One of the nice things about owning the Potomac Nationals is that you get to take batting practice whenever you want. At 65, Art Silber regularly flies in from his Florida home on Saturdays and hits baseballs at rickety little Pfitzner Stadium in Woodbridge, the home of his minor league team, an affiliate of the fledgling Washington Nationals. When you are the owner you can be one of the show's participants; you can be a star of sorts. Silber dons a uniform and takes the field for the P'Nats on Saturday nights, when the public address announcer introduces him as the oldest first-base coach in minor league baseball. Brooklyn-born, he wears the 42 of his Dodgers childhood idol Jackie Robinson, though the number has been retired from most of baseball. He is featured on his own official baseball card, available at the stadium's souvenir gift shop as part of an $8 packet of Potomac players' cards. Kids shout for his autograph, waving that baseball card, on which his bespectacled image peers at them like Mr. Magoo.

"I'm ready. Let's go," he says, fresh from his flight, wagging a bat, striding on surgically repaired knees out of a dugout toward a batting cage erected around home plate. The team's players, stretching and lolling on the outfield grass like young lions, lift their heads and languidly look him over. They are uniformed and regal-looking in their physicality; he is 5-foot-9 and in khaki shorts, sporting a cell phone on his belt and the skinny, alligator-tanned legs of a Florida retiree.

Silber turns to the team manager, Bob Henley, a former catcher in the Montreal Expos system who's trying to make the slow improbable climb, like most of his players, up the minor league chain. "Bob, howreya? This an okay time to hit a few?"

"Sure," says Henley.

It's a steamy day in July, and Silber needs a moment to wipe sweat off his glasses. His vision is an issue: Doctors have warned him about the beginnings of cataracts in both eyes. But as a former college shortstop good enough, he says, to have attracted the interest of Kansas City Athletics scouts during the early '60s, Silber still has the instincts for hitting a baseball. Another nice thing about being the owner is that no batting practice pitcher is going to gun one by you. While the P'Nats players see such pitches coming in at about 75 to 80 mph, the balls pitched to Silber float to the plate, looking big as grapefruit.

He dribbles the first one off to the right, the next one back to the pitcher, the third just out in front of the plate.

"I'm losing bat speed and reflexes," he mutters, stepping out of the cage to allow a player in to take a few cuts. "I've hit two or three out of the park, the last time, oh, probably when I was 51 or 52."

He is a retired banker, living in the tony environs of Palm Beach Gardens, with a fortune that he describes as "being in the low eight digits." But that pleasure, he says, runs a distant second to this team, previously known as the Potomac Cannons, which he bought for $1.2 million in 1990. It is part of the eight-team Carolina League and, in its various incarnations during Silber's reign, has been affiliated with the New York Yankees, Chicago White Sox, St. Louis Cardinals, Cincinnati Reds and now the new Washington team, which has settled 30 miles north of Silber's operation and taken away a sizable portion of his ticket-buying fans, he says, which he is trying hard not to think about for a moment.

He gestures with his bat at the field and everything around it, staring out toward the advertising billboards that local companies and business owners have paid for on the outfield wall, where a blowup photo of a perky-looking blond real estate agent holding a well groomed dog smiles at him from right field. What would be declasse in the majors is campy art in the minors. It's Art Silber's world. "What's more beautiful than this?" he asks, taking a practice swing. "I knew I found what I wanted to do when I got this team. When I was a banker, I sometimes had the feeling people wanted to be around me only because I controlled money. I knew I didn't want that life forever."

That life wasn't always happy. Three marriages ended on the ash heap. Then, in 1995, the worst thing happened.

"E-six," he says. Error on the shortstop. The shortstop was him, and his error was in misreading life, which, as Silber can tell you, is sometimes the seemingly routine ground ball that takes a bad hop and cracks a man in the head. He had just retired, at 55, from his position as the president and CEO of a Baltimore bank, in part because people in his family died relatively early and he wanted to enjoy life while he still had the chance. Except that Silber couldn't foresee what being idle would do to him. He awakened in panic on his very first weekday in retirement, wondering who he was if not a banker. "I felt like I had died," he recalls. He began six months of psycho-logical counseling, and took a closer look at the little baseball team that he owned. "I had left it to others, but now I really plunged into it, got involved in marketing, and that was better therapy than anything. This was my new identity."

