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Big Dreams Start Small in Johnson City, Tenn., Where Eight Southland Players Try Rookie League

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Rhododendrons are the pride of Appalachia, blooming in early summer and transforming acres of shrubbery high atop Roan Mountain into a brilliant red and lavender garden.

Below the mountain, in small stadiums tucked throughout the lush rolling countryside linking four states, baseball careers blossom. The athleticism of an Appalachian League ballplayer, like the aestheticism of the rhododendron, blooms far from the beaten path.

A few players will become stars. Nolan Ryan, Cal Ripken Jr., Eddie Murray, Kirby Puckett and Greg Maddux are products of the Appy League, as it is called. Far more will wilt on the vine, never advancing past the first step of the arduous climb to the big leagues.

This season, eight players from Southern California are beginning their careers here at Johnson City, the lowest of the St. Louis Cardinals’ six minor league affiliates and an Appy League member since Ty Cobb led the majors with a .420 batting average in 1911.

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Some are from four-year universities, others from junior colleges. One arrived two weeks after graduating from high school. They all live in a hotel, earn $850 a month and get around town on city buses.

Their coaches are former major league journeymen possessing patience and expertise in equal parts.

“These kids have a long way to go,” Joey Pettini, the Cardinals’ minor league field director, says. “In two years, they will be twice the players they are now. But it will be four to five years before any of them step foot on a major league diamond. And most of them never will.”

The odds are ignored for now. Opportunities seem boundless during the first four days the players wear red and white jerseys emblazoned with cardinals perched on baseball bats--same as the jersey Mark McGwire nearly bursts out of while taking his home run trot.

It is the time and place to bloom, beneath the summer sun in this rural town of 57,000 on the eastern tip of Tennessee.

Thursday

John Santor and Albert Rodgers will be roommates for the next 11 weeks at a Howard Johnson’s on traffic-choked Roan Street, Johnson City’s main drag. They’ve done little more than unpack and exchange pleasantries when a van pulls up to take them to Howard Johnson Field, the identical names being coincidental. Other oddities await.

Santor, 18, fresh out of Highland High in Palmdale, is full of questions. The self-assured Rodgers, 21, grew up in Long Beach before attending Santa Ana College.

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The van is driven by 71-year-old lifelong Tennessean Carl Black, who tells the players in a thick drawl that the stadium is three miles down “the four-lane.”

The van passes vacant red brick buildings with shattered windows. Industry has gone elsewhere. Baseball remains.

“It’s dead around here,” Rodgers says.

The players enter the roomy clubhouse and are awe-struck. Built two years ago, it is freshly whitewashed and carpeted, with open lockers along the walls, two card tables and plenty of folding chairs set in the middle. In each locker hang three Cardinal jerseys, red for warmups, gray for road games, white for home. Socks and pants are folded neatly below.

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“J. Santor” is scribbled in black marker on a piece of tape above one locker. Santor spends a reflective moment gazing inside.

“I’m really here,” he says, mostly to himself. “I can’t wait for this to start.”

Half-dressed players gather around the tables, beginning a time-honored clubhouse ritual of playing cards. Nine Cardinals are from the Dominican Republic and three are from Venezuela. The first attempt at overcoming the language barrier is card-table banter.

Brian Fatur, a middle infielder from Moorpark College and Calabasas High, is immediately popular because he is bilingual. Fatur’s parents are Argentine immigrants and the other Latino players begin calling him “Argentina.”

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Catcher Ryan Hamill, Fatur’s roommate, has a problem. His jersey is too tight. But he stands in front of the full-length clubhouse mirror and can’t help but admire what he sees. Three years of working out in college weight rooms have produced a well defined upper body.

Manager Luis Melendez, 50, pokes his head into the clubhouse and tells the team it’s time to meet the local media in a picnic area near the stands. Melendez batted .248 in eight big league seasons, all but one with the Cardinals. But as the players soon discover, what suit him for this job are tolerance and a healthy sense of humor.

The players get their first look at the field. Built in the 1930s with funds from a Depression-era federal work program, it is well maintained by the Johnson City Parks and Recreation Department.

