Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 24, 2011

They Still Pursue The Dream

On a blindingly hot Friday in Concord, New Hampshire, the LPGA Futures Tour rolled into town for The International, a 54-hole event now in its eighth year. The Futures Tour is the LPGA’s developmental league, playing a sixteen tournament schedule through the Southeast, Midwest and Northeast from late March through early September. Total purses are in the $100,000 range, meaning each week’s winner typically receives a check for $14,000. At the end of the season, the ten leading money winners receive LPGA Tour cards for the following year; with the top five gaining higher priority membership, giving them a greater chance of making it into each week’s field. Those finishing in sixth through twentieth place also earn a spot in the finals of the LPGA’s Q-School, where a strong finish can also lead to fully exempt membership on the Tour.

More than 150 mostly young women braved temperatures approaching triple digits and uncomfortable humidity to walk the fairways of Concord’s Beaver Meadow golf course in the tournament’s first round. They came from a wide range of backgrounds and from all around the United States and twenty foreign countries. But for all of their variety, they were there in fierce pursuit of a single dream; playing golf as a LPGA professional.

Forty-eight hours later, the heat wave enveloping the Northeast had begun to abate ever so slightly, though it was still plenty hot on Staten Island when the starting nine for the Staten Island Yankees took the field for Sunday afternoon’s game against the Tri-City ValleyCats. The teams are two of fourteen in the New York – Penn League, a Class A rookie league that plays a short season from mid-June through early September. Sunday’s game was played at Richmond County Bank Ballpark, a dream location among minor league parks. The little stadium is just a five-minute walk from the Staten Island Ferry terminal, with all of New York harbor and in the distance the skyscrapers of lower Manhattan forming the stunning backdrop beyond the outfield fence. Throughout the contest massive freighters under the guidance of tugboats a fraction of their size would glide across the outfield panorama, seemingly close enough to touch.

It’s not likely that the 50 young men in uniform for the minor league affiliates of the Yankees and the Houston Astros spent much time enjoying the view. Like the women golfers in New Hampshire, they came from many different backgrounds. The youngest on either squad was 18. The oldest was a ValleyCats pitcher just a month north of his 25th birthday. Each one hoped and believed that they were at the beginning of a journey that would eventually take them to the starting lineup of a major league team. In the equally fierce pursuit of that single dream, they were at the lovely little park by the harbor to hone their skills and develop their talent.

On this Sunday afternoon the home nine was overmatched against the ValleyCats starting pitcher. A month short of his 21st birthday, Nick Tropeano picked up his first win of the year by holding Staten Island to just two hits while striking out nine over six innings. The Long Island native who attended SUNY Stony Brook had a few fans of his own in the stands, cheering his dominance. Meanwhile at the plate, after busing down from their home field in Troy, New York, Tri-City tallied a run in the first and another in the fifth to secure a 2-0 victory.

For the 4,000 or so fans in the stands, there was perhaps disappointment, but only so much. At this level virtually the entire roster turns over every year; so while the local fans of course want the home team to win they come as much just to enjoy the game and the between innings skits typical of every minor league park. Of course, it probably helped that Staten Island has by far the best record in the New York – Penn League so far this season.

Up in New Hampshire it’s unlikely that even half as many spectators made it out to Beaver Meadow over the entire three days of The International. During Friday’s first round fans were able to freely chat with the players between shots, whether it was to congratulate one on a 260-yard drive or learn about another’s first trip east from her native Illinois.

But about the same time the final out was being recorded on Staten Island; 28-year old Canadian Jessica Shepley was cementing her first Futures Tour victory, a one-shot win over American Laureen Doughtie. Shepley had been lurking near the top of the leaderboard through the first two rounds. She opened with a 5-under par 67 to sit two strokes back of first round leader Saehee Son of Korea. She followed that with a 70 on Saturday to move to within a stroke of Son. While the leader skied to a 75 in the final round, Shepley closed with her best round of the tournament, a 66 for a 13-under par total. That was good enough to earn her the $14,000 first place check, which vaulted her from 112th to 20th on the Tour’s money list.

So for a day at least, two young athletes sharing a common dream had reason to celebrate; had reason to believe in themselves and their dream just a little bit more. Yet in a cynical world, it is easy to mock those who walked the fairways in Concord or patrolled the diamond on Staten Island. Most of course will never make it. In a year, or two, or five, the sponsors back home will tell the young golfer that they can no longer afford the investment to keep her on the road. The young ballplayer will tire of late night bus trips and sharing apartments with teammates who were strangers at the start of the season.

Even for those who make it to the LPGA or MLB or any other major league, success is hardly guaranteed. Most careers at the top-level will be brief, and likely interspersed with additional trips back to the minor leagues or tours.

In time, most of the dreams will be set aside. A few will stay in their sport in some other capacity. Someone in the field at The International will likely one day be a head pro at a private club. Perhaps one of the starters at Richmond County Bank Ballpark will one day be sitting in those same stands as a scout. But for most life will move in an entirely different direction; and as they build careers as salespeople or bankers, teachers or accountants, memories of their youthful dreams will fade. Given that harsh reality, it is easy to ask, why bother?

The answer of course, as all of those young women and men would say, is because “most” is not the same as “all.” It is an absurdly long road from Guadalajara, Mexico to the number one ranking in the world of women’s golf. It is every bit as much a fairy tale journey from San Pedro de Macoris on the south coast of the Dominican to second base at The Stadium and victory at one’s first All-Star Home Run Derby.

Yet Loren Ochoa traveled that road, and along the way was a standout on the Futures Tour; and Robinson Cano made that journey, and along the way played rookie ball at the little park overlooking New York harbor.

The young women studying their putts and the young men stepping into the batter’s box this weekend shared the common knowledge that the only dreams that come true are those one dares to chase. Week in and week out, they risk failure and defeat, for some perhaps even ridicule, because they dare to chase the dream. Dismiss it as naïve if you must. But in a world in which too many dreams are willingly abandoned, their efforts are a sure symbol of the noble potential of sport, and a heartening example of a particular kind of human courage.

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