The purple haze of dusk is filtering over the Tennessee mountains, and Jeff Milene is hoping for more work this evening.
Freak medical problems have limited him to seven at-bats for the Minnesota Twins' Appalachian League team, a rookie affiliation featuring players in their first two years of professional baseball.
Milene, 19, detests the 90-minute wait after the visiting team begins its 6 p.m. batting practice at Elizabethton's O'Brien Field. To pass time until the game, he hits baseballs off a tee into a net, abandoning it when the repetition wears thin.
Milene was picked by the Twins in the 21st round of the 1988 June draft following his graduation from Rochester Mayo. He was here last year in this city of 12,000, where the northeastern corner of Tennessee converges with Kentucky, Virginia and North Carolina; his season didn't come together as neatly.
He barely played last year, although at $850 a month everyone in Elizabethton earns his salary. Milene managed two hits in 18 at-bats, and struck out eight times.
Disappointing, except only one percent of all the eligible baseball players in the country are drafted by professional teams. And, in seven at-bats this year he equaled his hit total of a year ago.
``I think I can do it,'' he insists. ``I think I can get to the major leagues.''
Previous Mayo graduates Bill Cutshall and Fritz Polka also thought like that. Each retired this year, although Cutshall was a phone call away from The Show. He made it to the Class AAA level, which is as distant for Milene as the mountains beyond Joe O'Brien Field.
Milene started receiving inquiries from major-league teams when he was a high school freshman. After Twins' scouts saw him play as a senior, they offered a contract.
Milene hardly contemplated attending college after that. Debbie, his mother, urged him to sign.
Minnesota's minor league director Jim Rantz recalls, ``He showed us some arm strength. We are hoping his bat comes around with some playing on a regular basis.''
Elizabethton had three catchers last season, so Milene sat. Often. But some 19-year-olds mature quickly in the minor leagues.
``Baseball has a lot of ups and downs,'' Milene says in the words of a veteran. ``You sit for a week and you get down, but I decided to not let it affect me. I know I'm just 19 years old and I'll wait for my turn.''
At just 19 he feels he's ahead of the college kids this season. The average age of his teammates is 21, but two months of extended spring training in Sarasota this year helped his confidence. The Twins then added Sarasota as a second rookie league team this year, diminishing his competition at Elizabethton. The Elizabethon roster is at 25 now, down from 42 last season.
Despite less competition, Milene hasn't seen much action. An infection resulting from an ingrown toenail that was improperly treated, and unexplained infections in two fingers, forced him to miss two weeks of the season. Still, daily exposure to this environment is all some people need. Milene has turned those idle days to his benefit.
``I've been in this organization for a full year now, and I know what they want,'' he says. ``These college kids come in here and they think they're great, they tell the coaches, `Well, this is how my coach did it.' The coaches here don't like that much. They don't know how it's done here.
``But I know what they want, and I have an advantage over the college kids. I feel I'm as good in this league as they are now, and three years down the road I'll be 22 and I'll be a lot further ahead of anyone my age who went to college.''
Rantz says despite the extended spring training Milene's progress has been slow, which is not uncustomary for teen-agers. ``He's still trying to improve his skills,'' Rantz indicates, ``and with young players the first year is usually quite an adjustment to pro ball. You want to leave these players at a level where they can build some confidence and not try to bring them along too quickly.''
Next season it will be the same routine: Get up around 11 a.m., go to the mall, return home, watch the Cubs on cable television, head to the ball park at 4 p.m., stretch, take infield and batting practice. Wait.
Milene hopes he's at least waiting in Kenosha, Wis. A respectable showing in Elizabethton would probably push Milene to one of the Twins' two Class A affiliates. The Midwest League is considered a step below the play in Visalia, Calif., where the team's other Class A affiliate is located; Milene says he'd still rather play in Kenosha.
``I hear it gets really hot in Visalia, and I'm not so sure the California League is any better anyway.''
But if it means an opportunity for more work, Milene will go.