Howard Johnson was the parks-recreation administrator in the ‘40s and ‘50s, and he supervised the field’s major refurbishment in 1957. He has nothing to do with the name of the city, though. That would be Henry Johnson, the founding father. It’s hard keeping all the Johnsons straight. There are 337 Johnson families listed in the Johnson City phone book.

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A frontier trading post settled in the late 1700s, the city was incorporated in 1869. Davy Crockett’s birthplace is 15 miles to the west and Daniel Boone was one of the early visitors.

Today, parts of the city are as homogenous as a Southern California suburb, although some neighborhoods still drip with the charm of the Old South. East Tennessee State, a university of 12,000 students, and Kodak are the largest employers.

Everyone associated with the team, except the manager, coaches and players, gets his paycheck from the city, even Vance Spinks, the first-year general manager.

After seven years of working his way up from usher to director of ticket sales for the Hickory (N.C.) Crawdads of the Class A South Atlantic League, Spinks considers himself the luckiest man alive.

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“It was a combination of chance and opportunity that put me in this position,” he says with pride.

While the players are crossing the field, Spinks hurriedly sets cold-cut sandwiches and cookies on picnic tables near the third-base dugout.

Santor reads a rectangular billboard above the left-field wall: “Home of Dr. Enuf, the original energy booster since 1949.” Santor chuckles and mutters the slogan under his breath, “Enuf is enough.”

His eyes move to the tiny oval stadium lights, set atop decaying wood poles.

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“They remind me of ‘Field of Dreams,’ ” he says. “All that’s missing is the cornfield.”

The team gathers around the picnic tables and Spinks tells reporters to eat quickly before the players leave nothing but crumbs.

Hamill had eaten moments before leaving the hotel, but he makes a beeline for the sandwiches. “I’m a growing boy,” he says.

He fills a plate and pulls up a seat next to Justin Albertson, a tall outfielder with bleached-blond hair from Beverly Hills High. This is Albertson’s second season at Johnson City and he’s trying his best to mask his disappointment.

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“This is a nice change from the smog in L.A.,” he says.

There are fewer celebrity sightings here, Hamill notes wryly.

“We get to be the celebrities,” Albertson says. “It’s all about Southern hospitality. The best thing about living here is appreciating nature. I learned how to fish last year. I love it. We go fishing whenever we can.”

Hamill’s father is a Warner Center accountant and he aspires to be a lawyer. Opie Taylor he isn’t. He laughs and says, “Fishing? No thanks.”

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Santor, whose 6-foot-1, 215-pound frame still carries baby fat, sets a stack of cookies in front of him.

“I know I have to stop eating this stuff,” he says, grinning.

He surveys his teammates and says, “There are guys from Arkansas, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, all over. I’ve never been away from home, but I like this. It’s all baseball.”

A team picture and individual shots are taken, then practice begins. Pitching coach Elias Sosa, 50, is throwing batting practice and Rodgers sends several shots over the wall. Players are supposed to take the same number of swings, but Albertson believes Rodgers takes one too many and blows up.

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“You don’t take more swings than anybody else,” he screams. “You don’t do that here.”

Taken aback, Rodgers stares at Albertson and spits out, “Shut up.”

Melendez steps in and tells them to knock it off.

Rodgers and Albertson continue batting as if nothing had occurred, perhaps recalling the advice given them by Chuck Fick, the Cardinal scout who signed most of the players from Southern California: “In pro ball, everybody is your buddy because you have to get along with your teammates. But nobody is your good buddy, because your good buddy will take your job, your car and your wallet.”

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During infield practice, Melendez tells Rodgers to play first base along with Santor. Neither is familiar with the position. All of a sudden the roommates are competing. Rodgers doesn’t have a first baseman’s mitt, so Santor shares the one Fick gave him only a week ago.

While the players practice, Black, the bus driver turned clubhouse attendant, puts a clean towel in every locker. He is a hefty man with a huge place in his heart for the ballplayers he has seen come and go for more than 40 years.

“I can tell who will stick by the way they conduct themselves right here in this room,” he says. “I look at some and say, ‘Buddy, you’re going home.’ I try to teach them responsibility and a good disposition.”

