George Will

     The minor leagues reflect the nation's durable regional differences. South Carolinians, for example, are feisty -- they fired on Fort Sumter from places not far from The Joe -- so french fries are still called freedom fries at the ballyard. The real delicacies, however, are grilled turkey legs. A week's worth of protein for $5, they are not much smaller than the players' bats, and about as tender.

     The Joe is almost in the backyard of The Citadel, a military school, and on game nights the patriotism is as warm as the beer is cold. Just before the first pitch on a recent evening, the teenager selling hot dogs and sodas at a concession stand out on the concourse behind the seats suddenly said, politely but firmly: ``One moment, please.'' Turning his back to the line of waiting customers, he took off his cap and faced the brick wall at the back of the stand, in the direction of the flagpole in center field. He stood ramrod straight with his hand over his heart while the National Anthem was sung. Even people in The Joe's parking lot come to attention when they faintly hear the distant sound of ``Oh, say can you see ...''

     About 40 percent of the players on the 40-man rosters of the 30 major league clubs each spring are Sally League alumni, including, last April, Derek Jeter, Curt Schilling, Ivan Rodriguez, Luis Gonzalez, Scott Rolen, Andruw Jones and John Smoltz. But nowhere near 40 percent of Sally League players get to the majors. Most were the best on their high school teams and are slow -- mercifully so -- to understand the severity of professional baseball's meritocracy.

     The buses will not carry most of the RiverDogs to Trenton, let alone to triple-A Columbus -- never mind the big leagues. But don't try to tell that to the pitcher who, when asked if his curve is as good as the Oakland A's Barry Zito's, confidently replies, ``Not yet.'' Says another, ``I want to be the best center fielder that ever came out of the Yankees' organization.'' Better than Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle? ``Sure.''

     Such unrealism, and the reality of the oil fields, keeps young men getting on buses for late night rides to Motel 6s, which sometimes -- a major benefit for minor leaguers -- are near Outbacks.

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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