To find the best baseball story in Missouri, you must drive roughly three hours south from Busch Stadium, where the Cardinals' 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 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."
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 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.
This type of down-home transaction, a father and son negotiating a modest bonus in a country kitchen, couldn't happen today, even in Wardell. DirecTV satellite dishes protrude from the roofs of even the most humble dwellings. Agents use Internet scouting services to track down promising prospects, regardless of where they are.
"The whole world is more sophisticated now because of the communications media," says Phillies scout Jerry Lafferty. "But we're still looking for athletes like Jeff Stone and developing them. Boy, if I could find another Jeff Stone, that would be great."
Jeff's story serves as inspiration for gifted athletes in small towns throughout the region, from Belton to Boonville to Braggadocio. If someone could find Jeff Stone 25 years ago, without cell-phone tips or e-mail leads, someone can definitely discover the next Jeff Stone now.
"I want to show kids that you can make it in this area," Jeff says. "I hope I made a big impression."
He made a huge impression on the Phillies within his first few years in the minor-league system. He was Player of the Month in August 1981, an All-Star in 1982 and Player of the Year in 1983. He stole more than 90 bases in three consecutive seasons, including a then-record 123. He struck out a lot, but when he made contact, he had a decent chance to make it on base safely, even when he just grounded a lazy roller into a fielder's glove.
The ballparks got bigger, but in Jeff's eyes, the pitches still seemed like chunks of gravel, the base paths stretches of clear-cut farmland.
For a while, he made it look easy in the big leagues.
In his first major-league start in 1983, Jeff Stone had three hits in four times at bat, including two triples. In his first twelve games in the big leagues, he had ten multi-hit showings. He hit .362 and stole 27 bases in 1984, though he played in but 51 games.
Stone had some difficulty adjusting to the City of Brotherly Love. People he encountered on the street were often rude, and the steady symphony of horns, screeches and clatter tested his nerves. He kept to himself, staying inside his room whenever possible.
But baseball stayed simple, thanks to Phillies manager Paul Owens' minimalist approach.
"Certain players you don't fool with, and Stonie was one of them," Owens told Sports Illustrated in 1992. (Owens died in December 2003.) "My advice to Stonie was, 'You see the ball, you hit it and you run.' And he said, 'That makes sense.'"
Prior to the 1985 season, the Phillies printed posters with Stone's face on them, put him on the cover of the team's calendar and built a public-relations campaign announcing the beginning of the "Stone Age."
But it was the Owens era that proved more significant for Stone. When the grandfatherly figure moved into the team's front office, the Phillies replaced him with monotone crank John Felske, whose caustic criticism immediately eroded Stone's confidence.
Suddenly, see-hit-run wasn't good enough at bat, and sprint-to-wherever-it's-hit wouldn't fly in the field. There were strategies and statistics to memorize, pickoff moves and outfield positioning shifts to learn. Even when he was a pitcher back in high school, Stone hadn't worked with signs; Jerome had been his catcher, and the two simply tossed the ball back and forth as if they were at home. But baseball wasn't a primal process anymore. It was a complicated, almost academic pursuit, and Stone wasn't a quick study.
"When they started messing with him, he started thinking," Owens told Sports Illustrated. "And he wound up getting so confused, he forgot how to play."
"To be honest, he couldn't absorb a lot of instruction," adds Phillies chairman Bill Giles, who was the team's president at the time. "A lot of other coaches and managers tried to make him more than he was capable of being, and then they decided he didn't have the ability to learn," recalls Giles.
After his auspicious debut, Stone had made several cameo appearances in the pages of national publications. For the most part, writers cast him as an endearingly baffled bumpkin, usually in the form of the tall tales known as "Stonie stories."
For example, during a minor-league night game (the location varies by publication), he allegedly asked, "Is this the same moon that shines back home?" Asked once if he wanted a shrimp cocktail before dinner, Stone reportedly replied, "I don't drink." Another time, after a season of winter baseball in Venezuela, someone asked Stone why he wasn't taking his television back to the States. He supposedly responded, "It only gets Spanish stations."
These tales, all of which originated in his first year, endeared him to fans as well as to the press. But they also reinforced for Felske and others within the organization that Stone might be too dim to become a star.
In 1985 he went hitless on opening day and never fully recovered. By the end of opening week, Stone had become a platoon player, starting only against right-handed pitchers. By the end of the month, he was stuck on the bench.
