To a six-year-old, painted sticks are horses, Christmas lights are stars, and a minor league ball park is glamor and excitement. Every fireplug catcher is Yogi Berra, every manager is Casey Stengel, and every kid with a grandstand ticket is an umpire. You can yell out loud and spit on the floor. No one says a word.

And 1957 was a grand season to fall in love with the game. The Richmond Virginians were leading the International League. It was the year of Jerry Lumpe, the idol of Parker Field, whose hot bat had pushed the Vees into first.

But in the middle of July, Lumpe got a call from New York, and overnight my first sports hero was gone forever. It wasn't fair, I cried. Why would he want to leave us? A patient parent explained that we should be happy for Jerry. He'd made it to the big leagues.

And that was how I first learned that the world was divided into the majors and the minors, and that the International League - for me the soul of grace and excitement - was just a way station, a bus depot, for the men who played in it.

After 23 years, Parker Field in Richmond is little changed from the days of Jerry Lumpe. The huge green roof stretches over the 15,000 seats like a pair of square bat wings. The scoreboard still marks the innings with battered tin plates. The Richmond Virginians are gone now; they moved to Toledo in 1965. The Richmond Braves, a farm club of the Atlanta Braves, are playing International League ball there 70 nights a summer. It's a beautiful old ball park, made for right-hand hitters, hot dogs and summer nights. And everybody wants to leave it except the fans.

In that sense, Parker Field could be any of hundreds of ball parks across the country. It may be a heap of bleachers on a clay field, or a shiny new stadium with Astroturf, computer scoreboard, and sky-boxes for well-heeled fans; but it is first, last and always minor league.Bush league. Small-time, the sticks, the boonies, Hicksville, Podunk, jerkwater, Nowheresville.

For generations, young Americans have lain awake in small towns, hearing the whistle on the Double-E and wondering when they'd get their chance at the big time, real life, the hot glowing center of things. Disc jockeys read the pig prices at sunrise and plan their next move, and their next, and then their triumphal entry to a prime-time slot in LA, Chicago or the Apple. Reporters cover tobacco auctions for county weeklies, scheming to move to small dailies, then to big dailies. Musicians sing "Feelings" in motel lounges, hoping for a record contract.

And high school baseball players dream of a shot at the major leagues. To get there, though, they must pass through the minors - the short season of one of the three rookie leagues, then the tiny, dusty ball parks of the eight Class A Leagues, the long bus rides of the three Double-A leagues, and then Triple-A.

Triple-A baseball is just a whisker away from major league caliber. A and Double-A are the "low minors" - Alexandria's Mariners are in the Class A Carolina League. In these leagues, young pitchers' arms are not strong enough, catchers miss the key throws to second base, hitters can't handle a fastball, infielders dash together head first in pursuit of fly balls, shortstops boot double plays. It is, in short, kid stuff.

Unlike basketball or football, baseball is not a game where a 22-year-old can often establish himself through speed and strength alone as the equal of his elders. Baseball is played with the head far more than with the body - with the brain, to dictate the right move, and with the soul, which gives a player the concentration to make a key play when he is hurting, to bat through a slump, to hang tough through a losing streak.

The low minors develop a player's body; Triple-A baseball develops his soul, trains him to bear pain and frustration. Triple-A players are physically ready for the majors. They are sick with readiness; they hurt everyday, not with physical pain but with the helpless sense that their youth and skill are dribbling away, with the fear of dying in the minor leagues.

Not long ago it seemed that minor-league baseball itself was dying. But the big league clubs need the farms as training grounds and storehouses of talent. League rules require each team in the majors to maintain a full farm system, with at least one team in each classification. So today there are about as many minor-league teams as there were 20 years ago.

Under a "working agreement" with a big-league team, the major-league team pays most of the team salaries and a portion of expenses; the local owner must pay the rest out of gate receipts.

In some cities, like Rochester, N.Y., the franchise is owned by the community; in others, like Charleston, W. Va., it belongs to a local businessman or group of investors. Some franchises bounce around from city to city in search of fan support; others have been in place for decades, as much a part of local life as the Yankess or the Red Sox in their home cities. In fact, in the past decade, local governments in Columbus, Honolulu, Albuquerque, Norfolk and other cities have invested in spacious new stadiums for their teams, while dozens of others have renovated and modernized existing parks.

