I was born in Cleveland, a major league city (though some might argue that epithet should have a "near" or an "almost" tacked onto it), but I spent most of my adolescence in Huntsville, Ala. -- which until 1985 didn't even qualify as a minor league town.
That year, though, the Stars were born. They were the Double A affiliate of the A's, and, for a while, they were scarily good. The nucleus of the A's title teams of the late '80s and early '90s came up through the 'Ville: Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire, Terry Steinbach, Stan Javier, Luis Polonia. A couple years later, there was Scott Brosius, Mike Bordick and Walt Weiss. It was a fantastic run, and it satisfied that desire minor league fans have to be able to boast that they "saw ol' such-and-such back when he was on his way up."
I worked at the stadium, so I saw a lot of guys come through town. The one who sticks with me above all others, for some reason, was a guy named Ray Thoma. He was a third baseman and he hit the first home run in Joe Davis Stadium history -- an inside-the-parker, no less. My dad and I both agreed that he "just looked like a baseball player," which, in those pre-Moneyball days, was the kind of thing people said at minor league games. Alas, he played a couple years, hit .254 and was gone. He never played in the majors.
There are two kinds of minor leaguers: those who go on to big things, and those who don't. The former are the ones most people talk about, but they can't exist without the latter. Without marginal prospects and guys who are chasing a dream they often know isn't going to be realized, we wouldn't have minor league games to go to.
It's hardly a path to glory -- google Ray Thoma and see what you come up with -- but, for my money, it's a noble one. Which brings us to Kevin Kerr, a rugged hockey player whose resume reads like the lyrics to Johnny Cash's I've Been Everywhere. Kerr has toiled in Rochester (twice), Phoenix (three times, in pre-Coyotes days), Fort Wayne (twice), Cincinnati (three times), Utica, Birmingham, Flint (three times), Portland, Quad Cities (twice), Mobile, Toledo, Elmira, Rockford and Kalamazoo.
He's been everywhere, man. He was drafted by the Sabres in 1986 and has yet to skate his first NHL shift. And this year he became the leading goal scorer in minor league hockey history. He's Crash Davis on skates. It would have been easy for Kerr to go home to the hockey school he runs in Michigan and say goodbye to his $750 a week gig (and the bus rides that come with it), but he didn't.
He got a little attention when he broke the record with his 665th goal, and his name found its way into the papers when he bashed NHL players who were trying to latch on in the salary-capped minor leagues while they were locked out of their real jobs because they refused to accept a cap. (One opposing coach was suspended for putting a bounty on his head, a la Paul Newman in Slap Shot.)
Past that, the last two decades have been pretty anonymous for Kerr -- at least to people who live in major league cities. But in a not-insubstantial number of minor league towns, Kerr has left his mark, no doubt inspiring a few folks in the crowd at each stop to remark that "he just looks like a hockey player."
Those are the guys we love to watch, those are the guys we remember. And for being one of those guys -- and doing it better than any minor league hockey player before him -- Kevin Kerr is my Sportsman of the Year.
React: Who's your Sportsman of the Year?
Sports Illustrated will announce the 2005 Sportsman of the Year winner on Friday, Dec. 9 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO. Check back every weekday until then to read more Sportsman picks from SI writers.