The Long, Hard Road

Name: Davis, Lawrence (Crash)
Position: Catcher
Bats: Both, Throws: Right
Height: 6’1″, Weight: 190 lb.
Born: January 18, 1955 in Lynwood, California, US (Age 57)

Known for his defense and game-calling ability, the 33-year old switch-hitting catcher was moved from the Triple-A Richmond Braves to the Advanced-A Durham Bulls at the beginning of the 1988 season. During his 12 year minor league career, he hit a then-record 247 home runs, the last for the Asheville Tourists of the Single-A Southern Atlantic League, before retiring after the 1988 season. Upon recommendation of the Atlanta Braves organization, he was hired as the manager of the Advanced-A Visalia Oaks, the California League affiliate of the Minnesota Twins.

“This is the toughest job a manager has. But, the organization has decided to make a change. Sorry.”

These are the words of fictional Manager Joe Riggins (Trey Wilson) in the 1988 film Bull Durham. While Riggins and Crash Davis are both characters out of a movie, their roots are in actual players and coaches Writer/Director Ron Shelton met during his five year minor league career. It illustrates the sometimes cold and business-like nature of professional baseball. And at this time of year, variations of this scene are being played out in locker rooms throughout the country.

The scene hits home with the recent release of promising outfielder Ben Klafczynski, but seems to happen every year. The 22-year old lefty was then taken by the Cubs in the 20th round of the 2011 draft. After signing right away, he was sent to Short Season A-Boise where he batted .221 with a home run and 11 RBI in 19 games. He was then promoted to Single A-Peoria and hit .243 in 43 games with another homer and 13 RBI.

Last season, the player in the spotlight was Brandon May. Like Klafczynski, May was an accomplished college ballplayer from the University of Alabama. He struggled with a knee injury in 2010, but still batted .252 with four home runs and 18 RBI in 29 games over three levels. He stayed in Arizona to prepare for 2011, but ended up contracting Valley Fever, which weakened him for the up-coming season. He tried to fight through the illness, but wound up hitting .185 in 32 games for Peoria, and was released. In another similarity to Klafczynski, May was 23-years old at the time and playing Single-A ball.

While each player was promising, the clock was working against them. For many of us, 23 years old still seems young. However, age is everything when you are in the minors.

As Shelton stated about his minor league career, “I was 25. In baseball, you feel 60 if you’re not in the big leagues. I didn’t want to become a Crash Davis”. This came after playing for the Triple-A Rochester Red Wings in 1971. The organization becomes more invested in other players, and they “decide to make a change”.

For whatever reasons, talented athletes are told that their teams no longer need their services. Some of them, like Major League All-Star Raul Ibanez, are able to persevere and rise to the top. Others, like current Cubs starting first baseman Bryan LaHair, struggle to prove themselves. While still others, like rookie league hitting instructor Jason Dubois, pursue that path. Most move on in another direction.

Writer Hunter S. Thompson once said “For every moment of triumph, for every instance of beauty, many souls must be trampled”. Such is the long, hard road to the major leagues.

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