SMITHFIELD, N.C. — This used to be tobacco country. Still is, but the demand for tobacco is down, the demand for soybeans and sweet potatoes is up, and the farmers have adjusted accordingly.

This is not a land of pretense. On the highway leading into town, a small green sign celebrates a hometown star.

The star is not Ava Gardner — the Hollywood glamour girl who was born nearby and was buried here, the legendary actress and onetime wife of Frank Sinatra. The star is a guy who made it to the major leagues and hit .230.

"Welcome to Smithfield," the sign reads. "Hometown of Barry Foote, major league baseball player and coach."

Smithfield also is the hometown of Jerry Sands, the rookie thrust into the Dodgers' offensively challenged lineup ahead of his time. In his month in the major leagues, he has yet to hit a home run. He is batting .206.

Maybe he takes off soon. Maybe this is too much too soon — Sands was playing Class A ball this time last year — but a visit to his hometown helps reveal why the Dodgers believe Sands' makeup is so strong he could handle success or failure in the major leagues at such a young age.

He is 23, barely older than the kids at his old high school, where he worked as a substitute teacher last winter.

"It was pretty easy," Sands said. "You don't have to work nights and weekends. It's pretty much 8 to 3 every day, and I could make my own schedule. If I didn't want to work, I would just say no."

He said he taught "just about every subject," using lesson plans left by the regular teachers. He even supervised detention.

"I guess they figured I could handle all the kids who ended up angry," Sands said.

No wonder, said Mike Joyner, the high school baseball coach and athletic director.

"At 6-4 and 220, not a lot of people are going to question his authority," Joyner said.

Sands would pack his workout bag too. He would teach his classes, then change clothes, lift weights and hit with the varsity baseball team. As part-time jobs go, that's pretty sweet.

"And it's not bad money," Joyner said. "You get 80, 90 bucks a day."

Minimum wage in the major leagues is $414,000 a year, but Sands says he'll be back at his old high school this winter. He might not teach as often, but this is who he is, this school and this town.

His fiancee played on the high school softball team. His father was a heavy equipment mechanic.

"We had a bad roof on our dugout," Joyner said. "The thing was about to fall in. Jerry and his dad put on a new one for us."

The backyard of the family home spilled into a couple dozen acres of woods, perfect for summer campouts. Sands and his fiancee just bought a home of their own, a few miles away, neither wanting to move too far from the parents.

Sands had never traveled west of Tennessee until he signed with the Dodgers, not that he was embarrassed about that.

"I've never been a city type," Sands said. "That down-home, out-in-the-middle-of-nowhere feel? I like it."