Many would argue that the International League is the best of Triple-A. It is the oldest of the five Triple-A leagues. Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, and dozens of other Hall of Famers spent some time on International League teams. Despite its name, it is made up of cities in the eastern half of the United States, stretching from Rochester, N.Y., in the north to Norfolk, Va., in the south and Toledo, Ohio, in the west. But during the 1950s it was a glamorous loop indeed, including the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Montreal Royals and the Havana Sugar Kings. Richmond first joined the league in 1884. The stadium is old, but the Braves drew 202,106 fans last season, for an average of better than 2,500 a game. They also won the league playoffs; Trudy Bateman, president of the Braves' Boosters Club, sewed a mock championship flag which proudly flies under Old Glory during home games this year.

Unlike most minor-league teams, the Richmond Braves are owned directly by the parent club and financed completely by Ted Turner, the Atlanta club's flamboyant owner. Only a few years ago, the Richmond franchise was in deep trouble - lowest in the league in attendance, locked in a caustic dispute with city officials over renewing the stadium contract, and talking openly about moving. Then Turner sent in Jon Richardson as the new general manager. With the help of winning teams, Richardson has turned the franchise around.

Richardson and his wife and office manager, Char, came up through the low minors, just like the players. They can reminisce about the days in A and Double-A: about the time in Gastonia, N.C., when the bear trainer delivered the wrong wrestling bear for a pre-game show - the one whose claws had not been pulled. Or "Performing Pig Night" in Burlington, N.C., or the time in Greenwood, S.C., when the light tower fell on the dugout and the Fourth of July fireworks burned down the scoreboard.

Triple-A is a better life, the Richardsons agree. Jon, a plump, balding 32-year-old with a genial, high-pitched voice and the meticulous, affable air of a small town banker, has plenty of time to do what he does best: dreaming up promotions like "Two-Bit Hot Dog and Discount Beverage Night," "Players' Wives Game Night," "Cash Scramble Night," "Clown Night" and "Holly Farms Discount Coupon Night."

There are still some times when the operation could use improving - like "Fort Lee Night" last May when no one warned the 392nd Army Band not to cross the infield during the home run derby, and the batter from Romeo Company hit a solid shot to the tuba player's head. But on the whole, the Braves are not bush league at all.

"People have aspired to reach this chair," says Richardson comfortably, leaning back behind a blond wood desk that once sat in the front offices of the old Boston Braves. "If you asked me a few years ago what my goal was, I'd have said to be a Triple-A GM. I don't want just to go to the big leagues to go there."

But those relaxes sentiments come easily to a young man with a good record who is working for a major-league organization. "Being an employe (of Atlanta) maybe gives you more opportunities than an individual who works for a local organization," he says. "The aspiration of everybody in baseball is to get to the major leagues - groundskeepers, trainers, umpires - they want to do what they do in the major leagues. But I'm not like the ballplayers, where I live or die by the next phone ringing."

The next phone ringing makes a big difference to Tom Burgess; but he's pretty sure the call won't be for him, this season anyway. Burgess, a friendly, philosophical 52-year-old Canadian, is in his first year as field manager of the Richmond Braves. He faces most of the problems any major-league manager has - a batting order which has mysteriously lost its punch, the problem of establishing his authority over a club which had grown used to the easy-going ways of his predecessor, Tom Aaron, younger brother of Hank.

But there are also problems which are unique to Triple-A. Burgess is never sure who his team will be from day to day.Already this year he has lost three starters to the major-league club. There are replacements, of course, cut from the Atlanta team to make way for those called up - but they constitute one of Burgess's morale problems.

"We're in a very unique situation, with the parent ball club going very bad and going bad for a few years - of people getting jobs without earning them," he said. "Now a lot of these guys are coming back down and saying, Why? They're comparing themselves with the people next to them." The hurt and humiliation that comes from being sent from the majors to Triple-A make these players hard to coach. "This more than any other class in baseball is the toughest to manage," Burgess says. "If the manager had his choice, the ball club he'd like to have would be Triple-A ball-players on the way up. They haven't tasted that honey yet."

Burgess himself has tasted that honey and would love to have more. Last season he was third-base coach for the Atlanta team. Now he's hoping his performance at Richmond may lead him back up to the majors.

"You want to do well because you want to better yourself." "Naturally there's always that thought that if your ball club does well you might be considered - not necessarily for Atlanta but for 23 other teams in the big leagues."

