Beyond their wildest dreams

ROB BRODIE

, Last Updated: 10:04 AM ET

Art, it's often been said, imitates life.

Or, in this case, sport.

We speak today of that moment when Crash Davis, the ultimate career minor-leaguer portrayed by Kevin Costner in Bull Durham, talked wistfully about that special three weeks when he finally hit it big.

"Yeah, I was in The Show," Crash said of his short fling with major league baseball. "I was in the show for 21 days once -- the 21 greatest days of my life. You know, you never handle luggage in the show, somebody else carries your bags.

"It was great. You hit white balls for batting practice, the ballparks are like cathedrals, the hotels all have room service, and the women all have long legs and brains."

Ah, yes, The Show.

That hallowed place that inspires dreams in the hearts of youngsters playing shinny on frozen patches of water all across this vast land of ours.

Or on a worn ball diamond during the summer, or perhaps a rutty gridiron during a chilly fall afternoon.

In the bigs, it's a whole 'nother world today filled with millionaire athletes, private jets, five-star hotels and mansions most of us can't even picture in our wildest dreams.

The bush leagues?

Now that, we can relate to much more easily.

Life in the minors is all about long bus rides, cold rinks, lunch (and maybe even dinner) at the nearest fast-food joint or greasy spoon, and carefully counting the pennies on that slim paycheque that never seems to go quite far enough.

But still, they play on, these real-life Crash Davises.

Maybe it's the dream that keeps them going, the elusive thought that someone out there will finally say "Son, I'm giving you your shot."

At some point, though, that hope has to flicker. It's called reality, and it can be a cold, ruthless thing.

MAKE A CHOICE

So you have a choice -- give up on the dream and move on with life, or just keep playing because the game, like a drug, refuses to relinquish its grip on you. How else to explain the career minor-leaguer, the guy who spends a decade or more toiling at sport's lower levels.

Dennis Bonvie, so briefly an Edmonton Oiler and Ottawa Senator, has done it long enough to become minor-pro hockey's all-time penalty minutes leader.

Goalie Wade Flaherty had a few tastes of the show, but has toiled for the AHL's Manitoba Moose for the past few seasons. At 39 years old, the call might never come again.

Then there's Kevin Kerr, a third-round draft pick of the Buffalo Sabres back in 1986. Eighteen years, he suited up to play the game he loves. He saw 14 minor-pro outposts, some of them more than once. Did it long enough to become minor-pro hockey's all-time leading goal scorer, with 677.

"Crash Davis on skates," he's been called more than once.

In all those years, Kerr never spent a second of time in the NHL. In the minors, though, he was king. And when the rich big-leaguers tried to invade his world during the NHL lockout in 2005, he naturally bristled.

"The hyprocrisy of it is unbelievable," Kerr, then playing for the United Hockey League's Flint Generals, said when informed the Red Wings' Chris Chelios, Derian Hatcher and Kris Draper were going to suit up with the UHL's Motor City Mechanics.

"I make $700 a week, and I have a wife and two kids and a mortgage payment. Here I wish I could play in the NHL for a fraction of what they make, and they're going to come and play in our league for $500 a week. It's really bizarre."

These guys, you see, have their pride, too. Pride in the game that Kerr, now the Generals' coach, shares with a new generation of dreamers.

The game, you see, can carry you through.

Just ask Victoria native Jim Rutledge, a PGA Tour rookie at the ripe age of 47. Rutledge spent 28 years toiling on the Canadian, Asian, European and Nationwide tours and, to hear him tell it, rarely fretted that he wasn't teeing it up with the big boys every weekend.

"It was not the be-all and end-all for me," Rutledge said in a Sports Illustrated interview in December, shortly after securing his coveted PGA card for 2007.

"I enjoyed the experience of being in Asia. I enjoyed being at home in Victoria. I was always surrounded by people I liked, and I was making good money. It was a nice life."

When Rutledge talks about the dream that is finally happening for him after all these years, it isn't about richer purses or fancier hotels.

"I can't wait to play all the courses I've seen on TV," he said.

Spoken like one of those giddy youngsters living in a much more innocent place.

Where the game is the only thing that matters, and the show merely the stuff of dreams.

For some folks, that perspective never really changes.

God love 'em all for it.


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