Feb 21, 2013; Surprise, AZ, USA; Kansas City Royals catcher George Kottaras (26) poses for a picture during photo day at the Royals Spring Training Facility. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

The Kottaras Case


I was lounging in my basement apartment, pouring a couple fingers of the cheap stuff and thinking about the old days of Dye and Damon when the phone at my site started rattling and nearly made me jump out of my chair. I picked up.

A gruff voice whispered me a few details that I jotted down on a notepad and stuffed into my shirt pocket. The voice hung up before I could ask a follow up question. I tipped the glass and pulled the crumpled note back out, processing the scrawled instructions. My task was boiled down to two words.

“Find Kottaras.”

——–

He’d gone missing a couple weeks before. They’d just finished up drawing rosters together and I’m sure he was excited to make the team. He earned his job, but now, he’d gone missing apparently. It’s a mad world when a man can’t earn himself a job and then never be seen again, even as an understudy. Did he have enemies? Was it jealousy?

I rolled the suspects around in my head but nothing came together. Like I was trying to play billiards, but on a carom table. Nothing would drop into place – it just kept bouncing around.

I threw a coat over my shoulders and trudged out into the cooling April air. Nature teased me day after day with her 60 degree taunts, only to pay off with 40 degree kisses. It was a cruel game and one that I was losing through the first two weeks. At least there was no rain. Yet.

My search had to start in the most likely place to find the man. Kauffman Stadium. The site boasted a regal past, but lately, it was just a bunch of jesters entertaining the masses. Still, missing persons cases don’t sit well with me and this group seemed to have some more promise than usual. If something was amiss, I didn’t want to be negligent and let it spoil the fun.

I pulled up and a parking attendant waved me through. I was early yet, and they weren’t being watched as closely by the Man. I got through free and clear, but the next step was to get inside and start peeling back the layers. I happened to know the right guy, but his calm demeanor wasn’t so on this day. He saw me coming and tried to look away. It was like he didn’t want to see me. Or didn’t want to be seen with me.

“Nothin’ doin’ today, Mickey,” he said. “They’ve got an eye on me this year.”

That explained the jitters.

“That’s okay, bud. Tell me. Have you seen this guy today?”

I pulled up a photo on my phone and there was Kottaras, a patient look on his face, fitting, considering his longtime patience at the plate. In the photo, he was waiting for his pitch. In my head, he was waiting for me.

“Kottaras? Nah, man. I haven’t seen no Kottaras.”

“You here when they checked the bags in last week?”

“I was here one of the days, but not all of ‘em. I didn’t see his,” he said. He’d relaxed a bit, but jerked his head to look over his shoulder. “But I didn’t not see his, you know? I mean, I don’t see a reason why he wouldn’t be around with the team after Surprise. Doesn’t fit, you know?”

I eyed him for a second but I didn’t think he was holding anything back. I couldn’t waste my time out here on the lot anymore. I needed answers.

“Say, you think I can sneak in and poke around a bit? I’m not trying to be a spectator here,” I said. He closed his eyes, as if he was fighting off a migraine headache. I braced myself for his refusal.

“They got me on a pretty tight watch. I hear some whispers. They don’t want no snoopin’.”

“Alright, guy. I hear ya. It’s just not my day, huh?”

——–

Undeterred, I wandered the perimeter, knowing there’d be a gap I could slide through. Sure enough, I found one in a fence that hadn’t closed all the way and I was inside.

I guided my way to the stairwells, first dodging a couple of elevator attendants. I was working my way down the steps, seeing the tunnel just ahead, when I heard footsteps climbing towards me. I paused, stuck. Too far down to head back up, not far enough to surprise whoever it was and dart past them. The hairs on my neck stood at attention.

I laughed at myself when I noticed it was just a beer vendor, a fellow a couple years older than me and a few dozen pounds heavier, picking up his equipment. He was built like Billy Butler but with none of the fitness. It took some doing in the stairwell, but I squeezed past him.

Then the hairs stood up on the back of my neck when I heard his footsteps stop. I turned to face him just in time to take a Boulevard cup dispenser to the jaw and it all went black.

———–

I woke up and I was in the clubhouse, seated at a table. My hands and feet were tied to the chair with leather strings and I winced looking into the light. My right temple throbbed. I saw stars and felt nauseous, like I needed to be placed on the seven day disabled list.

The chubby guy who put me down was standing up behind a man seated across from me. He wore a corduroy jacket over a button down and sweater vest. His dark hair had some gray in the temples and he had a prize fighter’s jaw. I was looking at Ned Yost.

