Andrew Friedman listened to the muffled roar of the Houston crowd behind the closed blinds in his visitor’s office, and was inexplicably reminded of the babbling brook that lay just outside his childhood home. He had always enjoyed the noise of the river as a young child; it had reminded him of bath time and soapy bubbles that you could never grab and would always slip just out of your hands. Other kids complained about baths but Young Andrew couldn’t get enough of them. The ceramic tub tile slick with water and shampoo. Wet and slippery. Feet slipping and falling. A thud. Hands scratching, clawing, just out of reach of his shouting father...
As Dexter Fowler circled the bases for his leadoff home run, Andrew shook this out of his head. These were cracks in the wall, nothing more. The babbling brook, the childhood memories, these were his river. There was another one, of course, and in truth it was the same river, but Andrew tried not to think about that one. The woman at the school had told him to do a simple exercise. She was an older woman, with thick glasses and bright, unnatural blonde hair that was graying at the roots. Andrew remembered her eyes behind those glasses. He had since forgotten his best friend in middle school, and he had forgotten how he had earned his first dollar, but he had never forgotten those eyes.
"Andy, here’s what I’d like for you to do for me. I want you to build a wall. On one side of the wall is everything that you love about that river. Smells, feelings, sounds. There should be a lot of draw from. Place it all neatly on one side. That’s the side that I want you to return to when you think about what happened. I want you to make two different places in your mind, and just return to one of them when you feel as though you have to."
She seemed nice and she smelled like home, and Andrew listened to her. Whenever he was reminded of that night he would straddle that wall, facing the side with the green, happy memories, even though just behind him he could hear water splashing, rain falling, the roar of a swollen stream.
Remembering the good times and nothing else, Andrew looked out the window. Matt Dominguez was rounding the bases. Another one?, he thought. He had not even noticed the roar of the crowd this time. David Price was not being his usual self. He was leaving pitches up in the zone, said Dwayne and Brian on the TV broadcast. Although his velocity was there, this Houston Astros team was more than capable of handling high heat. Sometimes Friedman wished that he could watch the games in peace, without the nagging feeling that what he was doing with this team was completely, irredeemably wrong.
In the top of the second, the Rays began to threaten. Back-to-back singles by James Loney and Ben Zobrist, followed by a walk by David DeJesus loaded the bases with no outs. Despite himself, Andrew couldn’t help but feel nervous. He felt those deep jitters you feel in your bones when you’re faced with the unknown, when everything is exciting and new and the story hasn’t been written yet, and you are inches away from putting ink on paper and the moment of truth is rushing towards you but you can’t bear to look and you can’t bear to look away so you look out of the corner of your eye and
But of course, Andrew knows what is going to happen. He knows what must happen. The outcome of this game was already determined five months ago. Yunel Escobar draws a one-out walk to score a run, but Jose Molina and Desmond Jennings (on a full count, no less!) both strike out swinging to end the inning.
Andrew bangs his fist on the table, despite himself. A noise from his backpack startles him. He rushes over to his backpack, accidently knocking over a glass paperweight on the desk. His backpack now glows with a cold white light. There is a hum from the backpack, but the hum is not coming from the backpack. It seems to come from the walls of the offices, the windows, the floor and ceiling, Andrew’s bones and teeth. He reaches into his backpack and pushes down hard, smothering whatever’s inside. The light briefly glows brighter, but fades away, along with the unearthly hum. Andrew looks around. It seems later in the day. He peers through the blinds and sees that it is the top of the fourth inning. How can that be? It was the top of the second just seconds ago! Friedman checks his phone to see what happened in the meantime. David Price gave up a one-out double to Dexter Fowler after a dazzling diving catch by Kiermaier.
Price then struck out George Springer on three fastballs but allowed a seeing-eye single to Jesus Guzman that a diving Zobrist couldn't wrangle to give the Astros a 3-1 lead. He nods his head and gingerly places his backpack in a nearby closet.
He doesn’t want this to happen. He really, truly, doesn’t. He wishes that he could explain his decisions to the media, or even his loved ones. Friedman knows what kind of GM he is. He knows what he is capable of, ever since that day by the river. Things come a lot easier to him than they do to other people, and he has a sort of intuition that cannot really be explained, but its effects are clear, like a smooth stone dropped in a pond whose waves ripple out and dissipate. He is the same GM that swindled the Chicago Cubs, a team not even close to contention, and somehow got them to trade five solid prospects (all of whom will soon reach the major leagues in one form or another) for a couple years of Matt Garza. He still remembers the words, the exact words he said to convince the Cubs GM to keep adding players onto that pile. It was almost unfair. He still remembers the look on Matt’s face when he told him what the Cubs were willing to do. He knew what it would look like before he made it.
