Beautiful unrealism

George Will

8/18/2005 12:00:00 AM - 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.''

     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.