Managers, general managers, trainers, umpires - all are pursuing a lifetime career in baseball and enjoying meanwhile a way of life that for all its frustration and tension also has an extraordinarily idyllic side. To understand the real hunger for the majors - the craving that could haunt a man morning after morning, you have to talk to the players.

Talk to Pat Rockett, for example, a 24-year-old shortstop who spent all of the 1977 season and half of last year with Atlanta before being sent back to Richmond. Rockett gives the impression of choosing his words carefully. "They told me to come down here and work hard and play hard," he said, staring straight ahead at his teammates taking batting practice. "I'm having a good time now. Last year when I got sent down it was hard, but I had the whole winter to think about it. I'm enjoying myself."

What's so bad about playing in Richmond, anyway?"Richmond's okay," Rockett concedes. "I've met some nice people in this town. But - it's minor league. Minor-league ball park, minor-league town. I wouldn't want to live here, and I don't want to play here for any long period of time."

Or talk to Mike Macha, who is not yet able to summon up Pat Rockett's bold front. Macha started the season with the Braves this year; but he got sent down in May. Macha had been sitting on the bench in Atlanta; now he has a starting slot in Richmond. "I wasn't playing much so I figured I'd get sent down," he said. "I was disappointed yet happy, and I just want to go about it in a workmanlike attitude. I'm just looking at it like, come on down here and perform well and try to get back, because you don't get no pension down here."

Chico Ruiz, second baseman for the Braves, has thought about this question longer and harder than most of his teammates - he's had more time to. At 26, Chico is the elder statesman of the Richmond Braves. His first season there was 1975 - an eternity ago by Triple-A standards. Last year he made it to Atlanta for most of the season. His first time at bat he got a double off Tom Seaver; his father and mother saw him do it on television. But now he's back in Richmond.

Chico, a gentle young man with a fluffy afro, smiles amiably. But in that sunny smile is a trace of the pain of too many years in the minors, too many chances to evaluate the subtle distinctions. "When you're playing in the rookie league, you're seeing the ball parks are bad, really bad," he said. "Everything is in the worst condition. In the A league, still bad. We had a school bus for transportation, and we had to go four, five hours - you can't take a nap. In Double-A you're going to see a little bit of difference. Maybe a better bus. But you got long, long road trips - maybe 10 hours. You jump to Triple-A, you're going to see a lot of difference. You're going to be flying to games. The ball park is better.

"But one time you get in the big leagues, you see a whole whole difference. They're going to give you everything. If you fly commercial flights, you're going to have two seats for yourself. One time that you get there you don't want to come down."

Chico once asked a major league scout why life in the minors was so rough; the scout said they make the minors rough so the kids will want to leave. ""If we show the kid in A ball the good life, he's not going to try harder,"" Chico remembers him saying. ""If they make 'em tough, he's going to try hard to make it. He's going to hate that league.""

And minor leaguers hate that league so much, Chico says, that there's almost no team spirit. "Sometimes it's really hard for everybody to work together," he says. "If you sacrifice yourself for somebody else, maybe at the end of the season he's going to get a good raise and you're going to get released. Baseball has so much money involved that everybody's going to go for themselves."

And he's right. International League baseball is as good as major league play, most of the time, in most ways. The technical skills are there, and the stupid butches are few. But something is missing, and no International League fan, if he is honest, can deny it. In a Triple-A season you may see a no-hitter, a triple play, a grand-slam home run, a brilliant base-running combination, and many, many exciting games. But seldom do you see the kind of contagious excitement that can turn a baseball team into a nine-headed beast, with only one thought and one aim, victory, and an almost telepathic ability to move into position and make the right plays when needed.

Triple-A baseball offers the fan something no major-league team can: baseball played to a human scale, in small parks, with players he can get to know like real human beings and not millionaire demigods. But his favorites will often play as if they wore invisible weight vests. And those weights are their knowledge that they are not where they want to be, their suspicions that they may not be good enough to get there, their fears that they will be unjustly passed over and forgotten.

It seems a genuine tragedy that something as good as Triple-A baseball, just because it is not the best, cannot at least seem good to those who play in it; that America must divide itself into major and minor, big and bush, stars and slobs, that the minor leagues and the 500-watt AM daytimers and summer stock theaters have to run on self-hate and fear, that a nation of 200 million cannot let a hundred leagues bloom, with no major or minor but each team and each person playing the best he can.

