Most of the year, Troy Fullwood teaches high school algebra in Newport News, Va. But each April the school releases him, allowing Fullwood to chase his real dream job: becoming a major league baseball umpire.
Already a minor league ump, Fullwood is as proud of his blue uniform as the Potomac Cannons are of their purple pin stripes when they take the field in Prince William County. Unknown to many fans, umpires often share the players' wish to move up to the major leagues. And not just the umps--"Southpaw," the mascot for the Lynchburg, Va., Hillcats, recently auditioned for a promotion.
"Minor league baseball is unlike any other job," says Fullwood, 27, one of two umpires who worked a recent game for the Cannons, an entry-level farm team for the St. Louis Cardinals. "I mean, I'm a teacher, but not every teacher wants to be a principal. Here, everyone's goal--from the scorekeeper to the announcer to the trainer to the players--is to try and make the Show."
It's Prince William's version of "Bull Durham."
For their shot at the big time, they leave behind wives, girlfriends, friends and family. In return, they get meager pay (about $1,100 a month for first-year Cannons, slightly more for umpires) and little down time (140 games in 149 days, not counting playoffs). Fullwood drives town to town, but the players and others are cooped together for long bus trips to games in Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina.
"If you ask every one of them whether they think they'll make it, they'll say 'yes' or they wouldn't be doing this," says Cannons pitching coach Mark Grater, 35, who played in nine major league games before injuring his neck.
The Washington area's three minor league teams boost community identity and spirit in Prince William, Bowie and Frederick and fill something of a void for baseball-starved fans still mourning the loss of the Washington Senators in 1971.
Tom Hyland, a Cardinals fan for 56 of his 67 years, puts up Cannons players in his Centreville home during the season to help them financially--and for the excitement of befriending fledgling Cardinals. He tracks their progress at spring training in Florida and at their various stops after Prince William. It gives him a connection to the game he loves.
Peggy DeNeane, 60-plus, rings a cowbell at Cannons games, her bare feet propped up on the bench in front of her. "I just like watching future major leaguers," the Manassas woman says.
For youngsters, the thrill is the same as watching a big league game. Maybe more so, since they can actually get up close to these Boys of Summer, their hometown heroes.
"To these kids, the players might as well be Cal Ripken," says Bruce Adams, of Bethesda, who has visited 75 minor league parks for a baseball travel book. "The kids could never have that intimate experience with a player at the major league level. Minor league players are still dreaming, and that dream stage is a delightful time to engage them. They're not cynical yet."
But they are realistic. Prince William is just a pit stop in their run at stardom. They play 30 miles from the nation's capital, yet they see more of Potomac Mills than they ever do of the Washington Monument or other downtown tourist attractions.
"Part of the problem is the guys play so late," Hyland says. "After the game, they're still hyper. They go out, maybe get something to eat and stay up. Then they sleep late, so there's not much time to be in the community."
The fans want a winning season. The players and umpires want to do well. The announcer and the mascot want to be noticed. Everyone has a dream.
Scott Kennedy has seen his girlfriend eight times since March. He left her and his $3,000-a-month job as administrative aide at a Kentucky law firm to try to become a major league umpire. For six months, he and Fullwood share long car rides, meals and hotel rooms.
Before a recent Cannons game, Kennedy rubbed mud onto slick new baseballs so the players could grip them. It's a long way from Cooperstown, but . . .
"I was wanting to be part of the game, you know, put on the uniform," says Kennedy, 26, who's in his third year of umpiring, making about $1,400 a month. His brother is in his fifth year, while their dad, who umpired at the college level, is back home, living the sporting life through his sons now.
Ten percent of the 100 students in Kennedy's class at umpire school made it to the minors. Now comes the hard part. Kennedy is one of about 230 minor league umps competing for the two or three openings each year in the majors. It can take as long as eight years just to reach Class AAA, the top of the minors.
Along the way, umpires suffer the verbal stings of angry fans and players and the physical abuse of baseballs pinging off their bodies. A recent Cannons-Frederick Keys game was halted for 22 minutes while medical personnel attended to an umpire who got smacked in the groin by a foul tip.
There's also the matter of evaluations. An umpire's future can come down to the four games each season at which evaluators show up, unannounced, to grade them.
