There's something special about going to a major league ballpark. Seeing smiling kids with their parents, the sizzle of bratwursts, the smell of fresh popcorn and the taste of overpriced beer — and yelling at the umpires, of course. It's what America's pastime is all about.
Nearly half a million people play baseball in high school every year. Just a small fraction, about 7 percent, play in college. Of those, an even tinier number get to the minor leagues. And making it to the majors — that's really rare.
For the past six years, Tyler Saladino has played for farm teams in the Chicago White Sox organization; for more than three of those years, NPR has followed his progress. He has fought through batting slumps and season-ending injuries. But this month he got his big break: The White Sox called him up.
"Pretty cool place to be having this interview, huh?" he said as we sat in the White Sox dugout on Friday before a double-header against the Kansas City Royals. I'd interviewed him many times when he played in the minors for the Birmingham Barons in Alabama.
The smile on his face was the biggest I'd ever seen.
"This right here is what you dream about and what you work towards and use as motivation and all that stuff. It's taken a lot, a lot of work, a lot of time that we put into it. To be here, it's truly a blessing."
Saladino is not a superstar. He's not flashy, nor is he the biggest or the fastest. He likely won't ever be a household name. But he's a solid, all-around player who works hard, shows up at the ballpark early and stays late. He's a student of the game who makes few mistakes.
The White Sox have used him both at third base and at shortstop so far. White Sox Manager Robin Ventura says he likes Saladino.
"He knows how to play," Ventura says. "He lands on his feet no matter where you put him. Always known that about him. He's just a smart baseball player. So right now, just take advantage of the opportunity."
Saladino's first major league hit was a triple — and, on Friday, he continued to spray hits all over the field, including a bunt single and a smack to the outfield.
The White Sox have struggled this season with a losing record and have been promoting and demoting players, trying to find a winning combination. Saladino has done well for them so far.
Reporter Bruce Levine, who has covered the Chicago White Sox on the radio for decades, says Saladino is an underdog everyone can identify with.
"You know what? If I would have worked a little harder in high school or in college at my sport, I might have been Tyler Saladino," he says. "And that's why people like that type of player and people like those type of players on their teams."
The White Sox haven't told Saladino how long they plan to keep him in the major leagues. But he hit his first home run Sunday and appears now to have locked up a starting position at third base.
"It's such a blessing, such a great opportunity to have a chance to play baseball. So it doesn't matter what comes your way," he said.
Not bad for a kid from San Diego who turned 26 this week.