At the end of the workout, Melendez gathers the players. This is the eve of the first professional game for most and they are eager to hear words of wisdom from their skipper.

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“Everybody takes a shower,” he barks. “If you don’t take a shower, you get fined.”

Melendez turns and begins pushing a grocery cart full of baseballs from the field to the clubhouse. Practice is over.

Black makes an announcement in the clubhouse: “If you need gray pants, follow me to the laundry room. If you have gray pants that don’t fit, don’t come. You can trade later.”

Fatur grabs his gray pants and tags along, ignoring the instructions. Black rolls his eyes and chases him away.

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Melendez grabs a chair and tells the players to gather around. This time his message is about baseball. He reviews the team’s signs, first in English, then in Spanish.

Dyar Miller, a roving pitching instructor who splits his time among four Cardinal minor league teams, speaks next.

“Your coaches are here to help get you to the big leagues,” he says. “You’re not here to get us to the big leagues. We’ve already been there.”

Miller, 56, who pitched for the Baltimore Orioles and California Angels, is big on decorum. “Don’t be dropping F-bombs,” he says. “There are kids in the stands.”

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The players get back to the hotel after 10 p.m. and several head straight to the Waffle House, a franchise diner next door that is filled in the wee hours with coffee-sipping chain smokers.

The price is right for the players, who must pay $300 of their $850 monthly salary to the hotel. A sirloin steak can be had for $5.95.

After dinner, video games and poker eat up the rest of the night. The players’ rooms are spread among three floors and open to an outdoor balcony overlooking a lawn. The players keep their doors open and move easily from room to room. Curfew is midnight, but nobody is in a partying mood. Tomorrow is opening day.

Friday

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John Santor wakes at the crack of . . . noon, tucks a second pillow under his head and stares at the ceiling, mentally reviewing the signs. There are signs for bunts, steals and hit-and-run plays, but he worries more about the defensive signs he must know as a first baseman.

He recalls his telephone conversation the night before with Nicole, his girlfriend of nearly three years. It strikes Santor that none of the friends and loved ones who followed his career from T-ball through high school will witness his first professional game.

“I’ve grown up and matured to the point they don’t need to be here,” he says. “Hopefully, I’ll make the big leagues and they can see me on TV.”

The only player from Southern California with a relative visiting Johnson City is Matt Dogero, a catcher from Santa Barbara City College and San Bernardino Cajon High. His older sister, Melissa, sits on his bed tapping on a laptop computer while he shaves around his goatee. She will depart for Australia with a ministry group in a week, but her presence, even for a short time, comforts her brother.

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“It’s like she’s the eyes and ears of my whole family,” Dogero says.

The starting lineup is posted on the clubhouse door when the players arrive. Rodgers will play first base and bat fourth. None of the other Southern Californians is starting.

Albertson learns the team has put him on the disabled list for seven days because of a pulled hamstring, although he says the injury is healed. Because there are more than 30 players here, the disabled list is used to stash spare parts. Albertson winces. He knows this is not a good sign.

Pettini, 40, a wiry man with piercing eyes, is on the field during warmups and the change in intensity is noticeable. As minor league field coordinator, he will spend a week in Johnson City. He introduces himself to Hamill and asks, “When did you play last?”

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“Three weeks ago,” Hamill replies.

“Have you been throwing and running?”

“Oh, yeah.”

Pettini runs his eyes over the chiseled catcher. “You won’t play right away to give you a chance to get your arm in shape.”

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Hamill nods obediently but out of Pettini’s earshot mumbles, “My arm’s fine.”

It’s dawning on everyone that playing time will be precious. Hamill is one of four catchers. Fatur played infield and outfield in college, but so far has no position.

In the clubhouse, a few players discuss visualization techniques. “I’m visualizing sitting on the bench tonight,” Fatur jokes.

As players dress for the game, Black hands out per diem, explaining that each player gets $10 for a commuter road game and $20 for an overnight trip. Some Appy League cities are four hours away in West Virginia, North Carolina and Virginia, but tonight’s game is at Elizabethton, a 20-minute bus ride.

