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When the big league - and reality - bites

Date

Simon White

Most armchair sports fans daydream of reaching the big time overseas. But what if you got there and had to pay your own way to-and-from events, lost money, lived out of a suitcase and woke up one day to find yourself without a team to play for?

Luke Hughes rounds the bases after hitting a home run with his first Major League at-bat; a young Kim Felton blasts out of a bunker at the 2004 British Open; and a teenage Jessica Moore wins in the first round of the 2008 Australian Open.

Luke Hughes rounds the bases after hitting a home run with his first Major League at-bat; a young Kim Felton blasts out of a bunker at the 2004 British Open; and a teenage Jessica Moore wins in the first round of the 2008 Australian Open.

On April 28, 2010, Luke Hughes smacked a fastball from Detroit pitcher Max Scherzer over the right-field wall for a home run at his first Major League at-bat.

On July 17 of this year, Hughes sat alone in a hotel room in Sacramento, a self-confessed "lost" man without a team, a job and, momentarily, hope.

Only 112 other players in the 140-plus year history of Major League baseball have matched the feat from that first sentence; countless thousands have suffered the fate of the second.

Luke Hughes hits out during his days with the Minnesota Twins.

Luke Hughes hits out during his days with the Minnesota Twins.

Hughes considers both to be life-changing experiences.

The 28-year-old from Perth will never forget that night in Detroit when, just three days after being called up from the minor leagues by the Minnesota Twins, he joined one of baseball's most elite clubs.

"I remember thinking to myself 'I kind of hit that all right' but I was still looking at the base and I actually thought [the right fielder] had caught it," Hughes said.

Kim Felton and his brother - and sometimes caddy - Todd.

Kim Felton and his brother - and sometimes caddy - Todd.

"Then I saw him turn around and look back into the crowd and I put my head down and just started laughing.

"I was pretty much overrun by joy. I floated around the bases and all I could think of was how my mum and dad and sister and friends would be going nuts back in Australia."

Hughes figured he'd seen a bit of everything in his first nine years in the US.

Jessica Moore on the training court during the 2010 Commonwealth Games.

Jessica Moore on the training court during the 2010 Commonwealth Games.

In the minor leagues there were 12-hour bus trips, stints at places most of us couldn't find without Google maps (Elizabethton, Beloit, New Britain and Fort Myers), a myriad of non-descript motel rooms, forking out $13 a day to have team staff wash your laundry and feed you before and after games and off-seasons spent working odd jobs in Perth.

In a 96-game adventure in the Majors with the Twins in 2011 it was luxury coaches to and from airport tarmacs, plush hotel rooms, staff packing up and carrying your bags, pinch-yourself moments inside Boston's Fenway Park and New York's Yankee Stadium and a rookie salary of $485,000 per annum.

But nothing could have prepared Hughes for what transpired this year.

Bojana Bobusic (left) and Sacha Jones picked up invaluable doubles prizemoney at the Australian Open in January.

Bojana Bobusic (left) and Sacha Jones picked up invaluable doubles prizemoney at the Australian Open in January.

He made the Twins' Major League side straight out of spring training camp (a first), then was placed on the waiver list after just four games.

The Oakland Athletics claimed him off the waivers only to send him to a AAA minor league affiliate and then, even worse, AA level (a real "kick in the guts", Hughes recalls). He got back to AAA ball in Sacramento only for Oakland to cut him altogether in mid-July.

"I sat around for two weeks in a hotel room basically waiting to hear if I had a job," Hughes said.

"It was a tough time, mentally more than anything. I questioned whether I was good enough to play top level again but then I started thinking that this was my dream and that I had more to offer the game.

"I wasn't willing to give up my baseball career like that."

Even still, Hughes had resigned himself to life in the semi-professional independent leagues when his mobile phone rang shortly after his flight landed in Philadelphia in early August.

It was his agent. Hughes been picked up by the Toronto Blue Jays. The dream was still alive. Within hours he was back on another plane.

A good walk spoiled?

Few sports reward their most elite performers as handsomely as golf. Witness Tiger Woods' career prizemoney of more than $100 million on the US tour alone.

Equally, however, even fewer sports have the capacity to drain so much - both mentally and financially - from those who try to squeeze out a living on the lower rungs of their professional ladder.

Perth golfer Kim Felton understands the dichotomy pretty well.

Since turning professional in 1999, he has cashed cheques of $90,000 and $180,000 respectively for winning tournaments on the US Nationwide (now WEB.COM) and OneAsia tours and pocketed close to $80,000 for making the cut at the 2004 British Open.

But he also missed a potentially lucrative berth on the USPGA tour by a mere few thousand dollars in prizemoney (and just one spot on a Nationwide moneywinners' list) and dropped from 12th to 36th at that British Open with four bogeys in the last six holes.