"You work every game as if you're being evaluated because the day you're lazy, they might be there," Kennedy says.
Out on the field an hour later, Fullwood calls a Cannon out on a close play at first and then ejects him for arguing. The players and home crowd go nuts.
"It goes in one ear and out the other," Kennedy says. "If I let it affect me, I'd be a vegetable."
The inspiration came to Mike Antonellis at Fenway Park, one of baseball's holy places. He'd been to countless Red Sox games as a kid growing up near Boston and listened to many more on the radio.
"After a while," he recalls, "I said, 'I want to be part of this game.' "
Antonellis hopes to sit one day in a major league broadcast booth. Now 26, he, too, is starting out with the Cannons, wearing multiple hats as the team's radio announcer, director of media relations, advertising salesman and billboard putter-upper.
As the Cannons' voice, Mike at the mike is expected to be a "homer," building up the home team at the expense of whoever the opposition may be. His accent has traces of Back Bay Bah-ston and urban-country Prince William, a voice in progress.
Minor league announcers make $15,000 to $20,000 a year. Like the players he covers, Antonellis dreams every night from $60 hotel rooms.
"We're pretty much in the same boat," he says. "If I went to the major leagues, I wouldn't have a care in the world."
What the players do each night can be read in the next day's box score. Here's Antonellis's challenge: He broadcasts on WAGE-AM, a Loudoun County station whose signal is so weak after sunset that the Cannons' games can't be picked up in their own stadium.
Elvis Night is over. The King has left the ballpark.
So have the sky divers who parachuted in before and after the game and the Italian ice vendor from the local Methodist church. The moon bounce at the children's playground has gone flat.
Outside the visitors clubhouse at the stadium in Frederick, Meghan Crowder waits patiently. She has known Cannons first baseman Billy Deck since he was All-Met at Potomac High School in Prince William; they've been dating for seven months.
Crowder, 21, a student at the University of Virginia, took a summer job in Seattle and has seen Deck, 22, only a few times.
"It's tough being a girlfriend," she says as Deck emerges and the two embrace. "He's always on the road, it seems. We try to talk on the phone when we can. . . .
"I think he wants this dream so bad he can taste it. He is very realistic," she deadpans. "I mean, first base for the Cardinals?" (As in, move over, Mark McGwire.)
Crowder is among the legion of family and friends sharing the dreams of the players, umpires, trainers and announcers throughout the minors. In Kentucky, Scott Kennedy's father, Russ, checks the Internet every morning for the results of the games his sons umpire. In Arkansas, junior high school principal Jim Franks does likewise for his son, Cannons pitcher Lance Franks, 24.
Lance carries a family's dreams in his pitching arm. His grandfather was in the minors for 10 years, and his dad pitched and coached in college. "I live through him because I didn't get a chance to play professionally," says Jim Franks, 49, of Russellville, Ark.
After the younger Franks mowed down the Winston Salem Warthogs during a recent two-inning stint, the Cannons manager e-mailed the Cardinals' farm team director: "Six up and six down. Right at 'em. Good job."
August is when the pressure builds. The season wraps up on Sept. 5, and players are trying to finish strong before new farm club rosters are drawn up over the winter. An impressive close now can make the difference between another summer in Prince William or perhaps advancing up baseball's rungs to Class AA or AAA.
"It's really important for me to show progress," says Jason Navarro, 24, a pitcher from New Orleans. "If you have a good month and then go into spring like that, they can say, 'This guy's found it.' "
The chance of a guy "finding it" and then converting it into a big-bucks career is slim at best. Of the 6,500 minor leaguers today, only about 10 percent will ever play even a single major league game. Cannons manager Joe Cunningham, 36, a former minor leaguer whose dad was a star in the majors for 12 years, said one or two players from this summer's team could make the Cardinals. Cunningham dreams of being a Cardinals coach or manager.
Everyone knows it is a long shot.
"Oh, it affects you. You want to make it, but the odds ain't in your favor," says Bryan Rupert, 24, a catcher out of Green Cove Spring, Fla.
"But you can't let that affect you," Franks interjects. "I don't throw hard or look impressive. But if you go out and get the job done, there's always a chance."