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Bobbing for big dreams in Walla Walla

WALLA WALLA, Wash. -- The cut-out panel for the ninth inning on the hand-operated wood scoreboard at Borleske Stadium leaves a frame little more than a foot wide and two feet high. But that's big enough for me to peer through and see a field of dreams so vivid James Earl Jones would get laryngitis describing them all.

This fertile region grows everything from wheat to grapes to onions, and pretty much everyone is planting their own dreams here, hoping they'll take root. The general manager sitting behind home plate dreams of running a major league team. The young man in the play-by-play booth dreams of calling games for a top pro team or a big Division I school. The enology and viticulture student running the concessions dreams of operating a world-class winery. Even Sweet Lou, the giant onion mascot, is dreaming up routines for next season.

Baseball provides myriad jobs and careers, some lifelong, some as temporary as a winning streak, some obscenely high-paying, others far more modest. When I ask the scoreboard operators how much money they're earning, they respond that it's probably "about minimum wage." I'm not sure whether that means they don't know or they simply don't care because they enjoy the job. "It's awesome. I love this so much," Ty Hafen says while gazing through the vacant ninth-inning panel. "There's no better summer job than this."

Of course not. His office is a scoreboard in a ballpark. Outside of baseball, who else goes to work in a park? Yes, forest rangers, but they have to worry about angry grizzly bears mauling them. That's not much of a risk in baseball, especially with Lou Piniella retiring after the season.

"This summer has been nothing but happiness," says Walla Walla pitcher Brian Biagi. "You eat good. You relax during the day, get a routine going, come to the ballpark, run around and chase balls during batting practice and you're just happy. There's something wrong with you if you're not happy out here."

He's right about that. I've rarely enjoyed an evening of baseball as much as I do this night, and only partly because I win the onion-bobbing contest.

I've covered baseball all over the world, on four continents (North America, Europe, Asia and Australia) and in eight countries (including, of course, Red Sox Nation); in democracies (the United States, Canada and Japan), communist regimes (China and Cuba) and in totalitarian dictatorships (Buck Showalter's Diamondbacks); from Little League to the majors (and, in the case of Pittsburgh, sometimes it's been both). And yet there really is no need to travel the globe because I can also find baseball at virtually every level right in my backyard.

The Mariners play in Seattle, where Ken Griffey Jr.'s career began 21 years ago and ended this summer. Forty-five minutes away in Tacoma, home of the Triple-A Rainiers, there are prospects coming up (Dustin Ackley and Michael Pineda) as well as prospects going down. Up the road a half-hour are the Everett AquaSox, a Class A short-season team with which many players begin their professional careers. A short ferry ride to Vancouver Island in British Columbia are the Victoria Seals, who play in the independent Golden Baseball League, where already dead careers look for resurrection.

And I will stop at each, meeting everyone from players earning $15 million a year to umpires earning $60 a game.

The first stop is here in the southeast corner of Washington state, where the Walla Walla Sweets are in their first year, playing on the same diamond where Hall of Famers Ozzie Smith and Tony Gywnn once played, as well as actor Kurt Russell and quarterback Drew Bledsoe. It's also where Walla Walla's baseball team once was managed by Cliff Ditto, perhaps the most serendipitous managerial name in baseball history.

Walla Walla lost its minor league team after 1983 (it drew 9,000 fans for the entire season) but baseball returned this summer with the West Coast League, a wood-bat summer league for college players. The Sweets are owned by a five-person group that includes former major leaguer Jeff Cirillo and are named for the famous Walla Walla sweet onion. Sales are brisk for merchandise adorned with perhaps the best logo in American sports. Yet the club had neither a name nor a phone number early last fall, so if you wanted to contact its office, you called 31-year-old general manager Zachary Fraser's personal number or sent him an e-mail.

In other words, Fraser had his work cut out for him (sliced into 18-hour workdays) when he moved his wife, JoLynn, and their two children to a community he knew only as the hometown of Bledsoe and the site of the state prison. He was pleasantly surprised by a downtown crammed with renovated buildings -- many housing tasting rooms for the area's 120-plus wineries -- reminding him of the town in "Back to the Future."

The most appealing part of Walla Walla, however, was the chance to get back into baseball.