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Santor does mental addition and is thrilled with the realization that $10 is plenty for a hearty meal at the Waffle House and a snack at the gas station mini-mart next door.

At Elizabethton, the Cardinals are greeted warmly by Willie Church, groundskeeper and a local high school coach.

“Welcome, sir,” he says to Melendez, shaking his hand. “It’s great to get this season underway, isn’t it, sir.”

The Cardinals toss their bags in the dugout and bullpen. Hamill looks over the fence and is transfixed by a tranquil river beyond spruce and fir trees a few yards away. It’s the Watauga, a Cherokee word meaning “peaceful waters.” He watches as two kids bait hooks, then turns and begins stretching exercises.

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The national anthem is sung by a sweet-voiced local girl who mangles the lyrics but gets polite applause from a laid-back crowd later announced as 984. Smoke from a barbecue pit billows above the concession stand. Church’s wife, Linda, supervises the sale of raffle tickets and Appy League caps.

Rodgers has never played first base, but during the first three innings he fields three ground balls cleanly. He takes a throw from the shortstop for the final out of the third inning and cocks the ball behind his ear to throw it around the infield as if the inning weren’t over. Melendez doubles over laughing and holds up three fingers as Rodgers sheepishly jogs to the dugout.

It’s remarkable Rodgers is even wearing a uniform. He was not drafted. Fick signed him as a free agent after a private tryout arranged by Rodgers’ father. His signing bonus: Zero.

“I’m playing for the love of the game,” he says.

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Rodgers wears a thick gold chain, leaves the top two buttons of his jersey open and waggles his bat like Dodger slugger Gary Sheffield. In the fourth inning, he hits a ground ball that the shortstop stops with a dive to his right. There is no throw and Rodgers has his first pro hit--an RBI single that gives Johnson City a 2-0 lead.

After Elizabethton scores three runs, Rodgers ties the score in the seventh when he drives a change-up to left field a few feet inside the foul pole for a home run.

Santor, who has paced restlessly in a grass area near the bullpen, leans into the dugout and says, “Nice shot, roomie.”

John Lockhart, a right-hander from West Torrance High, comes in to pitch for Johnson City in the seventh and retires the side.

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Lockhart, 21, has traveled a bumpier road than the one to the stadium. His brother, James, died in an auto accident in 1997 when Lockhart was a freshman at Pepperdine. He dropped out of school and played sporadically at El Camino College for two years.

“I was a mess,” he says. “I had no motivation. I still think about James all the time. He was my best friend. We had that unconditional love.”

Something he never lost was a 92-mph fastball. When his grief subsided enough for him to resume his career, he received a scholarship to Centenary College in Shreveport, La., had a solid 2000 season and was drafted by the Cardinals in the 24th round. The first time Lockhart dressed in the clubhouse, his teammates learned about James from the tattoo tribute on his back.

The season’s first loss falls on Lockhart’s shoulders, however, during a disastrous eighth inning. With two on and one out, he hits a batter in the back with a change-up. Flustered, he walks the next batter to force in the go-ahead run. Lockhart is replaced and his successor surrenders a grand slam.

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“Why throw a change-up in that situation when your best pitch is your fastball?” Miller asks.

“I just threw what the catcher called for,” Lockhart replies ruefully. “That pitch is going to eat me up for days.”

In the ninth, Melendez tells Santor to be ready to pinch-hit. He puts on a helmet and stretches. Two hits with two out produce a Cardinal run and cut the deficit to 9-4. But the third out is made with Santor in the on-deck circle.

All the Cardinals but one quickly head for the bus. Rodgers lingers in the dugout, reflecting on his first pro game.

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“This day is something I can tell my kids about,” he says. “I only wish my father was here. He’s been my biggest fan since I was 5. If it wasn’t for my father, I wouldn’t be here.”

It’s nearly midnight by the time the players get to the hotel. Some run out for a quick meal. Others head to Hooters, a half-mile away. Rodgers retires to his room.

“There’s no time for unnecessary roughness,” he says. “Just get ready to play the next day.”

