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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 fifteen other inhabitants of a four-room house with no running water (the family pumped it by hand), no heat (they chopped trees for fireplace fuel), little furniture and no indoor plumbing (they used an outhouse, checking carefully for snakes). Cracks in the splintered hardwood floor offered glimpses at the underlying dirt.
Now Stone lives in comfort, thanks to savings from the relatively modest salaries he earned during his eight-year major-league career (he never made more than $160,000 a year) and his twelve-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 ten-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 after leaving the game following the 1990 season, 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 his 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, fifteen 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."
"I couldn't believe they were that quick," Baldwin says as he reaches out from his reclining chair and affectionately pats Jerome on the back. "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 five-foot-six 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.
Jeff and Jerome Stone were born in Wardell the day after a muted Christmas celebration in 1960. They started playing sandlot ball at an early age, tossing each other rocks from the road and hitting them with a broomstick. When they weren't working in the cotton fields, they'd practice for hours, with only a daily can of pork and beans as fuel.
The brothers learned discipline at an early age. Lee and Eliza Stone ran a strict household, sometimes enforcing rules with a belt. Lee had a sixth-grade education, but he knew how to fix the family's pickup truck, which would haul the nine brothers and six sisters to games.
"He had common sense," Jeff says. "They raised us good."
By high school, Jeff was attracting attention as a pitcher with a 90-mile-an-hour fastball, but his career path changed when two Philadelphia Phillies scouts came to visit. Stopwatches in hand, they saw Jeff and Jerome dash through a plowed cornfield. Both high school juniors were wearing cleats -- and blue jeans. Still, they posted times comparable to college sprinters, with Jerome running one second behind his lankier brother.
Players with superhuman speed are much rarer than high-velocity hurlers, so Jeff moved from the pitcher's mound to the outfield, where he could track down anything within an acre. He signed his contract on a family friend's kitchen counter, with his father watching over his shoulder. "Son, I might not be here when you get back," Lee told him. Those were Lee's last words to Jeff, who was playing for a minor-league team in Bend, Oregon, when Lee died later that summer.