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Field of Broken Dreams

For a one-time major-league prodigy Jeff Stone, a return to the bootheel was only natural.

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To find the best baseball story in Missouri, you must drive roughly 6 hours southeast from Kauffman Stadium, where a struggling team sheds salary, or 3 hours south from the home of the St. Louis Cardinals, whose first-place run has galvanized the game's self-described best fans.

After a numbing stretch of highway billboards for historic downtowns and quaint, country-cooking eateries ("home of the throwed rolls" -- thrown would be too city-slicker), you'll reach Wardell, population 258. There, tastefully appointed trailers, generously spaced among fields of cotton, soybeans and rice, share rural territory with rusty, corrugated-tin-roof shacks.

And you'll find Wardell's most accomplished resident, one-time major-league outfielder Jeff Stone.

Living in a tidy, brick house next to the trailer owned by his twin brother, Jerome, Stone hasn't exactly come full circle. That would mean sharing space with 15 other inhabitants of a 4-room house with no running water (the family pumped it by hand), no heat (they chopped trees for fireplace fuel), little furniture, no indoor plumbing (they used an outhouse, checking carefully for snakes) and cracks in the splintered, hardwood floor that offered glimpses at the underlying dirt.

Now Stone lives in comfort, thanks to savings from the relatively modest salaries he earned during his 8-year major-league career (he never made more than $160,000 a year) and his 12-hour shifts as an inspector at a steel mill in Blytheville, Arkansas. He has fulfilled the promise he made to himself as a teenager, when he worked 10-hour days chopping cotton for food money and played American Legion baseball at night before coming home to share a bed with four, sometimes five brothers: "I ain't going to live like this."

But it took more than financial security to ensure Stone's peace. For years, he couldn't watch baseball, couldn't keep in touch with his teammates or discuss his playing days with the curious children who waited outside his house to hear about what it was like to play with Pete Rose, Mike Schmidt, Cal Ripken, Ozzie Smith and Roger Clemens.

"I felt really angry," Stone says in a soft-spoken drawl. "I didn't want anything to do with baseball. This was the only place I could get the game out of my system."

Now, after a significant stretch of silence, Stone is ready to tell his story. He's willing to relive a period of his life dominated by the oppressive frustration of unfulfilled potential and perceived injustice. He has been haunted for years, but he's finally free of the specter.

An elderly desk clerk at a motel in Portageville, 15 miles north of Wardell, isn't sure why her establishment is called the New Orleans Inn. The decorations strewn across the lobby are vaguely Bayou-themed but offer no additional clues. She is, however, familiar with the entire population of the neighboring city, her hometown.

"Who are you here to see?" she asks. "Jeff and Jerome? I know them. Black boys."

She says it matter-of-factly. It's the same tone of voice that Stone family friend Jeff Baldwin later uses to deliver a Jimmy the Greek-style diatribe about the twins' speed.

"I couldn't believe they were that quick," Baldwin says as he reaches out from his reclining chair and pats Jerome on the back affectionately. "I know you black fellers are quick because you've got all those extra muscles, but you ain't that black."

Such insensitive remarks don't rattle Jerome, a jovial 5-foot-6-inch high-school coach with an easy smile and a loud laugh. "There was no racism, nothing like that at all," Jerome says as he steers his Ford Explorer out of Baldwin's driveway and onto Wardell's lone thoroughfare. "Around here, everybody knows everybody. Everybody likes everybody," he says as he cruises past a mobile home with a massive Confederate flag covering its windows.

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