He glances toward the outfield, where a young player, horsing around, has flung a bat upward at a fly ball, like a hunter trying to take down a passing duck. Cackles out there. Silber laughs. "Where else does a guy my age get to hang around with 21-, 22-year-old kids?" he says, beaming. "Keeps you young."

But while he would feel lucky to spend a lifetime worth of Saturdays with the P'Nats, he knows that these players, without exception, would not -- that they want to be gone from Pfitzner as soon as possible, headed toward the majors. He roots for their escape, caring enough about players in the past to have pulled aside the most promising to tell them about flaws in their games, sometimes using the opportunity to dispense financial tips as well. "I want their lives to be better at the end of all this," he says, "because the game is hard." He aches for struggling players who are going nowhere, sometimes suggesting the possibility of new dreams to them. "Last year, when we were affiliated with the Reds," he recalls, "I went to a player who no longer was a real prospect but a very intelligent guy, and I told him that maybe it was time for him to start thinking of something else . . . that he could be a wonderful coach." He shuffles back into the cage and finds his batting stroke. He raps a line drive to left field.

From the outfield comes a collective gasp of surprise. "Whoooo!" shouts a player.

Silber hits a shot to centerfield.

"The man. You're goin' yard today, Art."

"Maybe we'll pencil you in the lineup tonight," manager Henley says with a smile.

Silber smashes one more liner before heading off to welcome fans at the entrance.

"I'm a lucky man," he says, wiping steam off those glasses. "I don't want to think about what it might ever mean to lose this."

Which is when he divulges he might be on the verge of losing it.

He is in a dispute with Major League Baseball and the Washington Nationals, which have the right under baseball's rules to demand that the P'Nats leave the Washington area, as any relocating major league club can claim the territory of a minor league team. "And they've made clear that they'll act on their right if I don't cooperate with them," Silber says. "They're threatening to boot my team."

When Art Silber offers his personal list of Potomac's top six prospects, one name not on it is Mike O'Connor, a 25-year-old lefthander, who is pitching in his fourth minor league season, and his second in high-Class A ball. "High" is not that high really, a full three rungs beneath the majors, which means that instead of living as a millionaire, he's playing at a salary not much above the poverty line. O'Connor makes about $1,500 a month. He shares an apartment with two other players during the season, and lives with his parents in the offseason to save what little money he has, including what's left of his modest $30,000 signing bonus, which he received when drafted by the Montreal Expos in the seventh round of the player draft three years ago.

The seventh round is not bad, but it is not where the elite prospects, the "sure things," are selected, with the difference in bonuses between the two groups amounting to hundreds of thousands and sometimes even millions of dollars for a player, leading O'Connor to work as a part-time trucker in the offseason to pick up some extra money. This season, when the insiders' Bible known as Baseball America published its latest rankings of the top talent in each organization, his name was again off the list. Worse, as the 2005 season began, O'Connor failed to move up to Double-A.

There are two classes of players in the minors. There are the golden prodigies guaranteed they'll be given numerous chances to fail before, they hope, making it to the majors. And then there is a Mike O'Connor and nearly everyone else. The fewer dollars invested in an O'Connor means that there is far less to lose for a team if, in the face of a disappointing season or two, he is cut loose, or becomes what is disparagingly known in baseball as an "organizational player," simply a warm body meant to fill out a roster so that the real prospects have games to play.

"The rule of thumb with even the better pitchers who are very good prospects," says Adam Wogan, the Washington Nationals' director of player development, "is that only one out of every five will make it to the majors."

Raised in Columbia, O'Connor attended George Washington University on a partial scholarship. There, he became the school's top reliever and late-inning closer, developing an excellent changeup. But he never possessed the gift that distinguishes most prodigies: a fastball clocked around 90 mph by radar guns. His place in the pecking order of young pitchers was decided.

