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

Field of Broken Dreams 

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

Page 6 of 8

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 10 miles down the highway, look as bleak as city slums. Stone found himself regularly dodging bullets -- including 16 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 12-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 seasonlong strike. He 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.

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