"No matter what I did, it wasn't good enough," Stone says of this nightmare season when his batting average plunged to .265. "If Felske had left me alone and left me in the lineup, I would have become the player I should have become."
Stone's inability to shake his slump gnawed at him during sleepless nights in the Voorhees, New Jersey, condo where he stayed during the season. He grew paranoid, wondering if the next strikeout or unsuccessful stolen-base attempt would get him shipped out of town. Sweat soaked his sheets. His insomnia spurred one of the few genuine Stonie stories: On one road trip, teammates advised him to start counting sheep -- to which he responded, "They don't have sheep in Pittsburgh."
By midsummer he was back in Portland, Maine, enduring the epic bus rides that mark minor-league life.
As he bounced back and forth from the Phillies to its farm team over the next two seasons, Stone kept quiet. He didn't want to be branded as a less-than-established player with a bad attitude.
"I kept a lot of stuff inside," Stone says now. "I didn't make no waves. I was very naïve. That was my downfall. I trusted a lot of people."
Stone reached his lowest point in 1988, when the Phillies traded him to the Baltimore Orioles. The profoundly awful Orioles started 0-21; Stone had 1 hit in 32 at-bats.
Eager to please, Stone overcompensated on the rare occasions he did get a hit. This led to several base-running blunders. He killed a rally in one game by getting thrown out going from first to third on a grounder, a brazen risk even for someone so swift. In another unprecedented display of recklessness, Stone was thrown out once at every base in the same game. He was still sprinting, but it was as if he were in a corn maze.
He headed to that team's minor-league affiliate in Rochester, New York, to rehabilitate an injured thumb. He never returned to the big team.
When someone asked then-manager Frank Robinson if Stone had been playing hurt, Robinson replied, "I sure hope so."
"He was a negative person," Stone says today. His earnest expression makes Robinson's cutting comment seem unbearably cruel, like a yank on a friendly puppy's tail.
"When a young player has a stretch at the start of his career like Stone had, the question you ask yourself is whether he is genuinely outstanding or whether he is just an ordinary, regular player who played over his head," says Bill James, baseball writer and historian. "Not often does a young player take one step back after another after another. This was what was unusual about Stone's career."
What makes Stone's tale tragic is the likelihood that he was "genuinely outstanding," that, with proper handling, he could have become an amazing player. His rapid descent shattered a romantic baseball illusion, the notion of a backwoods Johnny B. Goode who could swing a bat like he was ringing a bell even as he gawked in wide-eyed wonder at the world outside the diamond.
In the big leagues, such batter savants have a short shelf life. Teams make adjustments, and ability becomes secondary to adaptation. Here was a player who could still outrun all of his teammates and put wood on every batting-practice offering. He competed with inexhaustible abandon during games, as if he were playing a faster-paced sport. Yet he was unable to translate this talent and hard work into something tangible that could keep him in a starting lineup -- or even off the waiver wire. When Baltimore and Texas released him during the same calendar year, Stone's corroding career seemed to have come to an indignant end.
Stone had always been a player with flair. He was a fan favorite in Philadelphia because he'd slide into first base during close-call plays or dive in pursuit of balls that were clearly out of his reach. Both approaches might have hurt the team more than they helped, but spectators can always overlook errors born out of irrepressible effort.
Managers aren't nearly as forgiving.
Giles recalls Felske saying, "[Stone is] a fun player to watch, and he can hit some, but you're not going to win a pennant with him playing."
Up until 1990 Stone hadn't had a chance to prove Felske wrong, because he had suited up for exclusively dismal teams. The Boston Red Sox, a solid contender, picked him up that fall. But though he welcomed the opportunity to play in games that could lead to postseason action, his first impression of the city wasn't promising. While he was checking into his hotel, someone stole his Jeep Cherokee, which was filled with all of his possessions, from the parking lot. His introduction to the Red Sox wasn't much better. For a month, he failed to log an at-bat, appearing as a pinch runner without a single steal.
On September 28, 1990, the Red Sox were tied with the Toronto Blue Jays for first place in the American League East. Playing in front of a national television audience -- and its largest home crowd in twelve years -- the Sox fumbled a 4-0 lead late in the game, then blew a 5-4 lead in the ninth inning. In the bottom of the ninth inning, with the score tied, the Red Sox loaded the bases with one out.
Up stepped Stone.
