HIGHWAY 26, South Carolina — Dear Boss:

I was bumping along next to Gene Roof, the lanky, curly- haired manager of the Fayetteville Generals, and he was telling me the best bus story he knows. Texas League. Double- A. One morning around 3 a.m., they pulled into this motel in El Paso, and one of the players glanced out the window and yelled,
“Hey, look! That guy’s got a gun!”

By the time the others looked up, the man was gone, so nobody believed him. Heck, they’d been riding for 10 hours; everyone was punchy. Roof and a couple guys walked into the office.

Nobody at the desk.

Cash register spilled over.

Gagging sounds coming from the back room.

“We found these two guys tied up, face down on the carpet, just like in the movies,” Roof said, shaking his head. “They’d been held up. The weirdest thing was, there were two cops staking out the place across the street. But they fell asleep and missed the whole thing.”

He laughed. “Needless to say, we didn’t sleep too good that night.”

That was 10 years ago. Since that time Roof has been up and down the mountain, played at every level of the minors, got his brief and shining moment in The Show, the big leagues, the St. Louis Cardinals and Montreal Expos. Once, against Chicago, bottom of the eighth, bases loaded, he leapt into the Wrigley Field ivy and caught a Bobby Bonds blast, one-handed, for the third out.

“We were in the pennant race, so they showed it on every TV station around the country. I shoulda taped it while I had the chance.”

He sighed and watched the windshield wipers flap back and forth. The highway rumbled quietly beneath our feet. Tired from a rubber-tired bed

If you took all the mileage on a minor leaguer’s body, you could probably travel from here to the moon. Think of the trips! From Greensboro to Augusta, from Little Rock to El Paso — and always, always, on The Bus. It has become the rolling symbol of the bushes: 47 seats, eight wheels, and one bathroom. The bus is the line between The Big Time and those who still dream of it.

Down here in A ball, they’re still dreaming. So we left early in the morning, from the hotel parking lot, where most of the players were swigging chocolate milk and Egg McMuffins. And within a half-hour of gentle highway rocking, they were asleep. Some had their mouths open. Some had Walkmans plugged in their ears, and you could hear the muffled lullaby of rock guitars and drums.

Roof couldn’t sleep, and neither could I, so we sat up front and talked about the road. “Some of those trips in Texas,” he said softly, “eight or nine hours, I don’t know how we did it. Guys used to pass a tequila bottle and see who got stuck drinking the worm.

“For a while, I traveled with an inflatable raft, the kind they use for swimming pools. I’d blow it up and lie in the aisle and try to sleep. Then, for a while, some of us tried crawling in the luggage compartment up above. Like those.”

He pointed, and I did a double take. You’d need a crowbar to get in there!
“Yeah,” he laughed, “after a few hours, you’d get a charley horse, start screaming, and it would take four guys to pull you out.”

I watched Roof as he hitched his feet up on the railing and tapped on the window. He is a pleasant man from Kentucky, and by all accounts a pretty decent ballplayer. But he is 31, and to be 31 in the minors is to be resigned to the sidelines. It means at some point management said to you, “Son, we don’t see you making it in the bigs.” It means your dreams of hitting that World Series home run will have to settle for dreams of watching it from the dugout. It means you ride in the front of the bus.

And then, boss, I got to thinking.

I’m 31. Some nobodies become somebodies

We rolled through South Carolina, past gas stations and fast-food joints. This was not France. This was not countryside you brag about. This was just mileage to get from one stadium to the next, from one turn at the plate to another somewhere else, while you stare out the window and dream of the future. All those miles. All those nameless ballparks and gnat-filled dugouts.

“You know,” Roof said, looking back on his sleeping team, “if you have any kind of heart, you have to feel for these kids. They’re busting a gut trying to make it, living off no money. And nobody back where you come from even knows their name.

I nodded. And then I thought: shoot, nobody knows Gene Roof, either. What kind of credit does he get? He’s teaching these kids, watching them move up the ladder while, at 31, his own big-league dream is still fresh enough to taste. I thought about all those guys in the majors who take the good life for granted. And I looked again at that overhead rack that Roof once slept in. It hardly seems fair.

But that’s just sentiment, I guess, and there’s not a lot of time for that down here. Last night, a young prospect named Mickey Delas, a big, grinning catcher from Roseville, got called up to the Lakeland team. Promoted. He’s one step closer to The Show. The last thing Roof said to him was on the bus back from the game. He pulled the mike from the mini-P.A. and said, “Mickey, don’t forget to pay your clubhouse dues before you leave.”

That’s baseball. They come and they go.

And the bus rolls on.

See ya later,

Mitch

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