Willie Royster walked casually through the Charlotte Orioles' locker room recently after completing the best season of his nine-year minor league career. He began packing for his trip home to Northeast Washington, perhaps for good this time, when he received some unexpected joyous news.
"We lost on a Monday night and missed making the playoffs. I was putting my equipment away when the manager (Mark Wiley) told me my season wasn't over yet," said Royster, who has spent the last four seasons catching for Charlotte, a AA farm club affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles. (In nine years in the minors he had 87 homers, 415 RBI and 134 stolen bases.)
"He said the Orioles had purchased my contract and wanted me to report right away. I told him he had to be kidding and the only way I would get in that stadium was to buy tickets.
"He said he wasn't kidding. I couldn't believe it. I had no idea I would be called up. I wasn't even on the 40-man roster at the beginning of the season," said Royster. "You know I was excited about getting up there, but I asked to report a day late. The Oriole scout who signed me, Dick Bowie, died that week and I wanted to attend the funeral. They said fine."
Any other day, Royster, 27, would have run full speed from Charlotte to Baltimore. He had become somewhat bitter spending the last nine years floundering in the minor leagues and began to wonder if he would ever get the opportunity to play in the big leagues.
"I never lost faith in myself. I know I can still play but I had some doubts if I would make it in this organization," said Royster, who is married and has one child. "This was a great year for me, 31 homers, 88 runs batted in and 56 stolen bases, all new club records. I hit about .270.
"But I had the understanding I would probably remain with Charlotte and work with the young players, perhaps go into coaching. I wasn't sure I wanted to do that because I felt I could still play major league baseball. I might be here for the ride, but it sure feels good."
Royster, chosen in the 21st round of the amateur draft following a successful athletic career at Spingarn High School, spent the early part of his first night in Baltimore two weeks ago soaking up the atmosphere in and around Memorial Stadium's dugout and the locker room.
"There's a big, big difference up here," Royster said. "I can drink a few cokes without putting my money in the machine. When I got here, everyone welcomed me and made me feel at home. I played with some of the guys a few years ago. They told me to pick out a pair of shoes, a uniform and a glove. Go out and shag flies and take some swings in the cage."
Royster knew the chances of his playing much, if at all, were slim. But he didn't care.
"I'm not coming here with a screwed-up attitude, I don't expect to play much. I was told I would do a little pinch running," Royster said. "Sure, I might play some if someone breaks a leg or arm or something. I realize the man (Manager Earl Weaver) has his set lineup. He's never seen me play and can't take a chance with his team in a pennant race. If we play a game that's one-sided, I might play."
Royster's biggest surprise of all came in the sixth inning of the first game he was eligible to play two weeks ago. Oakland led Baltimore, 10-0, and Weaver decided this was as good a time as any as any to rest Rick Dempsey, his regular catcher, and take a look at his enthusiastic rookie.
"I was kicking around in the (bull)pen and they called me to the dugout," Royster said. "I didn't expect that. I thought I would be a little tight but I felt comfortable. After the second pitch (which rolled past Royster to the backstop), I had no problem behind the plate."
Royster didn't fare as well at the plate, striking out twice swinging. So far, he is hitless in three times at bat, and spends most of his time in the bullpen warming up the pitchers.
He may or may not get another chance to play," Weaver said the night of Royster's debut. "I know he's my man on the bases because of his speed. That's one reason he's here."
Pinch running for the likes of a Singleton, Dauer or Dempsey wouldn't bother Royster at all.
"My speed is still good, 6.6 in the 60, and my body is in excellent shape," Royster said. "But mainly, I'm enjoying this. Actually, I'm looking forward to visiting a lot of parks."
Now that he has a taste of the good life, is Royster still considering quitting baseball?
"Well, I plan to play winter ball in Venezuela and I doubt if I would go back to AA ball," he said. "I got a chance to play and you know I want to play again now. I like it here."