A night of lasting impressions for Minor Leaguers

Trenton, Reading players revel in special game at Citizens Bank Park

Chris Roberson (AP)

May 10, 2005 6:28 AM

PHILADELPHIA - The big things were overwhelming. But it was the little things that made a lasting impression on Michael Bourn at Citizens Bank Park.

The 22-year-old Phillies' prospect, who led the organization with 58 stolen bases in 2004, played college games at Minute Maid Park during his tenure at the University of Houston. So the awe of a four-tiered, 43,500-seat stadium wore off more quickly for him than it may have for some of his teammates.

But when Bourn walked into the clubhouse, after completing his first batting practice as a professional on a Major League field, he really understood what being a big leaguer was about.

"To me, it's about the little things," Bourn said of the amenities. "You don't get too much of that in Minor League ballparks."

Bourn sat in a black leather chair, gazing at his teammates sitting on red leather couches. Some of them reclined as they watched a big screen television. Other teammates wandered in from the hallway with fresh fruit, or some other sampling of the buffet spread out beyond the clubhouse doors.

Minor Leaguers know locker rooms. But, this isn't a locker room. It's a lounge. It's comfortable. It's the luxury associated with the show.

Ballplayers put in the hard work to be better ballplayers. But as you're slaving in the weight room, or riding a bus for eight hours on a hot summer night, the leather couches and buffet are reminders of why it's worthwhile to excel at this chosen craft.

In fact, one of the "big things" reminded Bourn of the appropriate mantra. The 2,759 square-foot scoreboard beyond left field often plays displays the "I Live for This" advertising campaign associated with Major League Baseball. It was the first thing Bourn noticed when he walked on the field that day.

"You see the commercials on TV. But when you see those words up there so big," Bourn paused, "It really made an impression."

That was the whole idea behind Monday night's game between the Reading Phillies and Trenton Thunder at Citizens Bank Park. To make an impression. To give these Minor Leaguers a taste of the Major League life. To remind then why they're enduring long bus rides and batting practices under poor lighting.

"I think we talk about dreams and goals all of the time. The only difference is when you experience it," said Reading manager Steve Swisher. "All of a sudden it sinks in. This is really what I want to do, and you understand the sacrifices. The things you have to do to get here, because this is the best of the best."

Bourn shares big league goals, and prospect status, with teammate Chris Roberson. Both are highly touted outfield prospects in the Phillies organization. Both expect to be back in a big league ballpark for good one day. Most likely as Phillies at Citizens Bank Park.

"I was really excited when I saw this on the schedule," Roberson said. "I didn't even know about this game until I got to Reading. But I've been waiting on this day to have some fun in the big park. See how it feels, and to see how the team does in the big park."

Roberson, unlike Bourn, has never smelled the fresh-cut grass of a Major League diamond before Monday. But he's surrounded by the experience of professional athletics. His father, Will Roberson, played professional basketball for the Detroit Pistons.

Chris inherited the athletic gifts of his father. He's a smooth 6-foot-2, switch-hitting outfielder who possesses raw speed much like Bourn. In 2003, he stole 59 bases at Lakewood. This season, Roberson is hitting .301 with 16 RBI and 18 runs scored, including a 2-for-4 performance on Monday night.

However, at 25 years old, he's still learning the game of baseball. For various reasons - a solid jump shot, for one - Roberson didn't play high school baseball. Following in his father's footsteps, Roberson excelled on the hardwood as a high schooler in San Pablo, California. Those talents gave him more exposure to the world of professional basketball. Through the connections of various coaches, Roberson found his way onto the Golden State Warriors home floor, getting tips from Chris Mullin, Mitch Richmond, and Tim Hardaway.

And yet, none of the exposure to professional basketball prepared Roberson for this experience. The shear size of Citizens Bank Park kept his jaw hanging, "overwhelmed a little bit" when he first stood on the field.

"Indoors, crowds seems like they're louder, but they're not," Roberson said of the comparison between a basketball arena and a ballpark. "Then the weather comes into play. You feel your environment a lot more out here."

In fact, adjusting to the environment was the one thing that felt most normal to Bourn and Roberson as they went about their pre-game routine. Both players share the outfield grass, and take pride in fielding their respective territories. So, they relished the chance to shag fly balls during batting practice, and learn the nuances of the wind currents and vast outfield.

For Bourn, the nooks and crannies of center field - "The Angle" as it's called - presented a new challenge to an old problem. A ball can travel 409 feet just left of center field, stay in ballpark, and carom in any direction.

"It would probably take me a solid week to get used to it," Bourn said.

Bourn most likely will have that week to learn "The Angle" sometime in the near future. The former fourth-round pick was named the organization's fifth-best prospect by Baseball America this year. Through Monday night's game, he's hitting .290 at Reading, and is considered the most-skilled base runner and defensive outfielder in the Phillies' system. He also plays a position - centerfield - with no long term solution in Philadelphia.

But for now, he and Roberson had just one night to appreciate "the little things" that make the Major League dream so worth while. As they rode their bus back to Reading, after a 5-3 victory over the Trenton Thunder, they had a taste of the big time. And a taste of what it takes to get there.

"My coach in college told me that if it's easy it's not worth having," Bourn said. "If it's hard you'll appreciate it so much more. And he's right. But this is what I love to do, and I wouldn't want to do anything else. I thank God for the opportunity."

Kent Malmros is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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