Shelton could just as easily be talking about Russ Morman, though he has never met him and, truth be told, doesn't recognize the name. The similarities between Russ and Crash can be traced all the way to their home runs. The flesh-and-blood slugger pulled into Durham this season with 194 of them, more than any other active minor leaguer. In the movie it is left to Susan Sarandon's beguiling Annie Savoy, a lover of both the game and its most fortunate sons, to point out that Crash has 227 minor league homers when he joins the Bulls. Twenty more and he'll set a record. (Actually, he wouldn't have come close to Hector Espino's minor league standard of 484, but that's not the point.)
"Two hundred and forty-seven home runs in the minor leagues would be kind of a dubious honor," Crash tells Annie. The sentiment is camouflage for his well-earned pride, but Crash is too much of a hardnose to admit it. The man who created him isn't. "There are triumphs in this age of celebrity and hype that are completely unacknowledged," Shelton says. "I happen to think that hitting more home runs in the minors than anybody else means something." It's important to remember that, whether the subject is Crash Davis or Russ Morman.
Amtrak number 79 rolls south through Durham late every afternoon, its lonesome whistle and clacking wheels a perfect complement to a three-year-young ball-yard that was built to look old. You can see the train if you look past the Blue Monster in leftfield, although the eyes tend to stop at the large wooden bull perched atop that 32-foot-high fence. Home run hitters win a steak if they hit the bull, or a salad if they only reach the patch of grass painted beneath it. Mercifully, Durham Bulls Athletic Park has enough other nostalgic grace notes to earn forgiveness for its salads and to forestall any yearning for its rickety predecessor, which sits across town, consigned to ghosts and a women's professional softball team. There are nooks and crannies laced with red brick and mementos from the town's lusty past in baseball's outer reaches. Nothing, however, is quite so evocative as the sound of that train when the shadows are growing long.
It harks back to a time before computers and research parks, a time when the now-defunct Durham & Southern was hauling what men grew in the rich North Carolina soil. It speaks, too, of the game's essential restlessness, the ebb and flow of players and their dreams. The season was barely into its second month when the big club in Tampa reached out to the Bulls for a third baseman with 10 quick homers and a basestealing outfielder with wings on his heels. "That's what we're here for," Morman says. "We're not playing to stay in the minors."
There was a time when Morman was the one summoned first, a time when he had the clout of the $75,000 bonus that the White Sox used to lure him out of Wichita State as a junior after drafting him in the first round in 1983. In 1985, after 2½ seasons as a pro, he moved up to Triple A, where he bashed six homers for Buffalo in his first week and started wondering if his goals hadn't been too modest. "I had a timetable for five years," he says. "If I wasn't a major league player by then, that would be it." A rueful smile. "Needless to say, I didn't stick to the timetable very well."
Things started to bog down less than a month after Morman arrived in Chicago with such a clatter in '86. Soon he found himself being platooned at first base. Only time would tell him that his best shot at being a regular in the Show was already history. "You always wonder what Russ would have done if he'd ever had a manager give him 500 at bats in a season," says John Boles, his manager at Buffalo and now the Florida Marlins' director of player development. "Personally, I thought he could be a .280, 25 home run guy."
The rub, as Morman points out, is this: "I don't know if I even have 500 at bats for my whole career in the big leagues."
He doesn't The exact number is 470, spread over bits and pieces of nine seasons in Kansas City, Florida and, of course, Chicago. All he had to show for those sporadic chances as a first baseman and an outfielder are 10 homers, 43 RBIs and a .249 lifetime batting average-hardly earthshaking statistics, but still more pleasing to the eye than the rejection notices he began receiving in 1989.
That was when the White Sox became the first team to give up on him. He went out the door with but one homer all that season, a brace on his sprained right knee and a new and unwelcome status as a seven-year minor league free agent. For being a free agent in the minors puts a player in the same boat as every blue-collar worker who ever saw a factory go belly up and every middle manager who ever got downsized. It turns him into a supplicant who must do what Morman has done again and again these past nine years: hope that another organization wants him and accept however little it is willing to pay.
The Royals were the first to reach out to Morman, largely at the urging of Boles, who had moved into their front office, and third base coach Smokey Garrett, who had managed Morman when he broke in at Glens Falls. "Russ was a great kid," says Garrett, now in his fourth season as Charlotte's hitting coach. "He became a great man." One the Royals could trust to take a craftsman's diligence to their Omaha farm team, one who wouldn't become just another burnout stuck in Triple A, one whose answer to every problem was to keep plugging away.