There are tennis courts just beyond the right field wall of the Hagerstown Suns' field, and a busy road runs past the tall center field wall 375 feet from home plate.

Three weeks ago, Larry Sheets arrived to play baseball with the Class A Suns of the Carolina League. He had been away from the game for more than a year so he took extra batting practice whenever he could.

Manager Grady Little pitched to him one day. But first Little, with an eye toward conservation, collared a ballpark hanger-on, a youngster of 12 or so who was shagging flies. "You go out there," said Little to the kid, "for about 15 minutes or so. Then you can come back."

The boy ambled through the Suns' offices, out the door, took a left and got in position to field Sheets' shots.

Outside the wall.

Larry Sheets has the capacity to lose baseballs. "He's a big, strong kid and he has the knack to the get the right kind of spin to hit the ball a long way," Little explained around a chew of tobacco.

"He hit a foul ball his first day back that went over those lights," the manager added, gesturing toward right field. Little was not gesturing at any ballpark lights. He was gesturing at the tennis court stanchions.

"I think we're talking about 550 feet."

Baseball scouts don't run every day into young men who can hit a baseball 550 feet. Thus the Baltimore Orioles organization was buoyed by the signing of Sheets out of high school in Staunton, Va., in 1978. "Every scout who has ever seen him has come away raving about him," General Manager Hank Peters of the Orioles told Sports Illustrated.

But it's been a rough and rocky road since then as Sheets, a serious man with strong ties to the Methodist church, wrestled with stormy personal decisions that kept him out of baseball more than he was in it.

He played rookie league that first year at Bluefield, W. Va., hit .267 and led the league in runs batted in. But he found the life of a baseball player less than uplifting and the next spring did not report to training camp, choosing instead to stay at Eastern Mennonite College in Harrisonburg, Va.

"After high school I hated the idea of college," Sheets said. "But after one year (at Bluefield), I realized there were some other things in life besides baseball."

Sheets did rejoin the Bluefield team for the final three games of the 1979 season, but in 1980 failed to report in the spring. Then he joined the Bluefield club in June. "All he did that year," said Orioles publicist John Blake, "was hit .379 with 14 homers and 47 RBI in 37 games." The home run total led the league, though Sheets played only a little more than half the season.

Last year he did not report to Hagerstown, where he was assigned, and the only ball he played was softball on a club team.

So it stood until early this May when Sheets, now 22 years old, contacted Little and worked out a return to the Orioles organization.

He's not saying why, except that he has completed more than three-fourths of his physical education studies at Eastern Mennonite, can see "the light at the end of the (academic) tunnel," and was beginning to hear echoes from his future.

The echoes were of an older Larry Sheets, he said, "sitting behind a desk, wondering, 'What if?' "

He decided to play ball and give it a total commitment. "I'm proud of Larry," said Little, who managed him in his torrid year at Bluefield. "He made up his mind and he's going after it right now."

Sheets says the only thing he's thinking about is baseball. "As far as what's happened in the past, that's in the grave and I don't even want to bring it up," he said. "It was time to do one thing or the other. It was now or never."

He said his age began to prey on his mind. "I saw rookies 20 and 21 in the bigs. I'm 22 and able. That's a fact."

He felt his convictions beginning to sway this spring, Sheets said, when he helped as an assistant baseball coach at school. "That was the first time since I was out (of professional ball) that I had to do it every day. I started to see anxieties about wanting to go back."

In May a former teammate stopped in to see Sheets on his way to report to Hagerstown. Sheets told the player to mention to Little that "if he has an opening I might be looking." Little did not keep him waiting.

Sheets' goal is to reach the major leagues in a year or two. He is hitting .214, with two home runs and five RBI so far. But he also comes to the ballpark early and begs whomever he finds there to hit him flies and pitch him extra batting practice. Last Sunday, he hit his first home run in almost two years, against the Alexandria Dukes.

He's a baseball player but he doesn't swear, smoke, drink or tell dirty jokes, which sets him apart.

"It's hard on him," said the Suns' radio announcer, Bruce Robins, who travels with the team. "On the bus everybody's drinking beer and everything is (unprintable) this and (unprintable) that. He just sits there by himself."