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The snake in the Garden of Eden first appeared to Wolff in 1985, when he heard that Steve Bryant, an advertising and marketing consultant from Greensboro, N.C., was trying to buy a club and move it to Raleigh. Fortunately for Wolff, the National Association soon established a territorial rule prohibiting a new club from being situated within 35 miles of an existing franchise. But that only temporarily stymied Bryant. He is now threatening to move his Columbus Mudcats—so much for Mudcat Mania—to Zebulon, N.C., which is east of Raleigh and just outside the 35-mile limit.
Wolff decided that the only way to thwart that threat and to keep a major league affiliation in Durham was to build a downtown ballpark—Durham Athletic Park is beyond the point of upgrading. He lobbied local politicians and commissioned architectural plans for a 10,000-seat park. But in March, his dream and the bond issue went down to a resounding defeat. "A lot of voters said, 'Why should we build Miles Wolff a ballpark?' " says Wolff. "But the question they should have been asking was, 'Do we want to keep the Bulls in Durham?' "
Even though he probably will sell the Bulls, Wolff plans to remain in Durham with his wife and two young children. He still owns the Burlington Indians, an Appalachian League team 35 miles west of Durham. "I'll still go to Bulls games," he says. "I just won't be able to make suggestions to the ushers."
Times have changed, all right. Consider these case studies from each level of the minors:
THE BUFFALO BISONS
Bob Rich Jr., the owner of the Triple A Bisons and member of the Rich Products frozen-food family, is spearheading Buffalo's bid for a National League expansion team, but for all intents and purposes, he already has a major league franchise. Consider the hot dogs that are sold at Pilot Field. "We decided we wanted our own signature hot dog," says Mindy Rich, an executive vice-president of the Bisons and Bob's wife. "So we had a hot dog specially formulated for us. We have driven hot dog manufacturers in and out of the city of Buffalo absolutely crazy. The spice profile is a secret, and we periodically send our hot dogs through lab analysis at Rich Products to make sure they maintain that profile and quality level." We'll say it before you do: The Riches have produced a wiener in Buffalo.
In 1982 the Double A Eastern League Bisons drew only 77,077 to ancient War Memorial Stadium (a.k.a. the Rockpile). That's when the Riches decided to save the club. Within two years the attendance had nearly tripled, and after the '84 season Rich purchased the Triple A Wichita franchise in the American Association and moved it to Buffalo. (He now owns a Double A Texas League club in Wichita and a Class A team in Niagara Falls of the New York-Penn League.) War Memorial Stadium, the predominant setting for the movie The Natural, was replaced in 1988 by Pilot Field, a state-of-the-art facility that seats 20,900 but can be expanded to seat 41,530. That's why Buffalo calls itself "The Natural for Expansion."
Rich discovered the secret of running a successful minor league franchise early on: "A lot of minor league owners and operators are dyed-in-the-wool baseball fans, and they spend their whole attention watching things between the white lines, which is basically the responsibility of the major league club. Our theory has been to find the best possible affiliation but train your staff to look at what's happening outside the lines, to watch over things you can control, to make sure promotions are in place, to see that the hot food is hot and the cold drinks are cold, to keep the lavatories clean."
North Carolina has always been the heart of minor league baseball. The state has nine minor league teams, and only the much more populous states of Florida (15), New York (13) and California (10) have more. But the Charlotte Knights, the Cubs' affiliate in the Double A Southern League, seem about as far away from the Durham Bulls as the Vancouver Canadians are.