But those thoughts come after a game at a field like Parker Field or Franklin County Stadium in Columbus - good minor-league towns where the fans turn out to cheer their teams on.

The thoughts are very different on a wet May afternoon in Charleston, W. Va., where a whopping 380 people have turned out to watch the Braves beat the Charlies in a daylight game, and the Richmond club is bused back to the Daniel Boone motel to face a Sunday night in a town where there's not much to do after dark.

The hall carpet in the Boone is figured with complex purple and pink ropes, endlessly weaving and reweaving, and the traveler passing down those ropes on this Sunday evening would hear, behind 20 doors on the sixth floor, the identical blaring voice of a TV announcer calling the play-by-play of the Cincinnati Reds game. Behind those doors are the players who have spent too much of their $12-a-day meal money to go to the Holiday Inn for a drink, and who are spending the evening watching other men do what they would like to be doing, and cursing their luck.

Behind one of those doors was Ed Miller, a wiry 21-year-old who is the star of the Richmond Braves. He had stolen 22 bases by that point in the season and had taken square aim at the Braves' team record of 70. On the field he is a determined, emotional, exciting offensive player, and no less an authority than Hank Aaron, now the farm director of the Braves organization, says, "Ed Miller has a chance to be one of the most exciting ballplayers in either league."

But International League stardom and bright prospects do nothing for Ed Miller. "I'm dejected and depressed," he says. "Not one day that I've been here I've enjoyed myself."

Ed Miller doesn't feel appreciated.He thought he had made the Atlanta team in spring training; now his agent, Ahmad Jalil of Oakland, Calif., is trying unsuccessfully to negotiate a new contract for him with the Braves organization.

"My goal was to be in the major leagues at 21 - that was four years out of high school," he said."I think I'm a good enough player to play in the major leagues, and maybe even be a great player. I'm the kind of guy who's exciting and can make things happen. They need me [in Atlanta] - they're dull.

"I guess for me it's just a matter of time - that's what everybody tells me," says Ed Miller, adding a fear that comes from the advanced age of 21: "I hope I don't die in this league thinking, "It's just a matter of time.""

Under a velvet sky, Ed Miller stood by the home dugout at Parker Field, watching the opposing pitcher warm up. Despite the pangs of old age and contract disputes, and even though his team was losing by two runs, Ed Miller on the field did not look dejected or depressed. His smile was that of a healthy athlete playing a game he loves.

"Hey, Ed," a man called from a box seat, "Sign a ball for my boy, will you?"

He scrawled "Ed Miller" on the ball and then turned back to the game. The boy, who looked about six years old, turned the white object over in his hand, then looked in awe at the man in white who had signed it. I remembered a baseball in a drawer somewhere at home signed "John Jaciuk" by a big first baseman who never played a day in the majors but who got five hits against the Miami Marlins on May 12, 1958.

Another minor-league fan had been born, who would carry his jumbled memories for life about the players he had seen, the great and the obscure, and would grieve for his heroes when they did not make it to the top, and also when they did.

They make the minors rough, so the kids will want to leave. CAPTION: Picture 1, Chico Ruiz, elder statesman and philosopher of the Braves, slides back to second after a pickoff try. The umpire who called him safe, just like the players, is hoping for a shot at the big leagues someday. "One time that you get up there," Chico explains, "you don't want to come down."; Picture 2, Ed Miller, base-stealing sensation of Parker Field, pauses before a game to chat with two Richmond Braves usherettes. At 21, Miller has attracted the eye of major-league scouts - and of Atlanta farm director Hank Aaron. Miller takes it in stride. "He thinks he's going to be another Willie Mays," one Bravette said to her companion. "Mama," Miller said, "I'm going to be better than Willie Mays."; Picture 3, Outfield advertising and promotion are the lifeblood of a minor-league operation. Braves home games have names like "WLEE Two-Bit Beverage and Discount Hot-Dog Night," "Holly Farms Discount Coupon Night" and "Fort Lee Night." Joe E. Hart, who runs the scoreboard, listens to the radio broadcast to hear the umpire's calls.; Picture 4, Seymour Baseball, club mascot, never speaks to fans. "I am always equipped with pen and paper," he writes.; Picture 5, In the small Triple-A ballparks, fans and players mingle easily after games. But each fan knows his favorite may be gone tomorrow.; Picture 6, Triple-A teams use their own equipment and hand-me-downs from the "big club" - such as the odd batting helmet. Photographs by Bill Snead