Blue Jays closer Tom Henke, a fireball dispenser with thick glasses, stared into the on-deck circle, expecting the inevitable announcement of a pinch-hitter. Stone peeked back into the dugout, waiting to see who would take his place during the most meaningful at-bat of his career. Manager Joe Morgan waved him into the batting box.
Stone fouled off the first pitch.
He drilled the next one into the outfield, scoring the season-saving run and triggering a massive ovation.
Finally Stone was, as Sports Illustrated had first dubbed him in 1984, "The Natural." He was Roy Hobbs blasting a shot into the scoreboard.
"I'm on cloud ten," Stone gushed after the game. This became an instant Stonie story, with some sources inflating the quote to "cloud eleven" by the time it ran the next day. The Boston Globe offered poetic praise: "Stone is one of the last of the innocents, trying to make a name in this graceless age."
When Boston released the last of the innocents in November and failed to invite him to spring training the next year, Stone was shocked. Red Sox fans were still sending him videotapes of his game-winning heroics. But the team itself had forgotten him, deeming the 31-year-old too old to fit into its future plans. To management Stone's pennant-race contribution was a fluke, a lucky hit from a legendarily luckless player.
Stone returned to Wardell to wait for a call that never came. He settled into a house he had bought the year before and seldom ventured outside its doors. There was no baseball memorabilia surrounding him; the only reminder of his star-crossed career was persistent fan mail from the still-grateful Red Sox faithful.
Stone was paralyzed with regret and anger.
Coming to terms with involuntary retirement from his dream profession, Stone moved on to his secondary childhood obsession and signed on as a police officer in nearby Caruthersville for $16,500 a year.
The job turned out to be more trying than he'd expected. Unlike placid Wardell, some Pemiscot County towns have pervasive crime problems. A quarter of its residents live below the poverty line. Areas of Hayti, a tiny town ten miles down the highway, look as bleak as city slums. Stone found himself regularly dodging bullets -- including sixteen on his last day on duty, when he and his partner were ambushed.
"It's nothing to get shot over," Stone says of his law-enforcement efforts. "The best thing about that job? Leaving it."
Stone found a more suitable, if still stressful, occupation in late 1994, when the erstwhile man of steal became a man of steel at the Nucor-Yamato mill in Blytheville, Arkansas. He worked on a loading dock without breaks at the nonunion job until he moved up from the shipping department to an inspector position. His twelve-hour shifts saw him coming or going at 3 or 4 a.m.
But he still wasn't through with baseball.
In 1995 the Phillies' Giles called Stone and asked him to attend spring training as part of the replacement roster the team was assembling in case of a season-long strike. Stone initially declined, but he reconsidered after a conversation with his former coach and hometown mentor, Bob McCulloch. "Give it your best shot," McCulloch had urged one evening. Later that night, McCulloch had a stroke. He died two days later, at age 61.
Stone decided to make the trip to Florida, using his three weeks of paid vacation from the plant. "I wasn't doing it to hurt the players union," he says. "I was doing it for Bob."
Stone was 34. It had been two years since he'd thrown a ball or swung a bat. The first time he stepped to the plate, he narrowly dodged a pitch that bore in on his head.
"I guess that's 'Welcome back to baseball,' he grumbled to reporters in the clubhouse after the game. "I shoulda stayed home."
Instead, Stone stayed put and hit well. He kept an anxious eye on labor developments and became uneasy when the replacement players remained active just days before the season was scheduled to start.
"I felt awkward," he recalls. "I wanted them to settle so I wouldn't have to do anything wrong. My baseball days were over. I just wanted a vacation."
While Stone felt a sense of loyalty to the Major League Baseball Players Association, his Wardell roots prevented him from bemoaning the plight of big-money ballplayers. He never criticized the strikers directly, but he did blast a replacement player who dared to demand a raise.
"I read where that guy was griping about his salary, and that made me mad," Stone told the Philadelphia Inquirer. "Guys like that ought to try picking cotton, like I did when I was coming up. See how they like that."
When the regular players returned, Stone was ready to go back to work. "I want to get out of here," he told the Orlando Sentinel. "I'm tired of Florida."
No longer did Stone love baseball enough to play it anywhere, under any conditions. He declined offers for minor-league contracts. It was finally time for him to leave the game behind.