Saturday

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Fick is in Des Moines, Iowa, scouting triple-A games. The first thing he does in the morning is check the Johnson City box score on the Internet. He knows from daily reports filed by Melendez that Santor, Hamill, Fatur, Dogero and Albertson will be in the lineup soon. Fick calls to reassure each player he signed.

In eight years with the Cardinals, Fick has sent about 25 players from Southern California to Johnson City.

He’s had successes: Keith McDonald, a catcher from Pepperdine, hit home runs this month in his first two major league at-bats.

He’s had failures too: Several players quit after one season, realizing they would never make it.

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No one from Fick’s crop this year is a big-time prospect. In a market where the signing bonuses of first-round picks can exceed $3 million, Santor’s $30,000 package was the most any of the Southern California players here received.

Santor tells Fick his legs are already sore.

“Follow Hamill wherever he goes,” Fick tells him. “Every time he goes to the gym, you’re there too.”

Johnson City’s home opener is tonight against Elizabethton and again Rodgers is batting cleanup. Melendez tells Dogero, Hamill and Santor that they will start Sunday in a home game against the Bristol Sox.

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Spinks has been working hard all morning, checking on the grounds crew and concessions menu. He puts plastic-protected pages of written instructions for the public-address announcer in a loose-leaf notebook. Johnson City averaged only 447 fans for its 34 home games last season, and Spinks plans to introduce more promotions. He’s playing the ultimate opening-night drawing card: free admission.

By the time fans begin arriving, Spinks is dripping with sweat. He wipes his brow with a handkerchief and changes into a tuxedo.

The fans are dressed down. Many wear orange University of Tennessee gear. The Atlanta Braves are the popular major league team in these parts, and Braves’ caps outnumber those of the Cardinals.

Again the national anthem is sung by a local girl, and once more the lyrics are original: " . . . the bombs bursting in air, gave truth through the night . . .”

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Fans fill out a form making them eligible for promotions. One is a dizzy-bat contest, a minor league standby. There is also a putting contest on top of the dugout and the “Rocky River Grille Seventh Inning Sing for Your Supper.” A fan brave enough to sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” during the seventh-inning stretch gets a free meal.

A man approaches Spinks and asks the price of a season-ticket in one of the five rows of box seats behind home plate.

“Uh, how about $70,” the general manager says.

General admission tickets are $3, box seats go for $4 and by the second inning anyone can walk in because the ticket takers double as ushers and are no longer at the entrance.

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A security guard in a crisply pressed uniform leans against a wall and greets fans as they file in. It’s none other than Carl Black, the clubhouse man and van driver.

“I moonlight every way I can,” he says. “Plus, out here I get to see folks I’ve known forever. It’s real nice work.”

Albertson, on the disabled list but in uniform, visits through the backstop with fans who remember him from the 1999 season when he batted .234 with five home runs. He enjoys the status.

“There are kids excited to see me again,” he says. “It helps eliminate some of the disappointment in coming back here. A good crowd is important. There are people out there we play for.”

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He is especially close to Dick and Eileen Staniland, who have rarely missed a game since moving from Camarillo four years ago. Dick spent 30 years with the Oxnard Police Department and retired as assistant chief. He had a heart attack in 1996 and found Johnson City a pleasant place to slow the pace. Eileen has relatives here.

The Stanilands greet Albertson at the fence.

“Take your hat off,” Dick orders.

Albertson does so, revealing the bleached-blond tuft. Dick scoffs, but Albertson laughs, “Hey, I’m a California boy.”

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Fatur introduces himself. Dick tells him he knows all about Moorpark College, that he was a student there the year after it was built. Eileen says she will print articles about the team off the Internet and hand them out. The players are drawn to the warmth of a couple with California roots the same generation as their parents. The Stanilands represent the comforts of home, not to mention the prospect of home cooking.

Johnson City gives up five runs in the first two innings and by the sixth many in the crowd of about 1,100 head to their cars, remembering last season’s cellar-dwelling team. But the Cardinals mount a comeback and trail, 9-7, in the sixth inning when a play that could only happen in rookie league brings what’s left of the crowd to life.

