THE DREAM has yet to be fulfilled, but Billy Rowell is still living it, through long bus rides, boring small towns and slumps that he's never encountered before in his baseball journey.

Such is life as a professional baseball player, struggling to reach that ultimate plateau - the major leagues.

Rowell, a native of Sewell, N.J., who won't turn 21 until Sept. 10, is already in his fourth year of pro baseball. He is in his second season playing for the Frederick Keys, the advanced Class A affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles in the Carolina League. The Orioles took Rowell with the ninth overall pick on June 6, 2006. That same day, the 6-5 shortstop also graduated from Bishop Eustace Prep and helped his team to the South Jersey Non-Public B championship.

"That day was awesome," said Rowell, laughing at the memory. "Comcast [SportsNet] followed me around all day and it was just a crazy experience. I was on Cloud 9."

It's a place he hopes to reach again soon.

After finishing his high school career with a .507 average, 35 home runs and 161 RBI for the Crusaders, Rowell was a no-brainer first-round pick. He was a slick-fielding shortstop with a sweet, lefthanded swing that produced a ton of power from his 215 pounds.

The Orioles immediately moved him to third base, where he spent the first 3 years trying to learn a new position. But his offense struggled, so the organization told Keys manager Richie Hebner to move Rowell to rightfield, so he could concentrate on his hitting and not have to worry so much about defense.

"He's a work in progress," said Hebner, who spent 18 years in the majors, including two with the Phillies. "He's struggling, but it's only his second year in this league and he's not even 21 yet. He's got to keep working hard. He's getting it, but he certainly could turn it up a notch."

Rowell's love for baseball started at an early age, when "my father [Bill] would toss me tennis balls and I would hit them with one of those big red wiffle-ball bats."

The family had a hitting cage in the back of its house and a smaller one inside for soft-tossing and other drills. Although he also played basketball and hockey, Rowell found himself gravitating toward the diamond.

"When I got into districts, we played like 110 to 120 games a year," he said. "I felt that I wanted to play baseball all year round, so I dropped the other sports and started concentrating solely on baseball."

The summer after his sophomore year at Eustace, Rowell was playing in some showcase tournaments, and drawing interest from college and pro scouts. After his junior season, he was playing in the tournaments on a weekly basis and then became stalked by the scouts.

He did nothing his senior season to deter the courters, as he led the Crusaders to the state title by hitting .561 with seven home runs and 37 RBI. He had an amazing .692 on-base percentage. He accepted a scholarship to the University of Alabama, but ultimately passed on that when it became obvious he would be a high draft pick.

"I was all ready to go to Alabama, but I wanted to see how the draft would go," he said. "I heard that I was projected to be a high pick, but you just don't know about those things until they happen. When the Orioles took me when they did, I thought turning pro was the way to go for me."

He received a $2.1 million signing bonus, but, when you talk to Rowell, you know his decision had nothing to do with the money.

"Billy will get to 'the show,' no question about it," said his high school coach, Sam Tropiano, who just completed his 20th season at Eustace. "Billy was the kind of player that when you looked out on the field you said, 'Oh, there he is.' He just stood out. He was 6-4 and had power and was the fastest kid on the team. But above all his physical abilities, and he was a stallion, he had the mental toughness that you need for the game of baseball. He came to a game a few weeks ago and I talked with him for a while and he still has it.

"Getting through the minors, it just takes so long to get through the system. But he has it in him to do it. It's a long journey, but he'll be fine. Trust me, he'll get to the show."

Rowell's talk with his former coach came at a time when he was hitting close to .300 and had belted six home runs in the early season. Now, however, Rowell is hitting .226 with seven homers and 26 RBI. He has struck out 62 times in his 234 at-bats.

As Hebner said, it is a work in progress. Both Hebner and Tropiano expressed the sentiment that players who got drafted below Rowell moving up the organizational ladder quicker could be discouraging for Rowell. But both believe he can work through that. And so does Rowell.

"Everyone at this level has room to learn," he said. "You can't learn from anyone but yourself. I feel more comfortable every day. I'm in a little funk, but I can break out of it in a couple of games. There are a lot of ups and downs in baseball. I want to be in the bigs. Everyone here has the same goal. But I know I'm not ready yet. But I'll keep getting more experience and get more consistent. And that's what they're looking for up there."

The Orioles are in town this weekend, an interleague opponent for the Phillies. Rowell won't be here this time. But few doubt he will be soon. When it happens, the dream will be fulfilled. *