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.

Berth of the Wild Cards

2011 Post Season at Tropicana Field. The Tampa Bay Rays hosted the Texas Rangers for Game 3 of the American League Division Series (ALDS). During the last game of the 2011 regular season schedule, the Tampa Bay Rays were hosting the New York Yankees, they would also come back from a 5-0 deficit in the second inning. Throughout all of baseball, that day was for the ages. It’s been dubbed as “Game 162.” On that day, eight teams and four games still had a role to shape the wild card teams and the match-ups to determine what the post season would look like. The situation left four teams still trying to clinch two play-off spots. With four other games to determine home field advantage, no play-off games were set yet. The Rays would come back from nine games down for a playoff berth. It would all be decided in a compacted 129 minutes. The Boston Red Sox had a historic collapse to lose a big lead in their division and ultimately lose any chance to play in the post season, among other climatic finishes throughout baseball that day.

Only 85 miles in Central Florida, going to a post season game in Tampa was a challenge I could not refuse. This was game 3 of the ALDS against the Texas Rangers. There is a different feel to a play-off game. When you’re a baseball fan, the electricity in the park runs through your veins, whether it’s your team or not. There’s normally lots of signage and festive decoration; red, white, and blue banners pleated in shape of a fans called bunting, oddly enough. They’re as old as the American Flag. I’ve been to Tropicana Field countless times since I moved to Florida. Never was the atmosphere like this. The park was sold out, the first time that I saw that at Tropicana Field. In Florida, there are too many outdoor activities for most Floridians to opt into attending a game. I find that sports teams in Florida mostly get a life-line from people who have relocated here from up-north, where loyalty runs deep.

David Price was the starting pitcher for the Tampa Rays. They seem to have always done well against him. Manager Joe Maddon was at work in trying to pull a win out of his toolbox and Bench Coach Dave Martinez was still a big part of Joe Maddon’s supporting cast. They would both go on to a historic run with the Chicago Cubs and Dave Martinez was the winning Manager with the Washington Nationals in 2019. Andrew Friedman was still Director of Player Development for the Tampa Bay Rays. He would go to the Los Angeles Dodgers to help steer their post season run to present day. Tampa Bay Rays have played .500 ball six of the last ten years. Since 2008, they’ve been to the post season six times. It proves that player development program is dynamic, still run by knowledgeable folks who bought into the system.

Tampa Bay Rays were eliminated three games to one. Josh Hamilton and the Texas Rangers were too strong a team and were looking to repeat an appearance to the World Series after losing to the San Francisco Giants in 2010. Meanwhile, Andrian Beltre was busy putting up the numbers for the Texas Rangers that will one day land him in the Hall of Fame. His estimated time of arrival is 2023. Texas Rangers went on to face the St. Louis Cardinals in the 2011 World Series and lost a hard-fought battle that appeared to never end because both sides kept scoring. Ironically, the Texas Rangers would once again lose World Series, this time to a wild card team. During the 1981 strike season, the wild card was briefly used but was not officially part of the game until 1994 (during another strike). In 2012, MLB installed a second wild card. Both wild card teams in each league would play in a single elimination game in an effort to repeat the same excitement as “Game 162.”