Sayonara Slam by Naomi Hirahara is the 6th Mas Arai Mystery featuring the most unlikely of sleuths (Available Now!)
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.
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 computer—and 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 dangerous—including the danger of losing the affection of the woman he might someday admit he loves.
At first, Mas Arai thought it was a bat boy 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 archrival 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 to this nonsense?
There was no doubt about it, Mas’s eyes were bad. Haruo, who Mas would never credit as his best friend, first nagged him about it. Then Genessee, whose role in Mas’s life was also unspoken, even though they had been together for five years, took over. She had finally driven him to the Costco on her side of town to get a real eye doctor to do a checkup. Mas had resented being forced to recite giant letters on a screen and reading minuscule lines on cards. What fool could see those letters, not to mention one who was nearing eighty years of age?
Genessee had advocated for colorful plastic-framed glasses that Mas had seen young people wearing, but he would have 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’d instead chosen 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 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 look to be streaked blue or purple. He 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 behind him. He turned his head to see an Asian man with a dazzling white head of hair. He wore tinted glasses not unlike Mas’s.
“Sheezu any good?” Mas asked. As soon as he said it, he knew 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 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 ever heard of a Japanese garden in Dodger Stadium?
“One was dedicated out there past the edge of the parking lot. You could draw a line from home plate to centerfield and you’ll find it out there.”
Mas took a second look at the white-haired man. He wore a light-blue polo shirt with the L.A. Dodgers logo prominently embroidered on the left-hand 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 the checks for the staff. 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 you’d 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 wasa 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, had said, only the possibility of winning a trifecta would get Mas Arai out of his easy chair on his day off.
“I 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 was born in America and not Nihon, the most popular name for Japan by its citizens, but he’d 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 Japan’s catcher, who was having a terrible time anticipating where the knuckleball pitches would land. Neko Kawasaki had him chasing balls in the dirt by the dugout. Or else the ball would bounce off his chest protector, his glove moving much too late.
The batter wasn’t fairing that well, either. A thirtysomething man with dyed yellow hair, the color of burnt hay, he couldn’t anticipate the trajectory of the pitch and ended up swinging air.
“She’s getting them good. That 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 the 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 Mas had said nothing out loud.
“It’s not about power, you know,” Smitty continued. “You don’t need for the ball to go fast. It’s how you hold the ball with your fingernails.” He pulled a baseball out of his pocket and simulated by placing his thumb behind the bottom seam and 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 prepare for Jin-Won Kim. Kind of like 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’re 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 had always wanted a son, but he’d 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 looked toward the sound of voices coming from the other side of the field. A crowd of photographers, mostly Japanese men who were balancing heavy lenses on poles that reminded Mas of black PVC pipe, were jostling for space. “I better see what all that’s about.”
After Smitty was beyond earshot, Lloyd muttered to Mas, “I hope you didn’t say too much to him. Smitty has more influence than you’d think.”
Mas gritted the back of his dentures. He hated oshaberi,people who moved their traps without saying much of anything, and now his own son-in-law was practically accusing him 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-buratype who didn’t seem to have much ambition or care much what other people thought of him. But now with this fancy title and job, he was suddenly Mr. Sensitive, Mr. Politics. His newfound 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. Mas figured the tuition was why they weren’t making a move. And also Mari had returned to her first love, filmmaking. Seemed like everyone in the Arai family was doing the 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 fixing 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 used a mysterious lingo, with words like “codependency” 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 his case about Dee. He knew firsthand that most of her 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 had 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 did move out? It would mean the McNally house would be empty. There’d 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 returned his concentration to the Japanese coaches and players, 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—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, family, and friends, had both decided that Uno-sanwas quintessentially Japanese, in both his playing and his attitude. While his teammates hung out and laughed when others batted, Uno-san stayed in the zone. He stretched, he meditated, he focused. His work ethic was renowned. Uno-sanwas a private man who rarely gave interviews, but Tug’s son, who also bled Dodger Blue, had discovered a perfect example of his dedication on an internet site. There he learned that Uno-sancleaned not only 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 Tug was with him now, so they could both admire Uno-san’s form in person. Tug and his son, Joe, were coming later to the game, along with Haruo and his wife, Spoon, as well as their lawyer friend, G.I. Hasuike, and his girlfriend, Juanita. Mas’s daughter, Mari, and grandson Takeo were also on their way. Since Genessee was at some kind of music conference, Mas was the only one who wasn’t part of a pair. Just like old times, he thought. Sometimes flying solo was a relief, a gift. It made him feel that his life, at least for a moment, was wide open, not defined or boxed in by another person’s expectations, desires, or disappointments.