But even back home in Wardell, peace has been hard to find. Stone, 43, now walks with a slight limp, the result of a car accident in 2001 -- another driver ran the only traffic light in town and hit Stone's Cherokee head-on. Stone suffered a broken hip (it's held together by a corrective metal rod) and a shattered ankle.
And his upper body is scattered with scars, the aftermath of a 2002 argument in which his wife, Linda, stabbed him several times, puncturing his lung.
The two had married just a year earlier. Getting married at age 41 was "weird," Stone says. "I was so set in my ways."
Stone didn't press charges; he and Linda remain together. "It was a situation that got out of hand, and we both lost our tempers," he says, declining to elaborate on the cause of the argument. "Maybe she went too far. If you love someone, you forgive them."
Stone always seems willing to offer the benefit of the doubt, to assume that even the most outlandish attack might have been justified. He is a trusting, generous man, qualities that don't necessarily serve athletes well in professional sports. Grizzled baseball writers invariably described Stone as "sweet." Even in a harsh piece that criticized Stone's strikebreaker status in 1995, the Philadelphia Daily News described him as "one of the most unaffected people on the planet."
"Jeff is really a special memory," says Giles. "I've probably met 3,000 ballplayers in my life, and there hasn't been any like him. You think about 'loving' and 'sweet' all the time, and it's strange to do that with a man, but that's the way everybody feels about him."
"People thought he was dumb, but he wasn't," Paul Owens told Sports Illustrated in 1992. "He was naïve, but beautifully naïve."
Beautiful naïveté might be an appealing personality trait, but it's a decided disadvantage in a business with scant sentiment. In professional baseball, sometimes there is no buffer zone between achievement and disappointment.
Jerome Stone stands on the pitcher's mound at North Pemiscot High School. He's still in athletic shape, the occasional asthmatic wheeze aside, and he delights in bringing his young hurlers back to earth by blasting their best shots during batting practice. It's refreshing to remind locals that he, too, was once a highly regarded prospect.
"People tell me, 'I played against your brother in high school,'" Jerome says. "I say, 'Dummy, you played against me, too, because we're twins.' They remember Jeff, not me. I would get asked ten to fifteen times a day, 'How's your brother?' After a while, you get tired."
Jerome played for four years at Arkansas State. Signed as an undrafted free agent, he played in the Phillies minor-league system, then played professionally in Mexico. Unable to communicate with his Spanish-speaking teammates, Jerome would remain completely silent during bus trips that sometimes lasted more than two days. He learned quickly not to drink the local water or take chances on indecipherable menus, lest he again sample cow tongue or an entire fish with head and eyes intact.
"He would call home crying," family friend Bobbette McCulloch recalls. "He would say, 'I can't eat anything, I can't drink anything, I can't talk.'"
He did have plenty of colorful stories about life in the Mexican league upon his return. Team owners who couldn't afford lawn mowers would graze cows in the outfield during the afternoon. "If you dove, you'd get a mouthful of cow doo," he recalls. As for the infield, the grass was so tall that routine ground balls to first base would become inside-the-park home runs because fielders couldn't find the ball. On the bright side, when Jerome hit a home run, home fans would rush to the side of the dugout to hand him pesos.
Jerome has coached the Kennett High School baseball team for the past seven years. He's given to gentle diatribes that involve the phrase kids today: "Kids today want to get their high off drugs and all that kind of stuff. We could get our high off playing ball."
He's also quick with common-sense quips. "Some of them are afraid to change, because they're afraid they might fail," Jerome says. "I tell them, 'You're already failing, so try something different.'"
He still loves the game, as evidenced by the baseball-shape rug and stool in his living room and by the way he speaks with still-twinkling eyes about becoming a minor-league coach.
Baseball didn't tease Jerome.
It wasn't supposed to end this way. Jeff Stone had a decent major-league career, with a respectable .277 career average and a transcendent late-inning pressure hit to his credit. But to the excited observers who watched the bootheel blur streak down the line during his rookie season, he could have been so much more.
Still, if he had become an All-Star or even a Hall-of-Famer, Stone would have ended up in Wardell when it was all done, just as he did every off-season.
"It didn't ever leave my blood," he says. "I always knew I was going to come back home when my career was over. When I came back, I would say, 'I'm just a normal man playing baseball. Ain't no better than you.' It was easy for me to come back here and adjust quickly, because I kept that same attitude. I think all players should think like that."
Many baseball fans share his opinion.