Durham Bulls Minor League Baseball Game – Durham, NC
Full disclosure: Before Friday night, we had never attended a minor league baseball game.
Crazy, I know. but it’s true. We both grew up in cities with a Major League Baseball team, and have both never lived in a city that hosted a minor league team. We’d heard and seen in popular culture what minor league baseball is supposed to be, but we’d yet to experience it for ourselves. We’d heard about the historical and ongoing gimmicks at games that have turned minor league baseball into a hybrid vaudevillian/circus show with a side of baseball. We knew that teams tried nearly everything in the book, from $1 beverage/food nights to extra acts like wrestling after the games, in order to drum up attendance. So when we were making our itinerary for this journey, we knew that we had to include a minor league baseball game.
Easily the most famous minor league team, the Durham Bulls were immortalized in the 1988 film Bull Durham. The team also played a role in the 2002 movie The Rookie, and is usually the first team that anyone can think of when asked to name a minor league baseball team. Besides cinematic notoriety, the Durham Bulls are also one of the oldest minor league teams, established in 1902 as the Durham Tobacconists. After changing their name to the “Bulls” in 1912, the organization made its way through nearly every rank of minor league baseball, spending most of their time as a Single-A club before becoming joining Triple-A baseball in 1998. They’ve been affiliated with 11 different Major League teams over the years, spending 17 years with as an Atlanta Braves affiliate from 1980-1997, before switching over to the Tampa Bay Rays in 1998.
Seeing as how we’d never been to a minor league baseball game, we figured that there was no better way to prepare for our first one than watching the movie ABOUT the exact minor league team that we were going to see play. Bull Durham is a story about an aging baseball catcher brought in to foster a young and inexperienced pitcher. Throw in a love triangle, some very believable baseball playing, dozens of clever baseball-related scenes, and stellar acting from Kevin Costner, Susan Surandon, and Tim Robbins, and you have what Sports Illustrated deemed “The Greatest Sports Movie” in 2003.
The movie also serves as one of the few windows into minor league baseball, complete with players of various ages and skill, zero emphasis on actually winning, and even “Baseball Annies”. The immortal “I believe in” monologue, “The Show” speech, and the “pitcher’s mound meeting” scenes live on in baseball lore, and are still quoted by baseball fans and baseball players all of the time. The last scene exemplifies just what most people think about meetings at the mound, as the players talk about every subject matter OTHER than baseball:
And just like the movie, a night out at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park is more about fun than the actual game of baseball itself. Yes there are indeed hardcore fans and people truly paying attention to the game, but it became evident very quickly that most Bulls fans treated the game as a fun Friday night out with a baseball happening in the background. With no official gimmick other than fireworks after the game, attendance was still high on a sunny and beautiful Friday night. With cheap ticket prices, only 10,000 seats, and an open concourse inside of the stadium that allows fans to work around the entire stadium while still being able to view the game, there’s literally not a bad seat in the house.
Although postgame fireworks were the only official show of the night, the club and their mascot “Wool E. Bull” had something fun going on each inning. Whether it was a trivia contest, a race around the bases, a pseudo-sumo wrestling match, a “Running of the Kids”, or a giant bull mascot on a go-kart, there was something fun waiting to happen right around the corner. It could have been the 8 runs scored by the Indianapolis Indians in the first two innings, but the crowd was definitely more enthused with what was happening between innings than with the actual game. The loudest cheering of the entire game came when a 10 year old boy was throwing bug-shaped stuffed animals into buckets for prizes (He won a Durham Bulls had and a Crash Davis, Kevin Costner’s character in Bull Durham, baseball jersey).
But there was also a bit of baseball action that night that may only be found in the minors: After Bulls catcher Nevin Ashley left the game after taking a foul tip to the hand, Durham went through some unprecedented line-up changes. Left fielder Stephen Vogt ran in to put on his catching gear, second baseman Sean O’Malley went to left field, third baseman Will Rhymes jogged over to second base, and Matt Mangini came in off the bench to play third base. In a game where offensive statistics mean more to major league clubs than wins or defensive fielding percentages, sometimes it doesn’t really matter what position you play.
So in the end our minor league baseball experience wasn’t quite what we had been expecting. No crazy stunts, $1 beer, or even a little person pinch-hitter. That’s not to say that they don’t have various promotions going on throughout the season, but the Durham Bulls have a winning formula that has kept them near the top in minor league attendances each and every year. They’ve created a fun atmosphere inside of an open and picturesque ballpark that lends itself to communal interaction. There’s office building balconies behind the home run fences, a bar/restaurant overlooking the outfield, great concessions, and even a children’s play area. Everything about the stadium lends itself to enjoying a night out with family and friends.
Don’t wait 27 years like we did to enjoy your first minor league baseball game. Take your friends to a night out at the local minor league ballpark. Heck, it might even be $1 beer night.