Jason Ross spent two glorious days living the dream he has been chasing all his life.
There he was, the 27-year-old former Westside High School star, sitting in the spacious clubhouse inside Turner Field. There he was chatting it up with Brian Jordan and Andruw Jones. There he was wearing a Braves uniform. Not the Macon or Greenville issue he had become accustomed to. The one with the fancy 'A' on the cap.
There he was, soaking in two blissful days with the Atlanta Braves.
Ross did not mind that his two-game sniff in the show came in the preseason. It was the big leagues all the same. And, it only served to further whet his appetite for making the majors his permanent home.
"It was a great experience," said the minor-league veteran. "The guys treated me well and made me feel comfortable and part of the team. Seeing what it's like up there, getting a little taste, reminded me of how much I want to make it to the big leagues."
His odyssey toward the promised land has been long and arduous. Ross is in his fifth season as a Braves farmhand and has spent parts of four seasons in Class A. He finally made it to Double-A Greenville last season and began the 2001 season one step away from his dream with the Triple-A Richmond Braves.
But as close as he is to the majors, Ross knows the journey is far from over. The 6-foot-4, 215-pound outfielder recently was sent back to Double-A Greenville, and says he now is uncertain of his future with the Braves organization.
"Actually, getting sent down again is good because I'm getting a chance to play everyday again," said Ross, who batted .208 with five home runs and seven RBI in 49 games platooning in the outfield at Richmond. "I started out doing well at Richmond but wasn't playing enough, and it was tough getting used to being in a platoon situation.
"Basically, they sent me back to Greenville to get more at-bats and get my confidence back," he added. "That's probably the best thing for me right now."
Ross had some success last year in his first season at Double-A. He batted .251 with 12 home runs, 26 RBI, a .458 slugging percentage and 13 stolen bases. That earned him a trip to the Arizona Fall League with some of the top prospects in the Braves' organization.
He also was invited to spring training with Atlanta, where he held his own in several exhibition games with the big club.
The Braves selected Ross in the 13th round of the 1996 draft after he played football and baseball at the University of Hawaii, and the organization always has held him in high regard.
He has four tools that pro 'scouts' would classify as 'plus' or above average - defensive ability, arm strength, power and speed.
What has held him back to this point is hitting consistently for average. Ross' best year at the plate was at high Class A Myrtle Beach in 1999, when he batted .268 with 12 home runs and 64 RBI in 133 games. His career average entering this season was .249.
"Hitting consistently day-in and day-out is something I need to do if I want to make it to the big leagues," Ross said. "People in the organization say they like me because I have a good arm, good speed and I'm above-average defensively. I've got to keep working on hitting more for average and get more consistent at hitting for power."
But as long as the Braves continue to be a contender, Ross believes the odd of making it to Atlanta are against him.
"The Braves are fighting to get to the World Series every year, and they're reluctant to give young guys a chance," he said.
Ross will be eligible for free agency after the 2002 season - minor leaguers are free to sign with another organization after six years of service. He still hopes to get his big break with the Braves, but is mindful of the opportunities free agency might bring.
"That might be the faster way to the big leagues for me," Ross said. "All I can do now is worry about the things I can control. I can't control that other stuff. If the Braves give me a shot, that will be great. For now, all I can do is work hard to get better."
One thing Ross never worries about is family. He has been happily married for four years to wife, Kiana, whom he met in Hawaii. The couple has two daughters - Kyla (4) and McKenna (2).
"Right now, they've been living with me wherever I go, which is great," Ross said. "It's nice having them with me, getting a chance to see my daughters every day. Knowing they're here with me allows me to focus on baseball."
And continue chasing his lifelong dream.
Reach Rob Mueller at (706) 823-3425 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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