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Original Issue

Work Is Good, Luck Is Better

An obscure pitcher became a rock star, and so-so football players struck gold

COVER YOUR EARS, children, but this is how it is in the real world: Chasing your dreams is great, but sometimes enough is enough. Dodgers pitcher Matt White should by all rights be dangerously close to bagging it. In December the 29-year-old signed a minor league deal with L.A., his eighth organization since turning pro in 1998. White isn't exactly an untouchable on baseball's social ladder—he's lefthanded, after all—but he has some serious bootstrapping to do to move up to the journeyman caste. He has appeared in just seven major league games (six in 2003 and one in '05), and, for the most part, things haven't gone well in the Show. His career ERA is 16.76.

Yet there is White down in Vero Beach this spring, wind-sprinting and long-tossing, still chasing the dream. "They say lefties bloom later than righties. I keep telling myself that," he said last week. "My goal is to play in the big leagues regardless of what happens with the rock quarry."

Ah, yes, the rock quarry. In 2004 White, in an act of charity, paid $50,000 for 50 acres of Cummington, Mass., land owned by an elderly aunt who needed cash for her nursing-home bills. While clearing space for a new house this off-season, White found several rock ledges, so he asked a geologist to find a suitable spot to build. He got what he thought was bad news. The turf is extremely rocky, so construction might be dicey.

But, as he revealed last week, there's a bright side. "Rocky" in this case meant "shot through with an estimated 24 million tons of mica schist flatstone that can be harvested for sidewalks, patios and other building purposes." The material sells for $100 per ton—which puts the land's worth in the neighborhood of $2 billion. Suddenly, he's as rich as Croesus. Or A-Rod.

And suddenly, the race for that 12th spot on the Dodgers' staff doesn't seem like such a make-or-break situation. As White now knows, there are two versions of the American Dream. There's the romantic ideal: Horatio Alger, sweat of one's brow, self-made man and all that. And then there's hitting the lottery—or the rock ledge—that changes your life.

Sports is where the two dreams collide. Sure, athletes perspire and bleed to get the big contract. But when the payout comes, it is often, as White said of his situation, "beyond comprehensible," seemingly dictated as much by lark as logic. Last week NFL free agents cashed in like never before (page 20), simply because they had the good fortune to be on the market in 2007. (One wonders what wideout Drew Bennett, who received six years and $30 million from the Rams, might have gotten if he had ever made a Pro Bowl.) Depending on your point of view, the windfall that Bears coach Lovie Smith received last week was either a lightning strike or a long time coming. On one hand, he went to the Super Bowl last year as the NFL's lowest-paid coach. On the other, his new average salary of $4.7 million is 248% more than he made last year.

It's ironic that as NFL players were drowning in cash, the man who helped usher in the era of the millionaire athlete was being snubbed. Last week baseball's Hall of Fame Veterans Committee failed for the third straight time to elect anyone to Cooperstown, most notably longtime players' union chief Marvin Miller. Before Miller helped create the free-agent system that now enriches all pro athletes, the notion that a marginal reliever would have 50 grand to give an ailing aunt was laughable. Gaining entry to the Hall should be hard. But the vets' committee members, who include the 61 living inductees, have twisted Groucho Marx's signature line: They don't want to belong to a club that would have anyone else as a member. The veterans voting system needs to be fixed. Then NFL players should consider putting Miller in their Hall.

In a week of windfalls Ohio State's Greg Oden stood out, and not simply because he's seven feet tall. The freshman center, who's preparing to lead the top-ranked Buckeyes into March Madness, said he hasn't decided whether to declare for this summer's NBA draft. He's a virtual lock to be the No. 1 pick if he goes pro and would become an instant multimillionaire. But Oden, showing wisdom beyond his 18 years, said he feels like he needs to improve as a player. Besides, he said, life on campus agrees with him. He's happy where he is at the moment and isn't dreaming about a better situation. Imagine that.

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Injury of the Week
IF JOHN DALY has the body of an athlete, the police would like to question him about it. Daly, who has been fitter-looking, strained his side when he tried to stop his swing after being distracted by a fan's camera. He withdrew from the Honda Classic after two holes.

Auction of the Week
IF YOU'RE one of those fans who waits outside Roger Federer's hotel so you can thrust a major appliance at him and yell, "Sign this!" good news. A refrigerator autographed by Federer is on eBay through March 12, with the sale price—currently more than $3,000—going to charity.