He gave the OK to pick up Grant Balfour this season, despite the Orioles’ medical staff expressing his doubts. Andrew had doubts too. He saw precisely what the Orioles saw: red flags on an aging closer. But Balfour was perfect for what he was trying to do. He saw a perfect opportunity. Signing Balfour was a move that could easily be explained at the time, despite the ticking time bomb Andrew knew was coming. He would point to the alternative, and turn on the charm.
"Do you really want another couple years of Fernando Rodney? How long do you think he can keep this up? This is what we do. This is the Rays Way. We make educated guesses on players, and if we hit, we cash out. This is why Casey Kotchman, Jeff Keppinger, Dan Johnson, and Sam Fuld are no longer here. Trust us."
He hated this, being so blatantly manipulative. But the fanbase mostly would trust him, except for a couple here and there on various websites and talk shows. He was King Midas and Billy Beane rolled into one. He was working with knowledge you couldn’t dream of having. So Andrew signed Balfour and Molina to two-year contracts. He traded away Alex Torres (while he was the most valuable) and Jesse Hahn for Logan Forsythe and a handful of others. He kept Josh Lueke on the roster for as long as he possibly could. All to serve a vital, impossibly important purpose that no one would ever believe.
Andrew turns the TV back on. David Price, for all of his shortcomings today, still is flashing incredible stuff. Most of his pitches have movement (except for that cutter...why won’t he just listen to Maddon?) and the free-swinging Astros, when they’re not crushing the ball, are whiffing left and right. This year, he has been giving up home runs on an almost supernatural level, but Price has otherwise been very good. The Rays have made it a one run game thanks to a fourth inning hot shot by Yunel Escobar that scores David DeJesus.
Brad Peacock seemed to be effectively wild. After just four innings yet 91 pitches, the Astros pulled him after he retires both Jose Molina and Desmond Jennings. He threw four walks and collected only three strikeouts, but he did what he needed to do when he needed to do it, Friedman notes.
Evan Longoria, in the top of the fifth, laces a one-out double to center-right. Andrew looks up from his note taking and peers out the window to see the hit. It is an absolute missile that splits the two outfielders, the kind of thing only a player with a lot of raw power can accomplish. He smirks. Predestination does not diminish the inherent beauty in things, he’s found. Even without his best stuff, even without his source of ultimate power that currently sits behind Andrew in a wood-paneled closet four feet away, Evan Longoria still has within him the kind of talent that can carry teams.
Much of baseball has wondered what has happened to Evan Longoria this year. Already a powerhouse player, Longoria in his 28th year on earth was supposed to finally completely mature as a power hitter, only to see his power numbers plummet. No one knew why. Was it a slump? Was it a mechanical hitch? Was it a problem getting around on inside pitches? Longoria himself mentioned in a press conference about how he wanted to battle through it, that it was bound to turn around soon. In the background, Andrew sat quietly and smiled, gripping the backpack he seemed to carry around everywhere just a little bit tighter.
In the top of the sixth, Yunel Escobar and Jose Molina both single to put runners on the corners with one out. Andrew is unconcerned. Desmond Jennings steps up and grounds into what is initially an inning-ending double play. Andrew nods solemnly, but is soon startled. Maddon calls for a challenge, and instant replay seems to suggest that the ump made the wrong call, and it’s overturned.
Andrew pumps his fist before he remembers, cursing. Replays were not something that he had accounted for this year. They disrupt the natural flow of the game that Andrew thrives off of. This was an unusual turn of events. The team was never supposed to tie the game. All of the games up until this point had gone according to plan, like clockwork. He had accounted for every conceivable detail and challenge in every single circumstance, and had perfectly arranged the dominoes as such so that they would fall in a perfectly predictable pattern. But this. This was a deviation. He did not understand.
Kevin Kiermaier flew out two pitches later but Friedman was still rattled. This could not happen. The consequences were too great. A winning season for the Rays would be nothing short of catastrophic. He had seen it, every possibility, every outcome. If the Rays made the 2014 playoffs, baseball as we knew it would come to an end. Last January he had gone back to his childhood home. He had been compelled. He told his wife he was personally scouting a future All-Star in a winter league, but instead he chartered a private plane to Houston and went to his old house. It was vacant now, as his mother and father had since moved to a flat in Chicago. Shivering, he walked behind his house to the river.
