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Port Gibson star makes major move

The surgeons were able to repair the damage and James Jr. was back on his feet a few weeks later. Although his basketball season and career were cut short, he was back on the baseball diamond by spring and hit two home runs in his first game for Port Gibson High.

College scouts paid little attention to Hall, however. Port Gibson is better known for its track and basketball teams than its baseball program, and he didn’t receive any scholarship offers.

The baseball dream didn’t die, though. He went to a tryout camp at Southern University in the summer of 2001 and impressed the coaching staff enough to earn a spot on the team.

Hall never played a game for the Jaguars. He had struggled to qualify academically, then let his grades slip in his first semester on campus. He left the school early in 2002 and returned to Port Gibson.

“It was mainly grades,” Hall said of his time at Southern. “I just didn’t stay focused on the books.”

Hall worked to raise his grades and become eligible. He attended classes at Alcorn for a year, improved his academic standing, and earned another shot at baseball with Southwest Mississippi Community College.

Just days before the 2004 season was to begin, however, Hall received a cruel piece of news he had worked a little too hard. The classes he took at Alcorn had made him eligible academically, but gave him too many total credit hours to play junior college ball. He was devastated.

“I was very disappointed,” Hall said. “That right there motivated me, too. Just knowing that a week before the season I was ineligible after all the work I did to get eligible.”

Just when it seemed Hall’s career had hit a dead end, fate intervened again. His coach at Southwest, Butch Holmes, had some connections with the Devil Rays and passed Hall’s name up the ladder.

Hall was able to latch on with the semi-pro New Orleans Stars in April, and was back in the game after a season on the bench.

“That gave me an opportunity, too, because I sat out the whole season. I was out three or four months,” Hall said.

The Tampa Bay scouts kept an eye on Hall during his stint in New Orleans, and liked what they saw.

As the draft approached, the scouts told him the Devil Rays would probably take him in the later rounds.

And, sure enough, with the second pick of the 41st round Hall got the call he had been waiting a lifetime for.

“It was a relief,” Hall said. “Just thinking back to my childhood, that one day I’m going to have the opportunity to play pro ball, and my dream came true.”

James Sr. shared in his son’s joy. He spent draft day at work, watching the rounds tick by on the Internet.

When he got home that evening, he was nearly bowled over by his son.

“I went in the door and he ran and hugged me and told me, I got drafted,'” James Sr. said. “I’m real proud of him. I told him, I don’t want it for me or your mother. I want it for you.'”

Three days after the draft, James Jr. embarked on his next challenge the rigorous life of minor league baseball.

He reported to Princeton, W. Va., to play with the Princeton Devil Rays in the Class A Appalachian League. The league is one of the lowest levels of affiliated baseball, and is designed to weed out the less talented or mentally weak players.

Unlike the common image of millionaire major leaguers, players in Class A ride buses to and from games, live in hotels for the short summer baseball season, and make a few hundred dollars a month.

“The ones that don’t have street smarts or common sense, it eats them up,” Princeton manager Jamie Nelson said. “The guys that are incapable or not ready to handle their own life when mommy or daddy aren’t there, they’re used to having things done for them and they don’t last.”

So far, Hall seems to be making the adjustment well. Bus rides are cramped for the 6-foot-3 outfielder, and the transition from aluminum to wood bats was rough, but he’s enjoying the lifestyle and the chance to play almost every day.

“It’s just like starting new. It seems like you’re going back through high school, just at a later stage in life,” Hall said. “It’s days where I’m kind of tired today, but I have to keep working. It’s a job now. It’s my job.”

Nelson hasn’t had a chance to watch Hall for a long time the Devil Rays have only played 23 games, and there are six outfielders on the roster who all need to play and be evaluated but he likes what he sees so far.

After a groin injury limited Hall during the first part of the season, he has hit .235, with three doubles and five RBIs in 12 games heading into Friday’s home game against Bristol. Although Hall’s average could improve, Nelson praised his natural ability.

“I like what I see. He has tremendous power, and that’s hard to teach,” Nelson said. “This kid could be something special, because the ball just jumps off his bat.”

Nelson added that Hall could continue to climb the ladder, if he’s able to avoid the pitfalls off the field and keep building on his talent on the field.

Compared to what he’s overcome so far, learning to hit a big league curveball should be a piece of cake for Hall.

“I look for some bright things from this kid. It’s too early to tell, but he has the tools from the neck down. Time will tell if he has the tools from the neck up,” Nelson said, adding with a laugh, “I just hope he’s using a socket wrench when he needs to and not reaching for a crescent wrench.”