In four of his last seven seasons as a touring pro - paying his own travel and accommodation costs - the 37-year-old has actually lost money playing golf.

Friendly and disarmingly honest, Felton does a nice line in self-deprecating humour.

"I had a full-time caddy when I started in the US, which was costing me $1000 a week - a lot for a Nationwide player," Felton reflected on his five-year stint in the US.

"All up it was costing me about $100,000 a year to be over there playing on the tour. I had a really good first year [2005] in which I made about $187,000 in prizemoney but after the tax and cost of living came out of that, I think I ended up with about $4 left over for a sandwich.

"In 2006 I pretty much broke even but in 2007, 2008 and 2009 I lost money. I felt like I was beating my head against the wall.

Professional golfers live, die and generally drive themselves nuts in accordance with "the cut" - a scoring mark that divides a tournament field in half at the mid-way point and dictates who will play on and be paid and who gets the weekend off without earning a cheque.

Sick of missing cuts on the Nationwide Tour despite regularly shooting under par (and remember, less than 0.5 per cent of all golfers can regularly make par), a frustrated Felton returned to Perth at the end of 2009 to a "real" job working in a friend's wine shop.

It took him less than a week to realise how much he valued life as a professional golfer but it wasn't until the second half of 2010 that he returned to touring life, promptly winning a $1 million tournament in China.

The fly-out and fly-back lifestyle of the OneAsia and Australasian tours is certainly easier than long haul to, from and within the US.

Sometimes Felton's wife Gemma accompanies him as caddy; other times his brother Todd might carry the bags. He's away from Perth perhaps 20 weeks a year rather than for 11 months.

But golf can still be a grind, mentally as much as physically.

Felton, who was the individual low-scorer at amateur golf's Eisenhower Trophy in 1998 (ahead of the likes of Aaron Baddeley and Paul Casey), can't help but look at some of his friends playing overseas and ponder why their careers have kicked on when his hasn't.

One of them, July's British Open runner-up Adam Scott, has earned almost $3 million this year despite not winning a tournament. Another, Brendan Jones, is a less recognisable name but has career earnings of more than $9 million, mostly accumulated in Japan.

Felton, for whom the past two years have been "losing" ones, has learned the hard way - and is still learning - that practice doesn't always make perfect.

When he got to the US, he saw his rivals training obsessively, figured he had to follow suit and tinkered with his swing in search of extra hitting power that he now concedes he never really needed.

"I never used to practice a lot when I first got to the US. I practiced well but it was a couple of hours a day, here and there," Felton said.

"Now, if I'm not careful, I'll find myself on the range beating balls all the way from after going to the gym in the morning through to 6pm at night. And that's not something I want to be doing.

"There's a lot of time to think in golf because you are out on the course for five hours. In tennis or baseball at least you have the ball just coming at you and you just react.

"We [golfers] are all tapped in the head because we think about things like cuts for so long."

Second service - life after waitressing

Tennis players might have the advantage of reacting to a moving ball but that doesn't make them immune to "the grind".

Last year, worn down by the year-in, year-out demands of life on the world tour and with her bank balance slowly dwindling under considerable travel costs, Jessica Moore returned to the family farm in Williams, 160 kilometres south of Perth.

Moore felt a bit like a veteran but hadn't yet turned 21.

"I was a little bit unsure of where I was at. Tennis was all I knew and all I'd ever done," Moore said.

"I wanted to spend some time with my family and friends and, to be honest, I was bit curious about what it would be like to live a normal life."

So Moore did some coaching and got a job as a waitress in a restaurant. She's still doing the coaching but this year it is being used to help fund another tilt at the tour.

Like Felton, Moore looked over the other side of the fence and decided she wanted to live life as a professional athlete while she had the chance.

"I didn't want to look back somewhere down the track and think of what might have been," she said.

Moore and her doubles partner Bojana Bobusic make for an interesting mix - one a country kid, the other having moved to Perth from Serbia with her parents at 11 months of age.

Moore turned professional as a teenager, won a match at the Australian Open at 17 and reached her highest career ranking to date (No. 132) in October 2008, a little more than two months after her 18th birthday.

Bobusic is three years older but attended the University of California at Berkley for four years and stayed an amateur until 2009. She hadn't played at a senior Grand Slam event before this year's Australian Open.

The pair have similar financial situations (prizemoney earned simply goes back into the travel piggy bank), playing schedules (last week the $25,000 Traralgon International, this week the $25,000 Bendigo International) and ambitions (establish themselves in the world's top-200, follow the sun to Europe and the US and play in Grand Slams).

They play doubles - a discipline often shunned by the tennis elite - for the same reasons too.

