Durham Bulls pair Hollywood reputation, on-field success

The Triple-A squad is among the most recognizable teams in the minors

Fireworks fly above Durham Bulls Athletic Park following the Bulls game against the Memphis Redbirds on July 8. (PJ Ward-Brown / North State Journal)

DURHAM — Crash Davis and Ebby Calvin “Nuke” LaLoosh are among the two most famous players in Durham Bulls history.

And yet neither of them, as presented in the movie, ever appeared in a game for the current version of the team.

Both are the creations of writer/director Ron Shelton, who turned his own baseball experience into a Hollywood classic that helped make the Bulls, arguably, the best-known, most successful minor league franchise in the country.

It’s no accident that more than three decades after “Bull Durham” debuted in 1988, the team continues to embrace the movie’s images and references — from the snorting mechanical bull that promises a free steak to anyone hitting it with a home run ball to the “Lollygaggers” T-shirts sold at the stadium store.

“We’re very fortunate because the Durham Bulls name is so iconic,” said general manager Mike Birling. “We’re constantly either one, two, three or four in merchandise sales. You have all these teams that come in with new names and they may jump ahead of us for a year, but we’re always right there.”

The Bulls brand is so strong that they don’t have to work quite as hard at marketing as many of their competitors. The “Top Gun”-themed shirts that were given to the first 1,000 fans through the gates at Durham Bulls Athletic Park last Friday, for instance, were their first general giveaway in several years.

Birling said that the team prefers to target season ticket holders for such promotional items.

Durham’s Miles Mastrobuoni hits a leadoff home run in the first inning the Bulls’ game against the Memphis Redbirds on July 8. (PJ Ward-Brown / North State Journal)

While they still do their share of between-innings contests, postgame fireworks shows and occasional specialty games, including an upcoming “Bull Durham” Night, Bulls games have much more of a major league feel to them than those depicted in the movie that made the team famous.

Some of that has to do with the level of play.

Durham graduated from the Class A Carolina League in 1997 to become a member of the Triple-A International League, one step away from the “show.” In just the past few days, four of their players — pitchers Luke Bard and Josh Fleming, catcher Jonathan Aranda and outfielder Luke Raley — have been recalled by the parent Tampa Bay Rays.

The transition has produced a better brand of baseball and a much more modern place to play than the historic old Durham Athletic Park a few blocks away. Surprisingly, though, the move wasn’t universally celebrated when it was first made.

“There were two different camps,” said longtime Triangle broadcaster and Bulls PA announcer Tony Riggsbee. “There was a group of fans who loved the old ballpark and never wanted to leave. But I think people did get excited about going to Triple-A after the fact. This ballpark is just so much more comfortable.”

It also has its share of interesting quirks, including the big bull that was originally just a prop from the movie. It became such a popular feature that team officials decided to keep it.

The new, bigger version, which lights up its eyes and puffs smoke from its nose whenever a Durham hitter launches a home run, now sits perched atop the 32-foot high “Blue Monster” wall in left field.

There’s also a hand-operated scoreboard and an old-school barber pole that is more than just an aesthetic outside the private box of team owner Jim Goodmon. Before the pandemic, the Bulls actually had a licensed barber on call just in case a player wanted to get a haircut before a game.

Perhaps the most unique aspect of the ballpark is the Tobacco Road sports bar located beyond the outfield wall.

Even though it’s not physically part of the stadium, patrons can sit on the patio and enjoy a clear view of the field as they enjoy dinner or an adult beverage.

“I’m into setting up events and I have a local friend who takes me to the best places in Durham and this is right up there,” said Brian McGill, a Pittsburgh native who recently moved to the area.

“It’s a great deal to be able to come out, grab some drinks and watch a baseball game,” added Tobacco Road regular Daniel Walker, standing at a counter a few feet away. “It’s an amazing view and you don’t have to buy a ticket.”

Allowing fans to watch games for free while buying somebody else’s concessions might not seem like a sound business model, even for a franchise that annually ranks among the minor league leaders in attendance.

But as GM Birling explains it, there’s a good reason why the Bulls do it.

“Capital Broadcasting, which owns the Bulls, also owns all these buildings,” he said, motioning toward the mixed-use complex that surrounds the stadium, including Tobacco Road. “They’re paying a very good rent to our company, so indirectly it helps us. We’ve had a good relationship with them since they opened. It’s all part of the fun.”

Birling has had so much fun that he’s remained with the Bulls for 23 years.

After every Durham home run, the bull atop the left field puts on a show, with its eyes glowing red and its nose emitting smoke (PJ Ward-Brown / North State Journal)

He’s seen plenty of changes during that time, from construction of the bleachers in right field that brought the stadium up to a Triple-A capacity of around 10,000 to the addition of numerous party and group areas and the opening of the popular American Tobacco Campus and Durham Performing Arts Center across the street.

An $11 million renovation project designed to update the infrastructure of the facility is planned to begin as soon as the current season ends.

One thing that never seems to change is the Bulls’ name at or near the top of the International League standings. They’ve won seven league championships since 2002, including three in the past five years.

It’s a sustained success that can be attributed to the team’s longtime affiliation with the Rays, a franchise widely acknowledged for having one of the best scouting departments and farm systems in baseball.

“It’s funny because when we started out badly (this season), I can’t tell you how many people were texting me, laughing at us and saying, ‘It’s about time,” Birling said. “But some of Tampa’s higher-ups came in during the last week of April and I saw them as I was walking down the sidewalk.

“I didn’t even say anything to them and they were like, ‘Mike, don’t worry. We’ll be good by the middle of May. And next thing you know, middle of May, it was like a switch flipped and we’ve been on fire ever since.”

About the only thing that has been able to cool off the Bulls lately has been the weather. All three games against the Memphis Redbirds last weekend were delayed by storms, forcing Birling to participate in tarp duty with his crew.

It’s one of the less glamorous parts of a minor league general manager’s job. But it’s one Birling takes in stride because, as Crash Davis tells Nuke LaLoosh in the movie “Bull Durham,” Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose and sometimes it rains.”

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