His longtime girlfriend, 25-year-old Courtney Stuart of Bethesda, watches him pitch at Pfitzner Stadium on a lovely summer night against the Wilmington Blue Rocks of Delaware. It is the second inning, and Wilmington has a runner on base, with two outs.

O'Connor rubs his baggy jersey, which, characteristically, has fallen out over his pants, draping his gangly 6-foot-3, 180-pound frame. Then he throws a waist-high fastball down the middle, not exactly a great spot for a hurler without heat. The Wilmington hitter, second baseman Zach Borowiak, connects, and the ball takes off like a Titan rocket booster, headed somewhere in the direction of Delaware.

"Ouch," says a fan behind Courtney Stuart.

Two to nothing, Blue Rocks.

Stuart attends nearly all the home games that O'Connor pitches -- having shown up tonight in what she regards as her lucky outfit for O'Connor's games, creaseless white slacks and a black blouse. A financial analyst, she has a zest for details and order, and she has been trying to establish a financial plan with O'Connor that will ensure their long-term security together. "I'm a big planner when it comes to everything," she says. "My attitude is, 'What's our five-year plan? What will happen if you don't end up playing baseball? What's afterward?'"

They have put off marriage in favor of letting O'Connor's parents help him pay his bills for now. The uncertainty of the minors hasn't worn either of them down, Stuart says, but still, it is hard to be as excited about baseball these days as when O'Connor signed his first contract and the possibilities ahead seemed limitless.

She is sipping her beer and studying O'Connor, who gets hit hard in the seventh inning, allowing two more runs on two more high 85 mph fastballs. By the inning's end, O'Connor's evening is finished, with Potomac trailing, 5-2, on the way to losing. It has begun to rain. Stuart walks under the stands for shelter. "We need some runs," she says.

On another night, another pitcher, Anthony Pearson, experiences his own problems. He throws a fastball, and as soon as it leaves his hand he knows he's not going to be throwing another pitch in that game or maybe any other game for a long while. He's jerking around in pain as the trainer sprints out of the dugout toward him. Pearson is 23, and he's scared because his right elbow suddenly hurts like hell.

Please: no surgery, Pearson thinks.

A long time back, an official in the Washington Nationals organization once watched a few innings of work by Pearson -- a strong, hard-throwing, 6-foot-5 righthander -- and privately told a colleague that he thought he might have just come from watching the next Bob Gibson, the legendary St. Louis Cardinal Hall of Famer. But, since his 2002 arrival in the minors, Pearson has struggled with his pitching mechanics, having begun the 2005 season with a career minor league record of 1-16. Like so many young pitchers in A-ball, he is the athletic equivalent of an expensively engineered oil well that has yet to spout a gusher.

But he has a 93 mph fastball and showed a flash of promise in 2004 that organization officials haven't been able to forget -- a 19-inning streak of relief outings in which he gave up no runs -- before struggling again. Baseball America ranks him among the best of the Washington organization's righthanded relief prospects. Early this season, it looked as if 2005 might finally be Anthony Pearson's year. He entered games as a reliever for Potomac, and for lengthy stretches shut down hitters as if they were Little Leaguers. During a two-week stretch in May, with his fastball hitting both corners of the plate, he produced a series of eye-popping outings. He pitched two and two-thirds innings of one-hit, no-run ball against the Wilmington Blue Rocks from a muddy mound, and, a week later, threw four hitless innings against the Kinston (N.C.) Indians.

Now trouble has struck. Working in his longest relief stint of the year, pitching into his fifth inning of shutout ball against the Myrtle Beach Pelicans, Pearson feels this sharp pain coursing through his elbow. The trainer and coaches take him off the field.

In mid-May, doctors diagnose the problem as a strain, accompanied by inflammation around his elbow, and tell the relieved pitcher that he's going to be out of action for a while. But the timing of the injury is upsetting to Pearson, who is so far from where he wants to be. He relies on about $1,500 a month in salary, and stays with a Potomac Booster Club family kind enough to put him up along with some other ballplayers, a family so giving, he says, that he wants to succeed for them, too.

