George Will

CHARLESTON, S.C. -- Realism is overrated. Putting it aside makes possible some sweet things, such as the idea of Santa Claus. And the fact of minor league baseball.

     This city's RiverDogs play at The Joe -- the Joseph P. Riley Jr. Park. Their rivals in the Sally -- actually, South Atlantic -- League include the Delmarva Shorebirds and Hagerstown Suns from Maryland; the Lake County Captains from Ohio; the Lakewood BlueClaws from New Jersey; the Greensboro Grasshoppers, Hickory Crawdads, Asheville Tourists and Kannapolis Intimidators from North Carolina; the West Virginia Power from another Charleston; the Lexington Legends from Kentucky; the Columbus Catfish, Rome Braves, Augusta GreenJackets and Savannah Sand Gnats from Georgia, and the Greenville Bombers from just up the road. Such small cities and towns that are incubators of big dreams.

     Talk to the players, most of them under age 23, and you will find few, if any, who do not believe they are bound for glory -- for Yankee Stadium, the RiverDogs being a Yankee single-A affiliate. Actually, the RiverDogs are the Yankee's low single-A club, and by this point in the season, many of the best prospects have been promoted to the high-A club in Tampa, or up to double-A Trenton.

     The RiverDogs play 140 games in 151 days, traveling by bus, living at least two to a room in motels, some earning as little as $1,050 a month -- and only during the season -- with a $20 per diem for food. ``Sometimes,'' says a player touchingly grateful for life's little blessings, ``the motel is near an Outback.'' A young man from West Texas says, ``I had a brother working in the oil fields. So if I wake up tired one day, I think, 'I could be doing that.'''

     Most of today's Sally Leaguers will be doing something like that sooner than they can bring themselves to imagine. But for now they are delighting some of the 40 million fans who will see minor league baseball this summer. The RiverDogs, averaging about 3,800 fans a game, are one of five teams partly owned by Mike Veeck, a third-generation baseball man -- his father put the ivy on Wrigley Field's outfield walls -- whose management doctrine is: ``Treat people as if they're coming into your home. Nothing is too much trouble.''

George Will

George F. Will is a 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner whose columns are syndicated in more than 400 magazines and newspapers worldwide.
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