Rodgers is hit by a pitch to load the bases with one out. The next batter, William Schmitt, hits a grounder to the third baseman, who touches third to force out the runner from second, Sandy Santana. The third baseman throws to first, but Schmitt is safe.

Meanwhile, Santana steams around third and heads for home. The first baseman throws to the catcher, who tags Santana. The umpire makes an out call, oblivious that Santana was already called out on the force play at third.

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The catcher rolls the ball to the mound and the Twins jog off the field. Realizing that Santana can’t be called out twice, Melendez yells for Rodgers and Schmitt to run. An Elizabethton player grabs a ball from the dugout and tries to beat Rodgers to third. They dive headfirst into the bag. With Twins dashing back to the field, Rodgers gets up and bolts for the plate. One of the Twins picks up the game ball near the mound and tags him.

Melendez and R.J. Reynolds, Elizabethton’s manager, plead their cases with the dumbfounded umpires.

“One player can’t make two outs and you can’t use two baseballs,” Melendez says.

The umpires walk to center field and confer.

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“This is right out of ‘Bull Durham,’ ” pitching coach Miller says.

The umpires finally decide that Rodgers, not Santana, is the third out. Play ball!

Santor makes his debut in the seventh inning as a pinch-hitter with runners on second and third and none out. He grounds out to shortstop and is dismayed because the runner on third did not score on the play. Just another in a list of rookie league mistakes already stacking up as high as Roan Mountain.

In the ninth, Santor strikes out.

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Fatur pinch-runs with two out, but the next batter grounds out on the first pitch and Johnson City loses, 11-10.

It’s 12:30 a.m. by the time eight players crowd around a table at Hooters. The waitresses live up to the restaurant’s slogan: “Delightfully tacky, yet unrefined,” but the players hardly notice. They order chicken sandwiches and drink water or lemonade.

“Those at-bats, I’ve already let them go,” Santor says. “I’m not one to dwell on it. Tomorrow’s a new day.”

Sunday

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It’s 9:30 a.m. and Ryan Hamill is a bundle of nervous energy, knowing he will make his debut tonight against Bristol. He washes down vitamins, creatine and a high-carbohydrate solution while checking the city bus schedule, then walks to the bus stop for a ride to the gym.

He waits. And waits. After 45 minutes he jogs to a nearby Holiday Inn, where he is told the buses don’t run on Sunday. Thinking fast, he tells the concierge he is a guest and needs the shuttle van to give him a lift to the gym.

The ploy works. Hamill is dropped off at the gym . . . and it’s closed. It takes him nearly an hour to jog back to his room. Fatur, who boasts he can sleep anywhere at any time, is just waking up.

“What’s today, Sunday?” Fatur asks, rubbing his head. “Every day is the same here.”

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Rodgers and Santor find something novel: Three women, who barge into their room and introduce themselves. The players are polite but not interested. The trio moves on to the next room.

“That’s the last thing I’m here for,” Santor says, and Rodgers nods in agreement.

Hamill gets a lift to the stadium and stops at a barbecue restaurant for lunch two blocks from East Tennessee State. A demure hostess tells him there will be a 45-minute wait for a table, a disappointment because he doesn’t have the time. On the way out the door Hamill looks over his shoulder.

“She’s cute,” he says, making a mental note of the city bus stop across the street.

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There is a crowd around the lineup card on the clubhouse door. Santor squeezes to the front and sees he will bat sixth and play first base. Hamill will bat third as designated hitter. Dogero is catching and batting seventh. Rodgers is batting cleanup again and playing right field. Fatur must continue to wait for his first start.

A team of 6-year-olds streams onto the field to stand alongside the players during the national anthem. This time, the lyrics are sung just the way Francis Scott Key penned them.

Santor wears a huge grin, soaking in the moment. Johnson City is the only St. Louis farm team called the Cardinals, so on this night, only two professional first basemen wear that jersey featuring two birds perched on a bat: John Santor and Mark McGwire.

Hamill’s first pro at-bat is the culmination of 15 years of preparation. He played youth ball in West Hills, attended Chaminade High and started for two seasons at Nevada Las Vegas. He transferred to UCLA to pursue a political science degree, but could not displace the incumbent catcher.

