the final corner, where an intricate sink holds an array of brushes, toothpaste, floss, and other dental care.
Seeing the shock on his partner’s face, Dipoto steps forward,
“It’s good to see you Dan, you look back to full health. Fastball still back up to 96 like it was when you got back from injury last September?”
“You know it, sir.”
“And the slider?”
“...a work in progress.”
“As are we all. You had the spin on it way up there though by the end, and people couldn’t touch it when it was located competitively. Actually, speaking of folks who couldn’t touch you, that’s why my friend here is so interested in tracking you down...”
Manfred’s wandering gaze snaps to attention, shaking free of his surprise to address the purpose of their quest.
“Daniel, I don’t know how much news you get down here, but surely even you have heard what’s happening. It’s the Astros - they’re out of control. I’ve done what I can to hold them down in the future and yet... there’s no doubt there’s more we were unable to uncover or address. Moreover, they’re still one of the league’s best teams. We need - I need a group of players I can trust. A group of players who have beaten them before, and can do it again. We’ve lost Dull already, Nova has given up and hidden away in Detroit, and of course Greinke was a double agent, turning to them for good. We have Stroman and Severino to keep our headquarters safe, but it’s not enough.
You’ve faced the Astros more than any other team in your career, and they’ve hardly been able to touch you. How, Dan? How have you done it? How is it you have struggled so much against most of the league, yet in over 20 innings against those devils you’ve had a cake walk?”
Altavilla starts to chuckle, breaking into a full belly laugh that fills the chamber. Manfred and Dipoto share an uneasy look, as the latter gnaws at a stick of chorizo jerky. Altavilla finally recovers, and begins to speak, wiping tears from his eyes,
“Well if THAT’S all you want, it couldn’t be simpler. I thought you were coming to tell me I’d been DFA’d! I know I’m young and throw in the upper-90s, but I’m out of options and my numbers weren’t great last year at all. Oh man, you guys got me good!”
Dumbfounded, Manfred sputters back,
“DFA’d? DFA’D!? Why on earth would I come to this godforsaken hole in the ground to tell you you’ve been DFA’d? Do you think that’s my job, to go around telling everyone personally they’ve been fired, re-hired, and fired again? Jerry are you sure he’s up for this? Maybe we misread the chart, it had to be that Díaz was the one who did so well against them.”
“Nope, they clobbered poor Edwin. It’s him. Dan, we’ve got a proposition for you, if you’re willing to play ball with us. How would you like to pitch against the Astros... every game?”
Altavilla’s ears perk up.
“Bobby and I,” Dipoto continues through Manfred’s scowl, “have an idea, to bring down those pesky space cowboys a peg, and you’re, well, the lynchpin. There’s been next to nobody who can handle Houston like you since you joined the league. We’ve got a set-up to set up a series of trades wherein you’d be dealt to every team that faces the Astros before each series, and be that club’s closer. We’re hoping to assemble a super-team that will travel with you of starters, position players, and a bullpen, but we need you to shut the door. You’ll be compensated well, of course, which reminds me, the toothpaste,”
Dipoto produces a dozen tubes of Colgate from a rucksack, handing it to the eager Pennsylvanian,
“So what do you say, Danny?”
Altavilla grins, looking at the haggard men.
Both the travelers breathe a sigh of relief, and turn to climb back out and begin their next expedition, but Manfred stops at the door and turns back and calls out,
“Dan, I must know, you only throw two pitches, and they’re both solid, but how did they never steal your signs?”
Altavilla winks as he reaches to slide the door shut, and points back at the evenly peppered target behind the plate,
“They can steal my signs, sure, but what the catcher puts down is only ever a suggestion. I throw what’s in my heart.”
With that, he slams the door shut, and the two hikers are left in the silent chamber.
“‘I throw what’s in my heart?’ That doesn’t make any goddamn sense!”
“None of it does. Let’s go find Gallardo.”