The commotion near the opposing team’s dugout was getting louder. The stadium apparently had limited cameramen and journalists to a narrow, rectangular space. Smitty looked like he was barking out instructions, but he was being ignored. The journalists continued to jostle for the best position to shoot the Japanese baseball senshuat practice. They were all Asian, except for one tall photographer, a Latino in a khaki vest who Mas had recognized as working for the local Japanese American newspaper in Los Angeles.
A thin hakujingirl with her blond hair in a ponytail emerged onto the field. She was pushing a cart of water bottles, and based on the muscle she was giving her load, it was a heavy one. Without giving it a thought, Mas took over the cart. His life was spent doing physical work—definitely second nature. He wheeled the cart next to Smitty.
“Thanks.” The girl walked alongside him, wiping moisture from underneath her bangs.
“These guys are out of control. This is almost as bad as Nomomania,” Smitty murmured to the girl, who was wearing the same Dodgers polo shirt.
“You know, Hideo Nomo. The Japanese pitcher from the 1990s.”
“Oh, yeah, there’s a photo of him upstairs.”
Smitty eyed Mas, giving him an exasperated shrug—see what we old guys need to put up with?“Anyway, pass out the waters, April Sue,” he told the girl. “The last thing we need is any of these journalists passing out from excitement.”
April Sue dug her fingers in the plastic to uncase the water bottles. Even that seemed a struggle. Mas pulled out a small pocket knife, opened it, and cut into the packaging. “Thanks,” the girl murmured again.
Mas grunted and helped her pass out waters to the members of the media.
“Kuso,” one of them swore in Japanese to the photographer next to him. “Back off,” he added, along with a sharp elbow jab. He then claimed the water bottle from Mas without even a token bow of the head.
Kuso, Mas silently repeated back to the journalist. This kuso-head wasn’t holding onto a camera, but a notebook. He was dressed in a white linen suit and would have looked like a preacher if it wasn’t for the shiny navy blue shirt and black leather tie. He was no youngster, unlike most of the ones holding onto poles with mounted cameras. Judging from the few gray hairs sprouting in his black goatee, Mas guessed the man to be at least forty.
“Shouldn’t you be up there in the press box, Itai?” a cameraman in the back said.
Mas noticed that the speaker failed to tag the man’s name with a “san,” or Mister. No honorifics granted here, which meant he was probably viewed as pond scum.
“Get your cameras ready, everyone.” Itai almost seemed to be bragging. “Because you’ll soon witness the breaking of a story that will shake up the baseball world.”
“Be quiet, no one wants to hear your shit.” A sharp female voice cut through the male posturing. Instead of Japanese, she spoke an accented English. But it was perfectly understandable and heard. She was also dressed in a white suit, only instead of slacks, she wore a skirt. Her blouse was dotted with blue smears.
“What did you say?” Itai’s voice took on the tone of a samurai declaring war.
“You heard me,” she repeated in English. “We all know you’re a slimy snake.”
Itai pushed a few cameramen away as he approached the woman. “Some of us here are real journalists—”
“What’s going on here?” The catcher who’d had such a hard time with Neko’s knuckleball came forward. His mask was off his face, revealing dark eyes narrowed in a frown.
“It’s nothing, Sawada-kun,” the woman said to the catcher. “Right, Itt-chan?”
Itai looked sheepishly down at his feet and pushed his way back to his original position.
Mas was amazed. Itai was obviously intimidated by the catcher, this Sawada. But what amazed him even more were the honorifics the woman used: kunfor Sawada, an intimate, affectionate term for males—close friends, family, and lovers—and chanfor the jerk, Itai. Chan was usually for babies and children. Sawada’s presence had reduced Itai to infantile status. And to further denigrate Itai, the woman snipped off the end of his name. This Sawada was someone to be be reckoned with, that was for sure.
Batting practice had apparently ended, because the entire Japanese team was now making its way back to the dugout.
