- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
In a way, the Durham Bull watches over minor league baseball.
The Bull had a large, though nonspeaking role in Bull Durham, the fine 1988 movie about life in the minor leagues. He was the big guy in rightfield whose tail waved, eyes lit up and nostrils smoked every time something good happened to the Durham Bulls, HIT THE SIGN AND WIN A STEAK, the sign said.
The sign was strictly a Hollywood creation, but when the movie people left town, Miles Wolff, who is the owner of the actual Durham (N.C.) Bulls, kept it in the outfield. Now the Bull is a major attraction at 51-year-old Durham Athletic Park, home of the Class A Bulls and one of the more charming ballparks in the minors—or majors, for that matter.
Although the Bull is only a few years old, he somehow embodies the spirit and fun of bush leagues past. The most distinctive aspect of the minor league ballpark, in fact, is the patchwork quilt of outfield billboards that stretches from foul line to foul line. It's curious that something so overtly commercial can seem so romantic. In Durham, the Bull keeps company with Acme Overhead Door, Planters Bank, The Intimate Bookshop, the Watts School of Nursing, Hall Wynne Funeral Home, The Flying Burrito, five different beers and Lowe's Hardware: Your Household Word. Why, nearly every human need is addressed out there.
The minors themselves are answering some needs. They are offering good, clean, relatively inexpensive fun and food for the whole family. They are giving towns a sense of civic pride and providing them with their own piece of Americana. They are giving fans an opportunity to spend some time with their neighbors, to talk about the great season so-and-so had here on his way to the big leagues.
For those and other reasons, the bush leagues have never seemed lusher. Last year the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues—the minors-drew 23,103,593 fans, the highest minor league total since 1952, when attendance was 24,024,373. But back then there were 324 clubs in 43 leagues and only 16 major league teams. In 1989 there were 190 minor league franchises in 19 leagues, and there were 26 big league teams. Last year, eight different leagues set attendance records, and the Buffalo Bisons of the Triple A American Association counted 1,116,441 fans, becoming the first minor league team to draw more than a million two years in a row. In 1989 the Bisons outdrew the Chicago White Sox and the Atlanta Braves.
Success has trickled down to the lower minors, as well. In Columbus, Ga., for instance, a moribund Double A Southern League franchise was revived merely by a change in nickname, from the Astros to the Mudcats, a popular fish in the area. Last year Columbus experienced Mudcat Mania as attendance nearly doubled and souvenirs with the distinctive Mudcat logo—a catfish swimming through a C—became very hot items. The minor leagues began performing this kind of magic trick all over the country in the last decade in places like Peoria, Ill., and El Paso and Durham.
The Durham Bull, though, has also become a symbol for something quite different, and therein lies a danger, not only for Durham but also for the minor leagues as we know and love them. To wit, the Bull may be a golden calf and the Bulls could become a victim of their own success. The city of Raleigh, Durham's next-door neighbor and civic archrival, didn't give a flying burrito about a minor league team until it saw its citizens heading west on the nights the Bulls were at home. A few years ago Raleigh began making some very real noise about bringing in its own team to compete with Durham.
To head off the threat, and to ensure that a major league team would continue to be affiliated with Durham, Wolff pushed a bond issue this spring for a new but traditional downtown stadium in Durham, complete with the Bull. The voters resoundingly said no, however, so now a frustrated Wolff may sell the team to Raleigh media mogul Jim Goodmon for a reported $4 million. Not a bad price, considering that in 1980, when Wolff brought the Bulls back to Durham after an eight-year absence, he gave the Class A Carolina League $2,417 for the franchise rights.
But it's an awful price to pay for those who have become attached to the Bull. Goodmon plans to relocate the team in a spanking new $20 million complex near Research Triangle Park, in the middle of the triangle formed by Durham, Raleigh and Chapel Hill, and turn it into a Double A or Triple A franchise. So even if the Bull makes the 30-minute trip down Interstate 70, he'll seem woefully out of place. Hello commerce, goodbye romance. This pains Wolff, who once wrote a lovely novel about the minor leagues titled Season of the Owl. But as he says, "What would you do, given the choice of accepting a large amount of money or undergoing extensive root canal work?"