For nine years, Willie Royster has been trying to make it to the major leagues. For most of those nine years, he has known mostly bitterness and frustration.
Royster, now 27, was drafted in the 21st round of the amateur draft by the Baltimore Orioles following his senior year at Spingarn High in 1972. At that time, no one could have convinced him that by 1981 he would not be catching the offspeed fast balls of a Jim Palmer or sharing a room on the road with Eddie Murray or Ken Singleton.
"The game itself isn't tough, it's the politics and the other things you have to go through," said the 5-foot-11, 185-pound catcher, who has put in six of his nine years with the AA Charlotte Orioles. "I grew up with the basic philosophy the best athlete always won out. I found out that's not always true. I've seen a lot of guys come through here and move on to the majors. It's frustrating when you outperform a lot of people but they move on and you don't.
"(Oriole first baseman) Eddie Murray and I matched stats when he played in Charlotte in '74," Royster said."Now he's a millionaire and I'm still scuffling down here in the minors."
But despite the setbacks, the disappointments and the snubs, Royster still harbors the dream of making it, the same dream of all the young players selected in this year's draft. And, like the dozen or so Wasington area high school and college stars whose names now appear in the minor league box scores, he remains confident he can play in the big leagues -- if only he gets the chance.
Royster, one of the oldest players on the Charlotte team, is happy for the time being because he is finally getting the opportunity to play every day and prove to himself and the Oriole organization he is still a major league prospect.
The Oriole organization still believes Royster has a chance of getting to the majors.
"We can't put our finger or whether he'll make it this year or the next but we still consider Willie a chance prospect for us," said Tom Giordano, the Oriole director of player development and scouting. "By a chance prospect, we mean he's still got a decent shot. Right now, it's hard for him to get there with (Rick) Dempsey and (Dan) Graham catching. And there are a couple of good young catchers on the Rochester club. But things happen.
"Willie's got ability. He can still catch, throw and hits well at times. He's got a great attitude and if we didn't think he still was major league material, we wouldn't have re-signed him after his eye injury."
Five years ago, Royster was hit by a ball in the eye while practicing bunting and was released. After a year in the Pirate organization with a AA team and a summer in Veneuela, he was re-signed by Baltimore in 1977, but did not get the chance to play regularly in Charlotte. b
"I always hit the ball well and was a good defensive catcher," said Royster. "But after my eye injury, they wrote me off. Even when my eye healed and I still hit the ball well, I never got a chance. For my nine years, my average is around .280 and I always get my share of stolen bases.
"I hate to think it's because I'm a catcher and I'm black. There aren't any black starting catches in the majors."
Giordano scoffed at the notion that Royster has been held back because of his race.
"No way, the best people always will play," he said. "Willie's situation has absolutely nothing at all to do with color. Willie's a class person and is making a fairly good living now. The chance is still there for him."
Royster, who is married and has a son, is looked upon by his teammates and Mark Wiley, his Charlotte manager, as a leader.
"I played with Willie here before I became manager so I know what he is capable of doing," Wiley said. "The tools he possesses are envied by the younger players. I still think he is a genuine prospect despite his age. Once he gets to the majors, he'll do a fine job."
"At least I'm finally getting my chance to play every day," Royster said. "That's all I've ever wanted. Right now, I'm hitting about .260 with seven homers and 25 RBI. I played AAA in Rochester for a while last season and did well. But this year I was put back in AA. I just want my overall talent judged for what it is.
"This may be it for me. They're telling me I might be a good batting instructor later on. I can accept that if I was a .220 hitter and I would be ready to quit. But I'm going to prove to a lot of people, including myself, I can still play this game."
"The minors are a lot of ups and downs but if I don't think I could make it, I wouldn't be here," said outfielder John Denman, 24, a former player at Wheaton High School and American University and Royster's Charlotte teammate.
"I'm doing what I would like most to do for a living although I haven't got that big break yet. I've done everything they've asked of me and I feel I should have been on the AAA team this year. I can run and throw with the big leaguers and I've hit well enough to be there. I made the team but the numbers game hurt me and I was sent back to AA. There are a lot of good outfielders around."
Denman, who describes himself as a Pete Rose-type hitter, has a .282 batting averge for his three years in the minors. Drafted in the eighth round by the Orioles, the right-handed hitter didn't get off to the good start he hoped for this season. He went hitless in 36 consecutive at bats at one point earlier this year.