The first is a rare sense of teamwork in a sport that is so much about the individual. The second is the prizemoney on offer.

When Bobusic and another Aussie Sacha Jones reached the second round of the doubles at this year's Australian Open, they split $17,200.

It was mere pittance compared to the $1.5 million Australian No. 1 Samantha Stosur has earned on the court so far in 2012 and significantly less than the earnings to date this year of WA's top player, Casey Dellacqua ($267,335).

But when breaking even is a decent result and a full year's worth of travel lies ahead, that kind of money is not to be scoffed at.

"It's probably enough to keep me going for six months," Bobusic said.

'It's what you think about as a kid'

So what keeps athletes perservering, when they aren't making much (if any) money, getting injured (Bobusic has been hobbled this year by plantar fasciitis), constantly moving from city to city, living out of suitcases in motel rooms, getting cut from teams and struggling to produce their best form?

Pride? Self-belief? The hope of striking it rich? Love of the game?

Maybe all of the above?

For Bobusic, who beat Caroline Wozniacki at the junior Wimbledon tournament in 2004, it's about competing.

"I'm still enjoying my tennis and I just love to compete," she said.

"It's funny, my mum remembers the Wozniacki match more than I do. It was back in the days before deciding tie-breaks and I think I won 10-8 or 11-9 in the third set.

"Mum says I rang up and told her how I'd beaten this player named Caroline who was supposed to be a big deal. I guess I was right because she became No. 1 in the world for a while."

Wozniacki's high-profile partner is golf's wonderboy Rory McIlroy, who, if the grapevine is to be believed, is about to sign a $250 million contract with Nike - Felton's former long-time sponsor.

Felton, now with Titleist (as it would happen, McIlroy's incumbent sponsor) can only dream of those kinds of riches but knows his best golf, played consistently, can secure him a more than handy income.

When Felton was diagnosed with a collapsed disc in his back last year, doctors told him they could perform fusion surgery but that it would likely mean he would never play full-time golf again.

His decision to treat the condition instead with Piates and injections was essentially a gamble on himself, his golfing ability and the dream that he might one day find his way back into a major tournament.

"I remember at the practice round for the British Open there were thousands of people strolling around. I was saying to my brother 'how about this?'," Felton said.

"That’s what you play golf for. People ask me what's the best thing that ever happened to me in golf and it's winning the Australian Amatateur, being the low scorer at the Eisenhower and just participating at Troon [at the Open].

"It was great winning in China and on the Nationwide tour and the money that came with it but the British Open, well that's what you think about as a kid."

Each year a handful of kids are plucked from junior baseball ranks in Australia by US Major League clubs, just as Hughes was by the Twins more than a decade ago.

Only a few will ever play in the Majors; many more will endure a Bull Durham-style existence shuttling between minor league sides, amid a blur of no-name rural towns, small-time ballparks and never-quite-unpacked suitcases.

Hughes, who starts the Australian Baseball League season with the Perth Heat in Adelaide on Thursday night, figures he can offer a word or two of advice to the younger generation.

His own Major League ambitions will likely be decided in the fortnight after Monday, when he officially becomes a free agent.

Hughes hopes very much that the big time will come knocking again. If not, at least he still has those golden memories from 18 months ago, of a joyous solo lap around the bases in front of 20,000 people in Detroit.

And, after the challenges of the past 12 months, also a new appreciation of the sport he grew up playing for the Morley Eagles.

"I feel like I finally understand exactly what baseball is all about," Hughes said.

2 comments so far

  • There are no tougher sports than Golf or Tennis to be a professional. The rewards can be great, but the risks are huge. If you ever hear an AFL player complain about money, ask him how he would go if he had to pay for coaching, transport and accommodation out of his own pocket!

    Commenter
    Craig
    Date and time
    November 01, 2012, 12:33PM
    • I don't know about that. Golf may have "the cut" but that depends upon how you've gone. Try, instead, a team sport where selection depends upon how one or two experts feel you'd go compared to someone else with no real way of proving otherwise outside often very belated hindsight (and by then it may well be too late for you anyway). But agreed about AFL - as team sports go, it's not so tough on an 18yo, with good money, opportunities and coaching. I've seen some TAC Cup training and an equivalent in cricket and it's chalk and cheese. The other team sport I'm familiar with is worse (and we can win Olympic gold medals in that). So of course a sport like tennis would be tough, but there would be advantages, like qualifying rather than always having to be picked or having to sit on the bench or waiting till next season. And there's also being your own boss. And the big pay packets if you're good enough. That's why people do it.

      Commenter
      Paying a kid's apprenticeship in a career that may not happen.
      Location
      Teamland
      Date and time
      November 01, 2012, 7:01PM

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