Bull City

2014 Minor League Season. Gwinett Braves visit Durham Bulls Athletic Park (Durham, North Carolina) for the last home stand of the 2014 season with the Durham Bulls, Triple-A affiliate for the Tampa Bay Rays. This is the last stop before being called to the big leagues. Just days before, outfielder Wil Myers completed his rehab assignment here and was called back to the Tampa Bay Rays. Charlie Montoya was managing The Durham Bulls, for an 8th and final year, as he was promoted the next season, helping to coach the major league team. In 2014 Charlie Montoya also passed Coach Bill Evers as the all-time winningest manager for the Bulls with win 618. He would get 633 before moving to Tampa, Florida. Tampa Bay Rays first expanded in 1997. Charlie Montoya had been working in the organization since then, from managing the rookie league team that year to the winningest manager for the Triple-A affiliate. That streak would come to an end when he accepted the opportunity to be Toronto Blue Jays Manager starting in the 2019 regular season. He is the current skipper of that young team.

In the game, every Durham Bulls player wore high stockings as part of their new look that year. “High socks 4 lyfe” was the slogan. Apparently, all Rays minor leaguers had the same mandate. The Tampa Bay Rays has one of the best (if not the best) player development programs. At every level, players are given the same routines to prepare for competition. When they are finally called to the big leagues, they are surprised by very little as they find themselves doing the things they’ve been doing from the beginning. Historically, Durham Bulls are one of the more successful minor league teams. At the time, they won 7 of the last 8 division titles while going all the way to win the Governor’s Cup 3 times. This prestigious trophy has been awarded to the winner of the International League since 1933. Durham Bulls eventually lost the championship to the Pawtucket Sox in 2014.

It’s been 32 years since the movie “Bull Durham” was first released. There’s a new ball park now. The old one in the movie is still there, its available for rentals, just under a mile north of this one. The Durham Bulls also appeared in a second Baseball movie, “The Rookie” Staring Dennis Quaid. It’s the true story of Jim Moris, a high school teacher who tried out and made it to the Major Leagues late in life to pitch briefly for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, making his Major League Debut at the age of 35. He also played for the Durham Bulls on his way to the big leagues.

Durham Bulls Athletic Park was opened in 1995. Among the retired numbers is (8), worn by the fictional character “Crash Davis,” played by Kevin Costner. The real Crash Davis played for the Philadelphia Athletics from 1940-42. Duke University Blue Devils also play here. The ballpark is located in the midst of office buildings that gives it scale and helps enclosed the stadium. Durham Bulls Athletic Park is a cozy baseball experience while reminding visitors of the greater Raleigh-Durham Research Triangle area. Its an envious position to be in when you work with a view of a game. You will still find the animated-smoking bull beyond the left field foul pole, the bull that would get fans a free steak if it was hit by a home run ball. It all started with overzealous 19th century marketing by the Bull Durham Tobacco Company that convinced folks across America to buy their product over all others.” Bull City” is a testament to that successful campaign.

There may be nicer Triple-A ballparks in the minor leagues. But, the “Bull City” relationship between team and fans is as unique as Chicago Cubs to “Wrigleyville” or Brooklyn Dodgers to “Pig-town.” Trying to repeat it somewhere else is futile. City of Durham is synonymous with the Bulls. It’s impossible to separate the two. For better or for worst, it’s their town and their team. It helps that +50 games are locally televised on Me-Tv, making it easy to watch games from anywhere on the lazy summer day. The 2021 season is set to start May 4th. While in Bull City, it’s the only baseball that matters.

Gwinett Braves @ Durham Bulls

Durham Bulls lose to Gwinett Braves 4-7. Photos taken on Friday August 23, 2014 by Miguel A. Sanchez.

Crash Davis was Here

Image of Crash Davis number retired at the New Durham Athletic Park, 15 minutes away. The real Crash Davis played for Duke University nearby, three seasons for the Philadelphia Athletics in the 1940s, and later came back to play for the Durham Bulls.