“Nice to see you’re going to join us. We figured you could take a shot a bit better than that.”

Ned and the fat guy shared a laugh at my expense. My hands felt as if they were being stung by a thousand bees and I tried to adjust to get a little more circulation. I peered around the room. Unattended lockers, jerseys awaiting their respective player. A case of balls against a pillar. A clubbie stringing a glove back into shape. Must be the guy who tied me up.

“So you have to know why I’m here, then,” I asked. Ned nodded, leaned back in his chair. He wasn’t offering answers.

“Well we figured it would be a matter of time before somebody started digging around. Stop squirming.”

I held still, my wrists no more free than they were before. Maybe worse.

“I wouldn’t figure you to be the type to be worried about someone looking around,” I said. “You seem to have this place locked down pretty well. What with your little princess there behind you and all.” I blew the fat man a kiss, just to see his reaction. His nostrils flared and he took a step towards me. Ned held up a hand and he stepped back.

“Say, it wouldn’t be possible to loosen me up a bit, now would it? It’s not like I can run away,” I said. “Just the hands at least.”

Ned nodded to the clubbie in the corner and I got a closer look at him. Short, but sturdy. He’d been whipped into shape by logging bat bags and carrying 40 dirty uniforms a night down to the laundry.

He untied my hands and I massaged the feeling back into them. I started to reach into my coat pocket and Fatty stepped my way again. I went on the defensive and put up one empty hand and pulled out a pack of smokes with from my coat. The clubbie grunted and pointed to a sign on the pillar that said “No Smoking”. Since he looked like he’d survived a few Jeff Francoeur celebratory pileups in the last couple of years, I decided to heed his unspoken warning.

“Look, Ned. I can’t turn you in. I just need the answers. Where’s George Kottaras?”

He scoffed.

“Are you going to tell me? Anything? Give me something.”

He looked at me with incredulity. “No! Are you kidding? What kind of a question is that?”

Now I knew how Nate Bukaty felt.

“Kottaras is just a part of the Process here,” he said, folding his arms across his chest. “That’s all. I can’t tell you any more than that. We have him just where we want him.”

“That is, nowhere, right?” He squinted at me. “Nowhere. You’re just going to ride Salvador Perez into the ground now? Snuff out his career before it ever gets started?”

Ned stood up. Pointed a finger at me.

“Look bud,” he said. If we were in the funny papers, there’d be daggers shooting out of his eyes. “This is my clubhouse and I call those shots. I’ve put in my time in the trenches. I’ve carried the water. I’ve earned the right.”

I looked up, let him speak his mind.

“So what? You just left him back in Surprise? Did you forget you had him on the team? Did you have a secret hope that it’d be Brett Hayes? I know it’s not all your call. You run this clubhouse,” I said, looking around the room once more. “But you don’t rule the whole kingdom.”

He slammed his hands down on the table.

“You have a lot of nerve to start throwing accusations at me in my house. I have half a mind to toss you into that shower and see how long it takes to clean up this whole mess, if you know what I mean.”

Ned lifted his arms and put them on his hips. I didn’t hesitate. I couldn’t get a lot of leverage on it, but my hands were free and I shoved the table as hard as I could. It caught Ned in the gut and sent him tumbling back. He bumped the fat guy and his their legs got caught together and both crashed into a locker. The fat man was out. Ned was gathering himself on the ground.

I hopped backwards and rammed the chair against the pillar. One of the legs bent a bit and I could get my right leg free, but the clubbie in the corner was coming at me, and he had Eric Hosmer‘s bat in his hands. He took a swing at me, but I ducked and he hit the concrete pillar, knocking a Royals clock off the wall and to the ground. I was still hampered by the chair on my left leg, but I could move out of the way of his swings as he came after me. Rage and devotion filled his eyes. I was by a locker and snagged a helmet out of it and landed a blow on the clubbie’s wrist and he dropped the bat. He ran at me, but I sidestepped him to my right and he tripped over the chair, flying facefirst into the locker.

Ned was stirring so I untied my left leg and ran over to him, holding him by his jacket. He was grinning up at me, blood in his mouth.

“Dadgum, you just don’t get it, do you?” he said. He was breathing heavily. “Kottaras was the best man, sure, but he kept asking and asking about what we’d do with him, and you know what? Sometimes that’s just too much to hear. So yeah, we hid him away somewhere. Salvy wanted it that way.”

I recoiled and let his jacket go.