“Just because you’re playing here, don’t forget that I’m your senpai,” the one with the bad blond dye job said to a thin, young player who looked only part Japanese.
“Kohai,senpai, that’s old talk. Old Japan,” said the young one. “This is the majors. The real thing.”
The hairs on the back of Mas’s neck stood on end. He remembered this kind of talk when he was in junior high school back in Hiroshima. The senpai, the elders, lorded over the younger ones, thekohai. Whatever the senpaiordered the kohaito do—whether it be lugging heavy rocks or cleaning the wooden floors of their classroom—the young ones had to obey. But the same rules apparently didn’t apply on American soil.
“Maybe your head is getting too big for this stadium,” said the blond player. “You haven’t even made it out of the minors. And the way you’ve been pitching, who knows when that will happen.”
The skinny man positioned himself right in front of his senpai.His long nose almost grazed his older teammate’s pug one.
“Yamare.” Uno-sanput an end to the squabbling between the two players. He apparently had enough stature on the team for both parties to listen. Yellow head went one way and the part-Japanese man went another.
Watching this exchange was another Asian woman who also stood on the sidelines. Mas had problems guessing any woman’s age, but she looked to be around Mari’s age or maybe a bit younger. She had an ID around her neck, but it didn’t read “Press.” Even though she wasn’t in the press box, she kept taking photographs with her simple automatic camera. Mas briefly locked eyes with her and then quickly looked away.
Just then the Korean players began to take their places on the field. They wore white uniforms, and most of them were beefier looking than their Japanese counterparts. One carried a baseball, and Mas noticed that the fingernails on his right hand were immaculately polished. This must the knuckleballer for the Korean team. What was his name? Jin-Won Kim, Smitty had said.
Jin-Won’s build was graceful—more like a dancer’s. As Mas watched him approach the pitcher’s mound, he wondered how he’d deal with the female knuckleballer, who was still up there. Would he elbow Neko off the mound like the journalists in the makeshift media box did? Would he give her the cold shoulder? Instead he spoke to her—Mas wondered if it was in English? Neko bowed, her face flushed pink. Jin-Won must have paid her some kind of compliment. Mas was shocked. First of all, they were competitors, members of opposing teams. And it went way beyond baseball; this was nation versus nation. And although it had been decades since Japan had colonized Korea, the resentment, especially among old-timers, remained deep. In fact, the early fans had already entered Dodger Stadium, with the Korean supporters waving Korean fans and hitting cowbells while the Japanese carried giant banners sporting their symbol, the singular red sun. Mas, on the field, could feel the heat of rivalry around him. National honor was at stake here.
That’s even more of a reason why Mas couldn’t understand Jin-Won’s graciousness toward a Japanese player, especially a woman. Maybe there was some kind of special club that knuckleballers belonged to.
Mas knew he had to go back to where the lawnmowers were stored to do some maintenance work. But before he made his way back to left field, he knelt down to feel the grass. Soft as velvet, the individual blades were angled in different directions. For his son-in-law to be responsible for this carpet of grass was something that Mas could never have imagined.
Mas took in a few more breaths from the field and then heard a loud commotion coming from the Japanese journalists again. Only this wasn’t a fight for the best position. Itai was on the ground, and most of the cameramen were aiming their lenses on him instead of helping. His chest was pumping fast—up and down, up and down. He then vomited and the photographer, the one from the L.A. newspaper, turned Itai over on his side. “Call 911,” he yelled, but Smitty was already on it.
Mas watched the goateed man’s face turn tomato red, and then his body became completely still. The entire press corps, which seconds earlier had been eager to document Itai’s struggle with life, lowered their cameras and notebooks. It was clear to all, even Mas. Death had won.
Copyright © 2016 Naomi Hirahara.
To learn more or order a copy, visit:
Naomi Hirahara is the Edgar Award-winning and Anthony and Macavity Award-nominated author of the Mas Arai mystery series, including Strawberry Yellow, Blood Hina, and Snakeskin Shamisen. She is also the author of the new series of L.A.-based Ellie Rush mysteries, published by Penguin. Her Mas Arai books have earned such honors as the Chicago Tribune’s Ten Best Mysteries and Thrillers and Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year. The Stanford University alumna was born and raised in Altadena, CA, where her protagonist lives; she now resides in the adjacent town of Pasadena, CA.