He knows, by now, that his dream has become their dream, and his friends', and his parents', and his younger brother's. He wants to keep helping his family. Three years ago, he gave his mother, who lives in his home town of Baton Rouge, a sizable portion of his $200,000 signing bonus after he was drafted in the fifth round. But his bonus money was always intended to be just the beginning. When he left Jackson State University in Mississippi his junior year, he had a plan: Be in the majors by 24 or 25, and return to school later to finish his courses and get his accounting degree. This season was to be the first one, he hoped, when his baseball career flourished.

July brings redemption for Mike O'Connor, who becomes the first Potomac pitcher to complete a nine-inning game, beating Lynchburg, 12-1. His parents are ecstatic, having made their regular one-hour trek from their Maryland home to see him on the mound. Ever since O'Connor dreamed of being a big league pitcher, his father, Tom, looked for ways to boost his youngest son's chances. He hired a former major league pitcher, Dave Boswell, to tutor the teenage Mike during the early '90s.

Mike rewards his father after the Lynchburg game by tossing a game ball up to him in the stands. A trophy.

Something happens on that midseason night: O'Connor's season turns around. He is on his way to winning four games in a row, and seven of his last nine decisions, while compiling the best record and ERA of any Potomac pitcher during that stretch. For O'Connor, the dream still has a strong pulse.

While the summer infuses O'Connor with optimism, it torments Art Silber, who feels the rift widening between himself and Major League Baseball. "Our attendance is down," he says; it's en route to a decline of 19 percent in tickets sold and distributed, according to Carolina League statistics. "This was inevitable from the instant the major leagues came into this area. It's wonderful for fans to have a major league team, but it's been hard on us. We're entitled, we believe, to compensation."

In the meantime, Major League Baseball argues to Silber and his attorneys that the rules governing compensation are unambiguous: Only minor league teams already ordered to surrender a territory are entitled to compensation. "They're telling us if we insist on pushing them about getting compensation for our losses then they'll boot us," Silber says, a point undisputed by Major League Baseball officials. He dreams of his two adult children inheriting the club someday. "If [baseball officials] boot us, all they need to do is compensate us for making us leave and find a new area," he says. "Except there's no adequate place for us anywhere else in the East. And I don't want to go anywhere else; I don't want to start over."

He worries that his plans for a new stadium might be doomed. He has been awakening at 3 in the morning and staring at ceilings. His wife, Lynn, is worrying he'll get sick. His stress is ballooning. "We're all, in our own way, trying to hang on in this game."

If the field at Pfitzner is filled with tense dreamers, the fans here are content with escape and levity. Where else but at a minor league ballpark can you win "Hairiest Back at the Ballpark"? Tonight, the man (or woman, for that matter) who goes out on the playing field and shows off the hairiest back will receive $2,500 of free laser hair removal treatments from a sponsoring doctor.

You need Pfitzner for Hairiest Back because only in the minors is the essential attraction part game, part carny and, thankfully shameless, a welcome relief from the heartbreak of players' failures. Earlier this season, a male employee of the P'Nats sashayed around the field in a Hawaiian grass skirt, a coconut bra and swim fins, and then raced a little kid around the Pfitzner bases for a free pizza. And not just any employee. The man in flippers was the general manager of the P'Nats, Jay Richardson, who is serving as master of ceremonies for Hairiest Back and standing on the infield now to introduce the contestants.

"Okay, everyone, we've got a real treat for you tonight," Richardson says, holding a microphone. He flashes his perpetually toothy smile. Richardson is a deeply tanned, shaven-headed 36-year-old who always looks slightly mischievous, like he is having the best weird day of his life. "Tonight, you'll witness something you'll probably never want to see again: five hairy men removing their shirts."

The crowd whistles and hoots.

Richardson's smile widens. He holds up a calming finger: Maniacs wait. "They'll remove their shirts," he says, "and the winner of Hairiest Back will be determined by fan applause."

The crowd keeps filing in. There are long lines at the ticket windows, with about 2,000 walk-up buyers tonight in the throng of 3,425, which is going to be about 1,400 fans over Pfitzner's home game average.

Richardson introduces the five contestants and instructs them to strip off their shirts.

It's showtime. He points at gray-haired, bespectacled contestant No. 2, and the man turns to show off a back that marks him as a direct descendant of Big Foot.

