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Tomorrow's star awaits in today's minors

KINGSPORT, TENN.--It's the top of the ninth, the bases are loaded and the Kingsport Mets are one out away from a 5-2 victory over the Bluefield Orioles.

Scott Polk, a former closer for Mississippi State, delivers the 2-2 pitch to Bluefield outfielder Steve Salargo. It catches the outside corner. Salargo turns towards the dugout when the home plate umpire calls it a ball. Salargo takes Polk's next offering over the left field wall. Grand slam. Game over. Bluefield wins, 6-5.

It's just another wild night in the Appalachian League.

Darryl Strawberry. Dwight Gooden. Gregg Jeffries. Sidney Ponson. Don Baylor. Travis Fryman. Jose Lima. Tony Clark.

They're just some of the big league names who saw some of their first professional playing time in my neck of the woods.

For the second straight summer I'm back home, in Kingsport, covering advanced rookie ball in the Appalachian League, or Appy League as we affectionately call it.

Now at the halfway point of my second tour of duty--and after watching a rather uninspired All-Star game Tuesday--I'm taking time to reflect on some of the people I've seen play.

Who knows? They may be All-Stars themselves one day.

The players in this league (most of them as old as your average U.Va. undergrad) are the antithesis of the spoiled Major Leaguer. There are no surly, media-hating Albert Belles here. When you talk to a player after the game, it's not so much an achievement for the player as a chance for his buddies to bust him for it.

And the Appy League wage scale verges on Communism. Every player makes the same amount, even Josh Hamilton, the No. 1 overall pick in the 1999 Draft. Hamilton, who picked up a nifty $3.85 million signing bonus, still gets a mere $1,000 a week plus meal money for road trips while he plays for the Princeton Devil Rays.

Many of these players are from other countries, like the Dominican Republic or Venezuela, and playing in an organized league for the first time. They lack the refinement of their American teammates but have tremendous raw ability.

Every once in a while, a player arrives in the Appy League with a lot of fanfare like Hamilton. He's actually the third No. 1 pick to play in the league, along with Strawberry and Shawn Abner. But even with his millions, Hamilton still does not have his own bank account. At his request, his parents have quit their jobs and now follow Hamilton on his minor league odyssey.

I spend my time covering the Kingsport Mets. The best individual talent I've seen on that team was diminutive outfielder Brian Cole, who played on the 1998 squad. Sure he had home run power, but it's Cole's speed that makes him special. I once saw him score from first on a routine grounder to third. Yes, he's that fast.

Cole made the All-League team at the end of last season. This year he's hitting .282 with eight home runs for the Class A Capital City Bombers.

Cole's speed is just one of many interesting angles in this league. Many players come to the minors with intriguing stories in their backgrounds.

Kingsport shortstop Gil Velazquez is as good as any Major League shortstop I've ever seen. He has tremendous range, and an arm with the accuracy of a sniper rifle. Now, if he could only get his average above .250.

Last year, Danville had a hard-hitting third baseman named Travis Wilson. I saw him hit three home runs against our beloved K-Mets. He led the league in doubles, and was among the leaders in RBI and home runs.

By the way, it was his first year playing baseball. Up until that point, Wilson had played fast pitch softball in New Zealand.

There's Bristol White Sox outfielder Chad Durham, who's trying to follow in the footsteps of his older brother Ray and currently leads the league in steals.

There's Met hurlers Graeme Brown and Mike Sweeney, a pair of New Englanders who attended Brown and Amherst respectively and are known to their teammates as "the Ivy Leaguers", even though Amherst isn't in the Ivy League.

There's former Major Leaguer Tim Foli, who managed the Mets last year. Foli won a World Series during his career and brought his big league attitude to the Appy League. After alienating everyone with said attitude, especially the umpires, Foli's not around this season, replaced by the much more amicable Guy Conti.

You have to love the game to play or coach in a league like this. And as Foli demonstrated last year, it's not for everyone. It's not glamorous, and it's certainly not financially rewarding. And yes, most of these kids won't make it to the pros.

But try and tell that to the kids who swarmed Salargo at the end of that 6-5 victory, getting him to sign balls, gloves and bats. To them Salargo is a hero.

And one day, those swarms may be a much larger group of wide-eyed autograph seekers at Major League Baseball's mid-summer classic.