Columns & Blogs

July 15, 2014

DeCock: In world of minor-league baseball, Durham’s the all-star

As the Triple-A All-Star Game visits Durham, it’s the host city that shines brightest. For decades, it has been the ultimate expression of minor-league baseball, for good and bad.

When Phil Gosselin came to Durham for the first time, he expected the old ballpark, Crash Davis and Nuke LaLoosh, old warehouses and the snorting bull up against the warehouse in right field. He was too late.

By the time Gosselin, 25, made it to Durham, as a college player at Virginia, the Durham Bulls had moved on from “Bull Durham” and Durham Athletic Park. Instead there was a new ballpark, the DBAP, and a whole new world.

“I thought it was still the old one, I guess. I was expecting the bull out in right field,” said Gosselin, an International League All-Star who plays second base for the Gwinnett Braves. “I didn’t know any better. I though/t it was still that stadium. I didn’t know they had a new one. I thought, ‘This one looks a little bit better, a little nicer than the movie.’ ”

Long before the movie made the Durham Bulls one of the most recognizable franchises in sports, minor-league baseball was here. And it will still be here after the movie is dated and worn. It was no coincidence the movie was set in Durham, but it was a perfect fit.

Durham is minor-league baseball. And minor-league baseball is Durham.

As the Triple-A All-Star Game visits the new ballpark for the first time Wednesday night, it’s impossible to separate Durham from this particular flavor of baseball.

You start with the movie, because it changed not only the franchise but the entire sport, but there’s so much more than that. Durham has always exemplified the minor leagues, for good and bad. Baseball America, which studies the minor leagues with Talmudic devotion, has been based here for decades.

Right up through the ’80s, the DAP was a cardinal example of low-level minor-league baseball – charming but out of date, a relic of an era before MLB expansion when each town had its own team and nearly every one was inextricably linked to an industry that was on the wane.

All of that, from the ballpark to the crumbling tobacco warehouses, was exactly why writer/director Ron Shelton set “Bull Durham” in Durham. It represented everything he remembered about the minor leagues.

The movie changed things forever. Minor-league baseball’s popularity skyrocketed. The Bulls were one of scores of teams that moved up and out, into Triple-A and into a shiny new stadium with all the bells and whistles of a major league ballpark. As the best players in Triple-A gather here, they come from places like Fresno and El Paso and Louisville and Oklahoma City, all of which have built new stadiums that put the old to shame.

Fresno Grizzlies manager Bob Mariano, who will manage the Pacific Coast League on Wednesday, has visited both Durham stadiums, new and old, many times in a 30-year coaching career. Just as he has witnessed the changing times in Durham, he has seen that echoed throughout the minor leagues.

“In Fresno, we have a beautiful stadium,” Mariano said. “Indoor (batting) cages, the dugouts are beautiful, it’s a really nice facility. (Players) coming in, they can’t draw back on it. They’re coming into an era where minor-league ballparks are really nice.”

Now, some MLB teams have affiliates in their own metropolitan exurbs. Only traffic separates the prospects from the majors. Minor-league baseball has become big business, and nowhere is it bigger business than Durham, where the Bulls are just one tentacle of a large media corporation, one pillar of a massive real-estate development.

The Triple-A All-Stars will be on display Wednesday night. They can look around and see the real All-Star of minor-league baseball. It’s Durham.

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