An excitable gasp comes from the crowd: "Ooooooooooh."

The rest of the contestants will get their opportunity to strut, but Richardson declares to rousing applause, "Number two is the slam-dunk winner."

Few job titles could be more misleading than Richardson's. A high-paid general manager in the major leagues commonly makes trades, bickers with agents and presides over the organization's farm system -- the job is nearly all baseball. Richardson has nothing to do with the baseball end of things, really -- no part in managing what the Potomac team does on the field, which is a matter left to Washington Nationals' officials. What Richardson does at Pfitzner is everything else, from handling promotions to keeping the stadium in one functioning piece.

He fixes and replaces the billboards on the outfield wall; he lays pellets in the clubhouse storage room in a sometimes futile attempt to keep mice out; he pulls the tarp on the field with his staff when it rains; he dreams up stunts for game nights; he lugs ice cream cases; picks up trash; squeegees wet walkways; and helps put up the tents in the outfield on Scout nights, when the P'Nats invite hundreds of Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts to the stadium (he even sleeps out on the field with the Scouts). And maybe all that fills about one-third of Richardson's hours on workdays.

On some nights, when he isn't done working until after 2 a.m. and knows he'll need to start doing it all over again in a few hours, he doesn't even bother going home to his wife and two children. He'll sometimes put a pillow down on the floor of his small office and crash there, get up at 6:30 and start looking around at the mess he needs to make right.

On the morning after the Fourth of July, he is up at first light picking up trash in the parking lot, which is a hellhole at this moment because a couple of thousand people, who couldn't get into the ballpark the night before when Pfitzner sold out all its 6,000 seats, came anyway to see the Pfitzner firework show. Sleepy, Richardson isn't particularly watching where he's going and steps in some vomit. He's wearing shades and grinning, light glinting off his skull, the rare man who can see a sublime absurdity to this scene.

He quickly inspects the field to see how the groundskeeping crew is faring. One of the clubhouse managers pops his head out of the dugout runway like a groundhog coming out of its hole. Richardson looks him over. "Did you wake up all right, Chuck?" Richardson asks him.

Chuck Watson squints and nods. "Uh-huh. I guess."

Richardson looks him over. "So I don't have to hit you in the head with a brick?"

"I'm good." Watson grabs the top of the dugout and stretches a little. "My father's still asleep though."

The 36-year-old Watson does the laundry and fixes a meal each day for the visiting players, cleaning the visitor's clubhouse as well. His 60-year-old father, Lou, does the same thing for the home club. Father and son live in Hampton Roads, Va., but sleep every night during each P'Nats homestand in the clubhouse, Lou on a pullout sofa and Chuck on the training table. Lou wears SpongeBob SquarePants boxer shorts. "I think that pretty much tells you everything you need to know," Richardson says to a visitor.

He loves this life, but the unforgiving schedule is tough on a family man. "It's been hard on my wife," Richardson says. "She works and also has to deal with the kids alone a lot. It put some strains for a while on our marriage. I'm sure she'd like it if I did something else."

He walks up to the top row of the stadium and, sitting down, looks out on the scene below, where Dottie Boone, a Booster Club member, is blowing soap bubbles. Sometimes people ask him what he wants to do next, and he never quite has an answer for that. Most of the Potomac staff aims to get somewhere else, like the players. The P'Nats' capable play-by-play broadcaster, 27-year-old Dan Laing, wants to become part of a major league team's announcing crew, trying to give his broadcasts the touches that he associates with the work of big-name announcers. He resonantly tells his Internet audience -- all 200 listeners -- that they are listening to "the Potomac Nationals' baseball network." On a road trip, he has the sonorous timbre of a pro when he says the team "will be coming home to face the Winston-Salem Warthogs." But "Warthogs" doesn't carry the ring of "Yankees." And when he obliges a player by broadcasting his personal message to a girlfriend -- "Norris to Ashley -- 'I miss you. I can't wait to see you.'" -- his ultimate destination feels even farther away.