Friedman was surprised at how the river seemed no different than it had the day he fell in. Time and the fog of memory had not changed a thing. The river looked exactly, exactly, how he had remembered. It was impossible. But it was true. The rock where he hit his head was the only thing that looked different. Somewhat smaller than before, there was now a hairline fracture in the stone. Andrew couldn’t figure out what about that accident gave him the ability to see so accurately into the near future, or how he could now see what one tiny, miniscule change could do to the flow of time, but he never needed to understand, because he had used it so well.
As Andrew leaned down to touch the rock, he suddenly saw every possible outcome from here to next years’ time all laid out before him. Like a canvas, he saw the Rays winning the World Series, the Rays coming in last place, his wife leaving him, his wife having twins, him leaving the front office to become the first general manager-player ever, it was all there. But as he scanned the far future, he was shocked to see that in every situation where the Rays had a winning record, there was no future. As soon as the playoffs began, he lost his grip on the vision and there remained nothing but blackness. After minutes (or hours, or years) of searching, Andrew snapped out of it with the knowledge that if the Rays made the playoffs, there could be no future. Andrew stood up, went inside, and called Grant Balfour’s agent. He knew what had to be done.
At the top of the eighth, Andrew’s backpack starts to glow again. Only this time, the glow is far brighter. Andrew knows that he can’t keep it in the dark much longer. He pulls out the humming stone figure and places it on the table. Outside his window, Matt Joyce finally gets a hit through the shift on the right side for a no-out single. Andrew stares at it. It is a grey stone, worn smooth from years by a rushing river. He remembers reaching for it many years ago as a boy before hitting his head on a large rock behind his house. He discovered that it could bring out the best in people. It could make them into caricatures of themselves: men who could break three tackles and power into an endzone, or hit a small leather ball 450 feet on a regular basis. This stone made monsters of men. It was the Extra 2%, and Andrew Friedman used it to slowly mold a baseball juggernaut. Fearing for the future, he had kept it hidden this year, but it had been acting up, and this was the worst Andrew had ever seen it.
It glows again. Yunel Escobar is hit by a pitch. First and second, nobody out. Andrew starts to panic, realizing that for all his prescience and intuition, this is out of his control. He tries to throw a blanket over the rock, but the deep hum starts up, louder and more powerful this time. His teeth chatter and shake, and he yanks the blanket off. He has never seen it this bad before. He could not have imagined this. It glows again. Jerry Sands breaks his bat fouling off a pitch. It glows again. Jerry Sands breaks another bat fouling off another pitch. Andrew knows what is coming.
"All I want to do is ensure the future still exists. Why are you doing this?" he shouts to no one in particular. And from within he hears a voice, though not his own.
"The future is not yours to control. You can manipulate, but you cannot master. No matter what you think you can see, Andrew, you do not and will never have the entire picture. There are forces impossible for you to understand at work here."
The stone glows brighter than ever before and disappears in a fireball. Jerry Sands, who had had one hit in his ten major league at-bats, hits a broken bat single to left field to score Matt Joyce. 4-3 Rays.
Andrew sits on the floor, cross-legged like a child. He stares out the window as a series of events occur that nobody could have anticipated. Bo Porter comes out and replaces Astros reliever Jerome Williams with Tony Sipp. He then sends Sipp to left field as an outfielder and relieves him with Josh Zeid. The Astros retire the side and David Price, who had started the game off with two home runs allowed, finishes off his eighth and final inning with a fourth strikeout of the power-hitting George Springer. After 116 pitches, and 10 strikeouts, Price is done. The Astros then send reliever-turned-outfielder-turned-reliever again Tony Sipp to the mound. In the bottom of the ninth, Jake McGee comes in for the Rays to record the final three outs, and he does so with a 100 mph fastball that strikes out Jon Singleton.
The game is over but Andrew does not move. He is consumed with what the voice in his head said. If, as he was told, he does not have the entire picture, then it’s possible that the future where the Rays make the playoffs is not a void, but simply something that he cannot fathom right now. For now he is fine with not knowing everything. He no longer possesses the Extra 2%, but he suspects it’s not really gone, just in a different form. Andrew reaches into his pocket and calls his parents. He just now remembered that it is Father’s Day, and he needs to call and thank his dad.