"I've done a lot of other things in sports but I don't want to do anything else going forward -- I want to stay in baseball," Fraser says. "I want to run a major league baseball team. I want to be happy and work in baseball. And just like any other person in baseball, I want to get to the major leagues. But if I spend the rest of my life working here, that's OK. I love it, my wife loves it. We have great friends. And it's fun to have ultimate control over a franchise, from the look of the uniforms to the catchers we sign."

Fraser and his staff have grown an astounding crop in just one year. From the logo to the concessions there is a level of thought and detail that would be impressive in the highest minor leagues. Sweet Lou, the team mascot, wears a $5,000 costume that is worth every penny. The Onion World stand grills a sweet onion sausage so tasty I was ordered to buy one by a pourer at the lofty Pepper Bridge Winery. The patio area serves a delicious local pale ale for $4 and a delightful local riesling for $4.75. Andrew Allegretta, a recent Syracuse graduate, provides play-by-play.

"I've learned I can survive a nine-day road trip should I get a minor league baseball job and be on a bus for 10 hours," Allegretta says. "And I also think I got a lot better at play-by-play."

While the teams must dress in the locker room of a former municipal swimming pool beyond the outfield, Borleske Field has undergone significant upgrades. Most notably, there is the new scoreboard in left field, which was built in the spirit of an Amish barn-raising through a joint effort of Walla Walla Community College (construction), Walla Walla University (engineering) and Whitman College (foundation). The community has also supported the team with crowds averaging nearly 1,500 a game, best in the league.

"This has been like a professional experience," Biagi says. "For summer ball, it's beyond your dreams."

To preserve their college eligibility, the players earn no salary but do receive meal money on road trips and are set up with host families who provide rooms and well-stocked refrigerators. Well, perhaps not so well-stocked anymore. Debbie Dumont estimates that catcher Elliot Stewart and outfielder Denver Chavez go through five dozen eggs a week. And those are free-range chicken eggs.

Not that she or her husband, Jim, mind. They say they've loved hosting the players and Jim is simply returning the favor a family provided him decades ago when he played for the Humboldt (Calif.) Crabs, the country's oldest continually operated semi-pro baseball team. "We picked up more girls with that script 'Crabs' written across our chest," he recalls fondly.

While he and I ponder whether you can pick up more women with Crabs or Sweets, Stewart extends his hitting streak to a dozen games and judiciously maintains the hole in his pants. He ripped the pants early in the streak and is refusing to sew the tear while the streak is still alive. "They wanted to patch them up, and I'm like, 'No way are you touching my pants.' If they're clean, I'm wearing them. You gotta respect the streak."

Stewart's plan is to return to Cal Poly in the fall, perhaps catch the attention of some scouts and get drafted. He simply wants to go as far as his baseball career will take him. "I know I don't want to be in an office for any time in my life," he says.

Fans of old Saturday morning cartoons might recognize Walla Walla as the home of the fictional Acme Company that supplied Wile E. Coyote with the various ludicrous equipment used in futile attempts to catch the Road Runner: the Acme rocket sled, the jet-powered skates, the giant firecracker, the dehydrated boulders, etc. Trying to reach the major leagues from here offers about the same percentage of success as a coyote catching a bird with jet-powered skates. The odds against making the majors are astronomical for the players, and Fraser acknowledges that "it's not a great career path from summer leagues to the majors" for a general manager, either.

But so what? Every year new players and personnel DO make it to the majors -- Walla Walla pitcher Jacob Overbay needs to look no further for inspiration than his older brother, Lyle, of the Toronto Blue Jays. "I don't know what the statistics are but it's really rare, just to get drafted," Jacob says. "But Lyle is living proof that it can happen. So I figure, just keep working hard and keep improving, and it can happen."

Besides, regardless of where the road leads, whether it is the major leagues or the longest, most uncomfortable bus rides in the lowest minors -- it is baseball and, as Stewart would tell you, that always beats working behind a desk filing TPS reports.

The Sweets are growing baseball here and even Sweet Lou, the giant onion mascot, is growing with them, peeling off an admittedly shy personality to reveal a talent for performing in public. Sweet Lou has no plans to follow the road of professional mascots, but you never know -- the giant onion is already dreaming up routines for next summer.

Baseball is like that. It plants seeds that just keep growing.

"I'm already living the dream of a lot of people," Fraser says. "I've had people making four times as much money as I do come up and say, 'I wish I had your job.' I enjoy my job. And at the end of the day, I get to come to the ballpark to work."

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.