Richardson may be the only one in the P'Nats organization not wanting his chance in the major leagues. He feels the weight of everyone else's hopes -- the players', the staff's -- and says, "I think I prefer this," meaning all this -- the soap bubbles floating up toward him, the public address announcer reciting the names of youth groups here today, that blonde real estate agent smiling upon the right-field billboard. He feels a pleasant fatigue settling in this Tuesday afternoon. He tilts his head back, soaks in the hot sun.

Although he has been rehabbing now for two months, pitcher Anthony Pearson is still sitting out. He has undergone an MRI and made three visits to doctors, who allowed him briefly in mid-June to test his arm. He stopped after a few tosses that day. His elbow still hurts.

It worries him a little more with each passing week. He goes home to the Centreville house of his Booster Club family, the Dizes, who live about 20 minutes from Pfitzner Stadium, in a six-bedroom house on a quiet cul-de-sac. Gary Dize is a lieutenant in a Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department, and a self-described "baseball nut," a moniker that aptly describes his wife, Kathleen, and 18-year-old daughter, Brittany, all of whom have hosted Potomac players for years. Recalling that his late father, William, was a minor league player during the '40s, in the St. Louis Cardinals organization, Dize says his motivation for helping the players is simple: "I love it that they're trying to make it somewhere big . . . the way my father tried. And I understand their time with us is limited, if things go right for them. Sometimes one of them will say, 'We'll see you again next time.' And I'll say, 'We don't want you to have to be here next season. We hope you'll get promoted.' We cook for them, try to do everything for them." Gary Dize says that serving as hosts has had only a slight effect on his family's budget and that the payoff for them has been far greater. "It [is] just so meaningful to help the players and be around them," he says.

The family speaks baseball-ese. Brittany notes that one of their houseguests from a previous season "had a cup of coffee in the Show," meaning a brief stay in the big leagues. The invading males quickly become a brood of grungy roomies to her, angling to use bathrooms first and snoozing for long hours. "Baseball every day is tiring," she says. The Dizes will have five Potomac players living in their house before the 2005 season ends, some sleeping in bedrooms, one on a couch and another upon an air mattress on a den floor. Pearson, who was the first player to arrive at the Dizes this season, has his own bedroom, and, like all the players there, enjoys the run of the house -- the TV, the VCR, the stereo and the well-stocked refrigerator. "It really helps to have people you can turn to, especially now," Pearson says.

He has come to rely on the Dizes for things big and small. If he needs a car, they'll loan him one of theirs. One day he goes to the ballpark and forgets one of his baseball shoes, and Brittany jumps in her car and rushes the missing cleats over to the stadium.

When the Dizes gently broach the subject of Pearson's injury, in hopes of hearing an encouraging report, he tells them that nothing's really changed.

The Dizes can feel his frustration. "It's a hard thing," Gary Dize says, "because the player never knows, but I'm hoping this whole thing has made Anthony stronger."

Pearson tries to be supportive of the other P'Nats while he waits out his rehab, taking his customary place on the bullpen bench down the right field line. But it's harder for him once a game starts. He looks for distractions while exhorting his teammates. All season long, young fans have leaned over the right field railing and tried prodding the relievers into giving them free baseballs. At Pfitzner, there is no such thing as a security detail, or a barrier, to keep players and fans apart.

"Come on, man," a kid yells one night. "Just one baseball."

Another kid chimes in: "Come on, 10. Come on, 29. Just a ball."

Pearson is number 29. He looks casually over his shoulder, chewing sunflower seeds in bunches. He thinks that if you give a ball to one kid, you'll be asked to give balls to 100 kids. This can't work. He tries tuning out the screams.

"Just one ball. Please."

At some point, he and a teammate come up with an idea. Soon, they've placed a blue soft drink cup about 10 feet from the railing.

Pearson turns to the kids. "If you can throw a quarter into the cup," Pearson tells them, "we'll give you a ball."

A half-dozen rabid kids are suddenly tossing coins. Quarters bounce off the cup, quarters rim the cup, but no quarter is going in, and no ball is being won. For the next hour, the kids toss their coins, quiet in their concentration, their jabbering altogether halted.

We've found a good game, Pearson tells his teammates.