“I don’t –”

A big, booming voice echoed behind me in the clubhouse.

“Off days. I hate off days.”

I turned and looked up at a mountain of a man. Sal Perez stood with his arms folded across his chest. He was wearing a black suit and gold aviator sunglasses.

“Do you know what it’s like to spend three months on the sidelines? That’s time you can’t ever get back. Last year, when I hurt my knee, I had a lot of time to think and I came to a realization.”

I stood up, turned my head to the side. I didn’t know where he was going with this.

“I don’t want to sit any more.”

“But you need to get time off,” I said. “Not every day, but once in a while. You don’t want to get hurt again do you?”

Sal smiled, shook his head dismissively.

“Won’t happen. Now, you’re getting on my nerves. You ask too many questions.”

For a guy of his size, he’s a lot faster than you’d expect, and he was on me faster than I could get away. He grabbed me by the coat and hoisted me in the air. Ned cackled as he started to get back up. I was in pretty deep. Surrounded by a lot of unfriendly faces and all of them wanting me to disappear.

“This place is locked down. Nothing gets out unless we want it to get out,” Ned said. “C’mon Salvy, let’s take care of this punk.”

I started saying my goodbyes in the back of my head. Ma and Pa back home, the sisters. Ned wasn’t calling for a bunt on this one.

“Salvy,” a voice called out from the doorway. “Enough. Put him down. This has gone on long enough.”

Sal didn’t listen, but the three of us – Ned, Sal and myself (in the grasp) – looked over and saw Alex Gordon in the doorway. He motioned  to someone outside to come in and there was Kottaras. He was in need of a shave and out of sorts, but he wasn’t hurt and even better, he was alive.

“I can’t let you keep doing this. I thought your story about Kottaras hanging back in Surprise was crazy, but I never thought it was going to be a cover-up,” he said. He motioned out again and Dayton Moore came into the clubhouse. “And when I learned the truth, I wasn’t going to stand for it.”

“What, but – how?”

Sal put me down and I scrambled away.

“I heard there was someone poking around,” he turned to me. “That must have been you, huh? And so I thought I’d go look around. I’m always after a new spot to work out anyway, so I go looking around for any weights I can find and I come to this closet. I heard scuffling. Open it up and – bam – there he is. I went and found Dayton.”

A security guard had come along with them and he didn’t look like the type to let me hang around and get autographs, so he helped me find my way out of the stadium and onto the concrete of the parking lot. I thought of asking if he’d take a tip for the service but I figured he wouldn’t appreciate the joke.

Dusting myself off I checked my phone to see if the lid had been lifted on the whole operation.

I got my confirmation looking at the night’s lineup. Right there the “Perez 2″ told me all I needed to know.

I punched some numbers into the phone and got the voice on the line with me.

“Well, I found him. But it seems they’re going to move along, business as usual.” I waited a moment, heard the breathing on the other line, so I knew he was still there. The voice coughed. Cleared his throat.

“Next time, don’t get yourself caught. I may have you do some digging in Omaha for me.”

The click told me that he was done. I hopped in the car, zipped down the interstate, and flipped on the radio. Royals were down a run, but they were coming up to bat.

This was a work of fiction, so no, Sal Perez didn’t kidnap George Kottaras. But I did find it interesting that after ten games, there hasn’t been a sniff of the backup catcher. He’s the only active player on a roster yet to make it into a game, according to Bob Dutton. It’s due to so many off days in April, but still, I’d think he’d pinch hit or something at least. I hadn’t written a fictional story in a long time and felt a little noir about the whole deal. 

Tags: Kansas City Royals

  • http://twitter.com/CrisColeman1 Cris Coleman

    Great piece. Loved it. Reminded me of Archie Goodwin in the old Nero Wolfe mysteries. Very cleverly done.

    You got it right. Five days off in one month is a bit of off-time overkill. Maybe Kotteras will get to pinch hit in Atlanta.

    I agree. If you’re going to be on the team, you ought to at least be able to make an appearance, you know, like Little League.

    • Michael Engel

      Appreciate it! I felt like doing something a bit different and there was some chatter on Twitter that triggered the idea. I dunno if I’d ever really be upset that Kottaras wasn’t in a game just because Sal is Sal and there are off days built into the schedule, so it’s not a big issue in April. I just don’t remember a player on the Royals going this long without getting into a game. Even Adcock two years ago as a Rule 5 guy got into opening day, even if they hid him later.

      I suppose Kottaras will be fresh when he finally gets into a game though, eh…