The Durham Bulls didn’t play this season, but the iconic minor league franchise will be on center stage for baseball’s biggest moments.
While the pandemic may have kept the DBAP empty this year, the core of the recent Bulls’ International League championship teams will be playing in the World Series, which started on Tuesday night.
“Those guys led us to back-to-back Governors’ Cup championships and a Triple-A National Championship,” said Bulls assistant general manager Scott Strickland. “It’s really special to see them take the success they found here in Durham and play on a national stage for yet another trophy — the Commissioner’s Trophy”
The Tampa Bay Rays, Durham’s parent club, has a roster that relies heavily on homegrown talent. The cash-strapped Rays depend on a steady stream of players coming up from the minors — ones they will likely away when they’re ready to start earning large MLB contracts.
Heading into the World Series, the Rays have had 445 at-bats during this postseason, and 260 of them — 58% — were by former Bulls players. Ex-Durham standouts are responsible for half of the team’s hits and runs.
On the mound, former Bulls have produced six of Tampa’s nine postseason wins, five of the six saves and started nine of the 14 games. They’ve thrown 53% of all October innings and produced 65% of Tampa’s strikeouts.
In all, 18 former Bulls players have played for the Rays this postseason. The group includes starting pitchers Tyler Glasnow and Blake Snell, who produced big wins in the early rounds; relievers Diego Castillo and Peter Fairbanks; and position players Mike Brosseau, whose home run beat the Yankees in the Divisional Series, Ji-Man Choi, the roly-poly first baseman who can still get down into a split to field a throw, and Gold Glove center fielder Kevin Kiermaier.
While rosters shift slightly from round to round, the team will likely set a record for most former Bulls in a World Series.
Currently, that mark is held by the 2008 Rays, which featured 15 former Bulls, including Evan Longoria, David Price, B.J. Upton, Ben Zobrist, Rocco Baldelli, Carl Crawford and Scott Kazmir.
In an era of free agency and more player movement than ever before, the Rays/Bulls relationship could be called a throwback … except none of the Bulls former parent clubs ever leaned this heavily on the farm system.
The Braves World Series teams of the 1990s featured a core of former Bulls players, back when Durham was their Class-A farm team. David Justice, Ron Gant, Steve Avery and Jeff Blauser starred for the World Series teams early in the decade, eventually giving way to Andrew and Chipper Jones, John Rocker and Kevin Millwood, ex-Durham Bulls all.
The Braves never saw more than 12 former Bulls suit up in the postseason, however.
Going back even farther, the 1960s Bulls were a farm team for the Detroit Tigers and sent six players to the 1968 World Series, won by Detroit. In the 1940s, Durham sent five players to a pair of Brooklyn Dodgers Series teams.
The Rays also feature former Bulls at manager — Kevin Cash — and throughout the coaching staff, including hitting coach Chad Mottola (a 2003 Bull), bench coach Matt Quatraro (2002), and Ozzie Timmons and former Tar Heel Kyle Snyder, who served as Bulls coaches in recent years.
“Bulls fans know the faces they are cheering for.,” said Strickland.
The Rays model of building a franchise was constructed in large part by former general manager Andrew Friedman, who moved on to the Dodgers in 2015. Since then, he’s done much of the same on the West Coast, including relying on a certain Triangle-based source of talent.
Assuming they all make the active roster for the final round, three former Bulls will see action for the Dodgers in the World Series, which would tie for the 10th-most former Bulls in World Series history. All three are middle relievers — Adam Kolarek, Jake McGee and Dylan Floro. Another former Bull, David Price, was acquired in the offseason in the same trade that brought Mookie Betts to Los Angeles, but Price opted out of the season due to COVID concerns.
The Dodgers also have a two-time former Bull on the coaching staff. First base coach George Lombard played for Durham in the Braves era, hitting 14 home runs in 1997, and the Rays era, hitting 17 in 2003.
While the Bulls may be the focus of North Carolina’s World Series connections, there are other former local stars to watch.
The Carolina Mudcats will be represented. Rays infielder Yandy Diaz, one of the few non-Bulls on the roster, played 76 games for the Muddies in 2014.
The Dodgers’ Austin Barnes hit 12 home runs for Greensboro in 2012.
The only local college product on either roster is Rays pitcher Ryan Thompson, who played for Campbell, but a pair of North Carolina high school players will suit up for the Dodgers.
Corey Seager, who won the NLCS MVP award, hails from Concord, where he played for Northwest Cabarrus. His brother, Kyle, also a major leaguer, played for UNC.
Pitcher Alex Wood is a Charlotte native who played at Ardrey Kell.
For this World Series, however, it’s clear that the state’s baseball capital will be in Durham for the next week and a half, as players who grew up in the shadow of the Blue Monster step into the spotlight.