Pearson's elbow slowly improves. In his return to the mound in July, he pitches one rusty inning and gives up two unearned runs, but he hurls a fastball at an encouraging 93 mph. "I'm relieved just to be back," he says. "I didn't have my rhythm . . . but I felt good."

Six nights later, he pitches in the eighth inning against Lynchburg and gets hit all over Pfitzner. He gives up five missile shots and four runs, and gets taken out without even being able to finish the inning. The next morning, he awakens in his room at the Dizes with elbow pain in a new spot. The ache slowly seems to be enveloping the elbow now. He keeps it to himself.

Two days later in Pfitzner, he pitches in pain for an inning against Salem and, from his first pitch, knows something is terribly wrong. Two days after that, Washington Nationals' minor league pitching coordinator Brent Strom pays Pearson a visit. Strom asks him how he feels, knowing from personal experience how difficult it can be for an injured player to truthfully answer that question: Strom hid his own elbow pain during his pitching career. Pearson says merely that he has a little ache, not resisting when Strom asks him to throw a few pitches on the sidelines. The session has lasted only a few minutes when Strom, noticing the marked decline in Pearson's velocity and the way he is gingerly holding up his arm between pitches, halts it. "I shut him down," Strom says later. "I've seen this before."

Your 2005 season is over, Strom tells Pearson.

The next day, Pearson undergoes an MRI and sees a doctor: He has a torn ligament in his elbow that will require "Tommy John surgery," in which a healthy ligament from another part of Pearson's right arm will be used to replace his damaged ligament. His rehab will last a year to 18 months.

Strom, Adam Wogan, and the doctors tell Pearson that the success rate for such surgery is very high nowadays, around 80 percent -- "success" meaning little more than that you're able to pitch afterward. The surgery is named after the major league pitcher who first benefited from it. "If you've had successful surgery, they call it 'Tommy John,' because Tommy won 288 games," Strom later jokes. Strom underwent the same surgery, but his arm never fully recovered. "If it's unsuccessful, they call it 'Brent Strom surgery,' because I only won 22 games before I was done."

Days later, Pearson receives a flight ticket and is told that he will have surgery in Alabama. "Hopefully, I'll get 100 percent healthy, maybe be better than before," he says. "That's what you have to tell yourself."

The Dizes are on the road for a series of P'Nats away games. Over the phone, Pearson tells them about the scheduling of his surgery, that he will need to leave before they get back. Pearson writes a note that he puts beneath a magnet on the Dizes' refrigerator: "Thank you, guys, for welcoming me into your house. I enjoyed my stay and everything was great . . . See you guys in D.C. soon. -- Ant"Alongside his signature, he draws a little heart.

While one of his promising pitchers begins a daunting rehab, Art Silber catches a big break in August. The dispute with Major League Baseball is over. Sources, who cite a confidentiality agreement between Silber and the Washington Nationals, say that the Potomac owner has received a onetime payment of a little more than $1 million, plus free in-game advertising for his team on the big club's TV and radio broadcasts.

Silber is greatly relieved, though still bitter over his dealings with MLB. "But you know what the important thing is?" he says. "We have a ballclub. And I'm going to be coaching first base."

In the minor leagues, where you commonly hear "he's a sure thing," the cold reality is that there are no sure things. But in this up-and-down year for the P'Nats, a gangly young man becomes one of Potomac's unlikely success stories. With summer fading and the swaying leaves showing their first orange flickers, Mike O'Connor pitches the game of his young life, throwing a two-hit shutout, in a 4-0 victory over the Kinston Indians. At least for a season, the seventh-round selection has outpitched the golden arms around him, and his father, usually so constrained in his praise and cautious about forecasts, cannot help but hope. It is not his child's chance at the majors that so moves him any longer. It is the memory of all it took to get to the little stadiums like Pfitzner, all the hot afternoons when his unheralded son tested himself against highly touted high school and college kids while the men with radar guns looked the other way. "A dream is a powerful thing down here," Tom O'Connor says.

Michael Leahy is a staff writer for the Magazine. He will be fielding questions and comments about this article Monday at 1 p.m. at