"I'm finally hitting the ball pretty good," he said. "I know I'm a good hitter, that's why I didn't get down on myself. They've (Orioles) told me to be patient but patience runs out. If I don't get to AAA either this year or next year, I might have to give it up."
Another Oriole draftee and member of the Charlotte club, Mark Smith, hurt his arm two years ago and very nearly quit.
"I was on the verge of giving it up but my family kept my spirits and encouraged me to try one more year," said Smith, 25, who starred at Wakefield, Ferrum JC and AU. "My first two seasons I did okay but then I hurt my arm. I missed the entire '79 season and threw maybe 4 pitches last year. I worked hard over the winter and right now the arm feels pretty good. I'm satisfied with my progress so far."
Smith's record is currently 2-3. He has an ERA of 3.00 with 51 strike-outs and 21 walks in 75 innings.
"He has that good fast ball and lately has been getting the innings in," said Wiley. "He's been plagued with arm trouble but appears on the verge of coming back. He's done well thus far."
Smith feels if he stays healthy he is "maybe one year away. I have to think that way. I've seen others not as quick or as good as I am make it, so I have to keep my hopes up. My success this year will determine what I do next year. After so many years in baseball, it's awfully hard to quit."
Quitting is about the last thing on former Marshall High School and Clemson pitcher Mike Brown's mind. The first pick of the Boston Red Sox three years ago, Brown is having an excellent season.
Currently the ace of the Class A Winston-Salem Red Sox, the 6-3, 200-pounder has an 8-1 record with an ERA of 0.06. He has allowed only 27 hits and five earned runs while striking out 87 in 75 innings. He recently set a league record for consecutive scoreless innings pitched, 41.
"I don't have a timetable for myself but I would like to advance to AA next year and AAA the following season," Brown said. "One step at a time. nI'm letting Boston run things. So far, it's been unbelievable. I'm pitching very well right now. I'm just 22 so I have no complaints with my progress."
Originally drafted in the 17th round by Atlanta while a senior in high school, Brown decided to pass up the offer and attend Clemson.
"I went to college because I wasn't ready to settle down to one sport for money," said Brown. "I was a three letter man in high school and I planned to play baseball and punt in college. But I never punted once as it turned out. So after my junior year, I signed. The money was right that time. I just want to stay healthy and keep my fast ball down. It takes time but I plan to make it."
Neil Simon, a former Peary and Clemson outfielder and a 14th-round pick of the Houston Astros, also is in no hurry. Assigned to the Daytona Beach Astros A club, the 6-foot, 175 left-handed batter had a successful debut in rookie ball last year and has gotten off to a good start this year.
"It's very frustrating to move up quickly only to get sent back down," Simon said. "I'm satisfied moving up one step at a time. Of course, if you spend too many years in one place, that can be frustrating, too. It's rough and I don't want to get in over my head too fast. Baseball got me through college so I have no complaints. The majors is a longshot but I got time. The only difference between me and a major leaguer is about 500 or 600 games. That experience is so important."
Simon says the money he's making now, about $800 a month, is just enough to survive on.
"I'm in no position to argue about money right now," he said. "But I'm a lot more confident this year and I can see improvement. But you have to improve each year to even have a shot at the majors. And, I've found out it's not just stats alone. You have to have the right attitude, habits and everything. Even if you're good enough, you still have to get that big break and some people have to be moved around and out."
Too many good young players at one position may be the one deterrent that keeps former Magruder and Howard star Milt Thompson from breaking into the Atlanta Braves' outfield. Thompson is definitely a prospect, according to John Barrows, (AA) Savannah Braves assistant general manager, but "right now, we're loaded with good outfielders.
"In the next couple of years, the filtering out process will take some of them away," Barrows said. "There's no place for him to go but he's improving. He's not the fastest base runner we have here but he's the smartest."
Signed in 1979 after one year at Howard. Thompson, 22, has hit the ball well when he isn't striking out. He batted .310 in rookie ball in Kingsport, .290 at Durham and .299 at Savannah last year. In his three seasons, Thompson has stolen 87 bases.
"I walk a lot but I still strike out a little too much," Thompson said. "It's something I just have to keep working on. I'm the leadoff hitter and my job is to get on base. I have to make contact with the ball. Not many people get this opportunity and you have to take advantage of it. Baseball is a very grueling job and you have to play well all the time or you don't advance.
"I hope to progress each season. Right now, I'm ahead on my progression chart but I know I have to keep improving. Hopefully in two more years, I'll be in the majors."