In North Carolina at the Old Durham Bulls Park, site of the movie “Bull Durham” (1988), starring Kevin Costner as Crash Davis. The actor went door to door looking for someone to pick up the script. At the time, Orion Pictures had two baseball movies in the works, “The Scout” and “Eight Men Out.” So, it was unlikely that “Bull Durham” would be picked up. But, it was. The 1980s were the golden age of sports movies. Even more unlikely was Ron Shelton, screenwriter and director of “Bull Durham.” His story is based in-part on his own experiences as a minor league player. Ironically, he’s never been a fan of sports movies, cringing at the typical underdog stories. For him, life is not always based on happy endings. Shelton credits Hollywood studios with looking past concerns with oversees markets where baseball movies traditionally didn’t sell. The iconic advertising, along the outfield wall, is gone. The animated-smoking bull beyond the left field foul pole, the bull that got fans a free steak if it was hit by a home run ball, is also gone. All that remains is a chain link fence and padding on the top rail to protect players. More importantly, it’s always great to see a preventive maintenance plan for places like this. It’s well kept, used as the home field for North Carolina Central University. As of 1995, The Durham Bulls have been playing in their new park 15 minutes away.

In the film, Crash Davis is a 12 year journeyman who is picked up by the Durham Bulls, of the Carolina League, to help Nuke Laloosh (Tim Robbins), a new pitching prospect, to prepare for a future call-up to the Majors. What Crash sees is a Pitcher with lots of talent and no brains, someone who doesn’t respect himself, to each his own. Crash’s main problem with Nuke is he won’t respect the game. Basically, Nuke represents Crash’s years of frustration from loving a game that does not love him back. His lesson number 1 to Nuke? “Don’t think, just throw!” In the end, his best advice to Nuke is to live in fear and arrogance (not ignorance). Crash believed that success depends on a humble belief in yourself.

The viewer is also left to wonder if Crash Davis will ever break the all time record of 247 career home runs. As in life, there isn’t always a game 7 or some milestone moment in your career. Most of the time, a career or a game ends with a weakly hit grounder. In the case of Crash Davis, he reached his 247th record breaking homerun. Uneventful. The real prize was making it to the “big leagues,” such is life. The Durham Bulls had a great season that year. But, no one knows how they finished the season, “The path is the goal,” said Mahatma Gandhi.

Every character in this classic brings something to the table. Over 30 years later, after countless surveys and polls, it’s the most accurate movie on the subject. Its said to have been a 2-hour commercial about life in the Minor Leagues. Who would have thought that this field, in the midst of this downtown Durham neighborhood, would lead to a renaissance in the Minor Leagues and have such a huge impact on American Culture? It all started here.  At the risk of sounding sacrilegious, it’s the Church of Baseball, according to Annie Savoy (Susan Sorandan), the voice of a woman in a man’s world. She was the focal point to the “menage a troi” with Nuke & Crash, struggling with moral behavior while invoking profound thoughts from poets and philosophers. “I see great things in baseball. It’s our game. The American game will repair our losses and be a blessing to us,” Walt Whitman.

Baseball has evolved into a game based on analytics, mathematicians who can scientifically dissect a prospect to predict his development and performance. But, they are unable to look into a players eyes and see the potential for winning or for being a hall of fame caliber player. The fate of the Minor Leagues is currently on hold. In a normal world, the MiLB and MLB would be meeting to renew their Player Development Contract next year. MLB & MLBPA are busy negotiating (or not) to re-open the 2020 regular season after the pandemic. It’s still unclear which 120 teams remain. Some 40 teams are on the chopping blocks to be unaffiliated with MLB. A minor league team can be the economic engine in small towns across the country, not to mention the crushed dreams of over one thousand players released days before the annual MLB draft. “Full many a flower is born to blossom unseen and waste its sweetness in the desert air,” what Annie Savoy would invoke here from Tomas Grey, or William Cullen Bryant? Maybe its from the “Church of Baseball.”