247 home runs in the minors would be a dubious honor, if ya think about it. - Crash Davis, Bull Durham
In the 1988 film Bull Durham, a minor plotline is that Kevin Costner's character, Crash Davis, a career minor leaguer is approaching the record for most home runs in the minor leagues, and it's something that he very much doesn't want to be celebrated. He sees it as a dubious honour, one that merely signifies that he wasn't quite good enough to make it to Major league level and stay there, it's a mark of mediocre longevity.
One of the big stories to come out of MLS this weekend was that with 2 goals against Chivas USA, Landon Donovan moved to 134 regular season goals, tying the record held by John Carver's favourite player Jeff Cunningham. At some point in October, he will more than likely move past that mark, and then there's a good chance over the next few years he'll obliterate it and set a mark that won't be reached for a long long time.
That's getting a lot of hype and a lot of congratulations, but should it? Is this a legitimate honour, or a dubious one that exposes his limitations as much as his success?
If you look at the list of all time top scorers, then right below Donovan there really are a lot of people who fit the Crash Davis mold, players who've spent all their career in MLS, or like Davis and his 21 games in the bigs, had brief and unsuccessful flirtations with overseas leagues. Those who were good but not good enough to make it elsewhere, people like Cunningham, or Jaime Moreno, Ante Razov, Jason Kreis, Dwayne de Rosario, Edson Buddle. They've all had very good careers in MLS and deserve plenty of respect, and there's probably a variety of reasons why they didn't head overseas (In Taylor Twellman's case, MLS blocked a sale to then Championship side Preston North End, who knows how that might have ended up.) or if they did, were unsuccessful.
But there's another list you could come up with, of those who could be right up there with Donovan, or who Donovan might still be chasing, but who did successfully make the jump to the 'big leagues' and thus took themselves out of the conversation.
Clint Dempsey had 25 goals with New England before he spent the last 6 1/2 seasons in the EPL, he probably wouldn't be ahead of where Donovan is but he wouldn't be far behind. Brian McBride has 80 career MLS regular season goals, if he hadn't had that successful stint with Fulham and had instead stayed in MLS, he'd probably be the standard bearer right now. Younger players such as Brek Shea or Jozy Altidore might have eventually been the ones to eclipse whatever total Donovan ends up with, but have pursued their dreams to Europe instead.
Move on from merely looking at goalscorers and there are a lot of high profile American stars that have had successful careers overseas during MLS' time, people like John Harkes, Claudio Reyna, Carlos Bocanegra, a lot of goalies most notably Tim Howard, and perhaps the most high profile current player Michael Bradley, an important player for AS Roma.
That's the list that Donovan should be on. He did go to Germany at an early age, but never caught on with Bayer Leverkussen or later at Bayern Munich, but his international record, leading the US in both goals and assists, and his successful loan spells with Everton show he does have the quality to have built a career overseas if he wished. Instead he kept returning to MLS, settling for being the big fish in the small pond rather than pushing himself against the World's best. Maybe he'd have failed, maybe he'd have gone on to have a successful career and become a greater player than he is right now, at 31 years old the window to find that out is probably disappearing.
There's a variety of reasons as to why he might have made those choice to stay in MLS. Part of that may be unselfish, to try and do his part and build the game in the US, or maybe it was for family or financial reasons, or for quality of life - the time he took away from the game earlier this year does suggest he's not driven by a relentless focus on his own career.
Whatever his reasons are, MLS and all fans of North American soccer definitely owe him a debt of gratitude. Having arguably the best American player ever commit to MLS and playing in the league has definitely helped build the profile of the league to where it is currently, a rapidly expanding pond, one where successful big fishes such as Omar Gonzales or Graham Zusi can stay in the league without hurting their international aspirations or their bank balance. A genuinely respectable league that can attract good players, whether older stars from Europe or younger South or Central Americans looking to make a name for themselves and earn a reliable paycheque. If MLS can continue to grow and fulfil Don Garber's vision of being one of the top leagues in the world by 2022, then Landon Donovan would have undoubtedly had a big part to play in that.
So, to answer the question in the title, no, he isn't the Crash Davis of MLS, it was his choice to stay in this 'minor' league. Whether you respect that choice or not, or whatever your feeling towards him, his achievement deserves applause. Though it's definitely a parochial honour, it's by no means a dubious one.