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“I think we got a real sleeper with Hamill,” says Pettini, the roving instructor.

Hamill pops up in his first at-bat but in the third inning lines a single to right, driving in a run. He walks in his third at-bat and makes his first mistake, believing Melendez has given him the hit-and-run sign when in fact no play is on. However, he makes a headfirst slide under the tag at second for a stolen base.

Santor also gets his first hit, a bloop single to center in the fifth that scores Rodgers. Santor steals second and scores with two out when the Bristol second baseman boots a ground ball. After the inning, Hamill and Santor touch fists, a gesture of congratulations that is replacing the high five in dugouts all over.

For two nights in the bullpen, Lockhart has agonized over the change-up he threw in the opener. He is summoned in the seventh and retires six consecutive batters, a two-inning performance that makes his first outing ancient history.

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“That’s baseball,” he says. “You’re as good as your last game.”

Richard Burgess, a right-handed pitcher from San Bernardino Valley College and Redlands High, is still waiting for his first appearance. He’s the No. 4 starter and is scheduled to pitch Monday against Bristol. Burgess spent the last two days charting the pitches thrown by his teammates.

“It seems like I’ve waited forever, but just observing three games is a big help,” he says.

Dogero has the most memorable moment, blasting a home run to left field on the first pitch of his first professional at-bat. His sister shrieks and jumps to her feet.

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“I thought it was a double off the wall and was running so hard I didn’t see it go over,” he says.

As Hamill walks to the plate in the bottom of the ninth with Johnson City trailing, 9-8, Fatur yells to him, “Get on base so I can run for you.” Hamill strikes out, as does Rodgers, and Johnson City falls to 0-3.

The players are dejected, but many stop on the way to the clubhouse and sign autographs. A boy of about 12 approaches Dogero and holds out a ball.

“This is the one you hit out,” he says, offering it back. Dogero signs the ball and hands it to the kid, whose eyes light up.

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Melendez and his coaches open cans of beer in their dressing room across the hall from where the players dress. They fill out postgame charts and evaluate every player’s performance.

“It’s important to win because it makes everyone’s attitude better, but its more important for these guys to understand the game,” Melendez says. “It takes time. As a coach, if you aren’t patient, you’ll drive yourself crazy.”

*

Tolerance lasts only so long. Players who repeat the same mistakes or fail to improve eventually will be released. Every year 40-50 players are drafted by the Cardinals and more than half will sign. For every player who enters the six-team farm system, a player must exit. It’s a numbers game that does not benefit slow learners.

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“You have to be positive, that is part of the professional ethic,” says pitching coach Sosa, who pitched for the Dodgers in the 1977 World Series. “You don’t put people down. You try to encourage them and not judge them too quickly or harshly. Because in baseball, you never know.”

Sosa and Miller fill out evaluations on the pitchers; Melendez and Pettini do the same for position players. Questions are asked about each player’s mental makeup. Is he teachable? Is he intelligent?

“As the season wears on, you’ve gotta kick them in the rear end,” Sosa says. “We give them the best advice possible. If they don’t grasp it, they aren’t going to last.

“We give honest answers to the organization about who has progressed and who hasn’t. You may like a kid very much, but you have to separate your feelings and put business on the table.”

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Who among this crop of Southern California players will beat the odds and make the big leagues, forever remembering Johnson City as the starting point?

Perhaps the gregarious Santor will get serious about diet and weightlifting and become a feared power hitter. Maybe Fatur will finally get a chance to win a position. Rodgers, Dogero and Lockhart might use their memorable first weekend as the first step toward greatness. Albertson could leave the disabled list and go on a tear.

Hamill could make Pettini’s prediction a reality and move up quickly. Even if he doesn’t, he’s been profoundly changed by this Appy League city about 30 miles from Roan Mountain on the east end of Tennessee, where rhododendrons and ballplayers blossom this time of year.

“I decided I really do want to learn to fish,” Hamill says. “I think that’s what I’ll do the first day we don’t have a game.”

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