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Bulls still going strong in Durham

8/5/2005

DURHAM, N.C. -- The Durham Bulls aren't what they used to be. Even if you've never
been to a Bulls game, you probably remember the team from "Bull Durham," the 1988 classic starring Kevin Costner, Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon.

Remember the public address announcer from the movie, the one with a stereotypical deep Southern twang? That was a bit of exaggeration, but even today, says Bulls reliever Tim Corcoran, the real deal -- Bill Law -- is something special.

"The announcer in the movie and [Law] -- they're pretty close. His
voice is perfect for here. He's got a voice that everybody wants to
listen to but sometimes he kind of messes up, but nobody really cares,
because the sound is authentic and he does a good job. But when he
messes up and corrects himself, that's the best thing. We all enjoy
listening to him in the bullpen."

Tony Riggsbee, who has been a radio broadcaster for the Bulls since 1980, points out that the press box is slightly more comfortable than the old days.

"In the old ballpark [the Durham Athletic Park, or DAP, as pronounced as by the locals], it was a dungeon. It was located at field level, right behind the plate. There was a fan in there, and that was
it. It was sweltering in the summer and freezing in April."

And now? "It's state-of-the-art. Air-conditioned and heated, with
wireless Internet access."

Life in Class A ball, the brand of baseball depicted in the movie, hasn't changed much, either. "That movie is probably the closest to the real [minor-league] experience you're going to get," says Corcoran, who is in his second season with the Bulls. He last pitched in Class A in 2004.

According to Corcoran, every team has a wild and cocky pitcher like Nuke LaLoosh, and "the [teams] don't pay anything, $800 a month, and that pays the rent and some food, and whatever you have left over, you go and drink on it."

But the Bulls went Triple-A in 1998 and are now a farm club of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. In Triple-A ball, a first-year player earns $2,150 a month (minor-league veterans can earn much more). Many of the players have appeared in the majors. However, meal money still remains ridiculously low, about $20 a day.

But the food's better in Triple-A -- no "peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, which you prepared with a tongue depressor," says pitcher Matt Carnes, who played Class A ball in Fort Wayne, Ind., and Fort Myers, Fla.

And the team flies almost everywhere, except for games within a few
hours of Durham. That's when they take a bus -- one far more luxurious
than the one the Durham Bulls traveled in back in '88. The old bus (and it was
old, a 1965 model) had one big feature: air conditioning that was
intermittent, at best.

The new bus, says Carnes, is better than flying, because when the team takes its commercial flights, "You have to get up at 4 in the morning, put on a suit, land at 2 o'clock, and then it's smoking hot. A bus is better -- throw on a pair of sweats and watch a movie."

In other words, Triple-A is miles above Class A ball.

In 1979, Miles Wolff, who had 10 years of experience in minor-league front offices, purchased the Bulls' franchise, which had been out of business for eight years, for $2,400. He leased 42-year-old Durham Athletic Park from the city.

The fans poured in just about as fast as the beer poured out. The first game under Wolff's ownership -- April 15, 1980 -- drew 4,418 fans, and in 1990, the Bulls became the first
Class A team to top the 300,000 attendance mark.

"One newspaper headlined us, 'The best bar in town,'" Wolff recalled.

That was only a year or two after it became legal to buy liquor by the drink in Durham, and with the drinking age still 18, Duke students came out in droves to support the team.

Wolff remembered a mix of Duke professors and students, aging hippies and tobacco workers coming to Durham Athletic Park, a crumbling 5,000 seater. Average ticket price, circa 1988: $3.50 for an adult, $2.50 for a child. Fourteen-ounce beer price, $1. You can understand the attraction. Today, tickets are still reasonable -- $8 for a terrace box, $5 for lawn seating.

The team's new ballpark, Durham Bulls Athletic Park (or "D-BAP," for short), opened in 1995 after some political battles with the town of Durham, has a capacity of 10,000, luxury boxes ($500-$750 a pop for one game), and, of course, a better brand of baseball.

Just like back in the old days, you can still find plenty of free parking near the new ballpark. But it's not quite the same, says longtime Bulls fan Lisa Dailey.

"You used to be able to park your car
right next to the old DAP. And every once in a while, when someone hit a foul ball, you'd wait and sometimes hear a windshield shatter. Now all it does it is hit a car roof once in a while, and everyone will clap."

By 1988, the team's value had skyrocketed, and attendance climbed even higher. But the movie wasn't the sole reason for the team's success, Wolff says.

"We were doing very, very well," he says. "But once the movie came, the old ballpark couldn't hold us. That's when we started saying, 'We've got to have a new ballpark. This thing's literally falling down.'"

To get the new park, which initially was voted down by referendum, Wolff had to sell the Bulls. "I had to sell, because I knew the team couldn't survive long-term in the old DAP."

The way to a new park was through the deep pockets of corporate
ownership, and Jim Goodman, the CEO of Capitol Broadcasting, bought
the team in 1990. Wolff cashed out with a nice profit, and plans for the new park went forward, paid for by the city.

For years, the Class A Bulls were affiliated with the Atlanta Braves.

"You were mainly looking at the prospects," Riggsbee says. "You know, Andruw Jones, Chipper Jones, Albert Hall, Gerald Perry."

Plenty of old Bulls became major-leaguers, including Ryan Klesko and Javy
Lopez. Under the Devil Rays' affiliation, Aubrey Huff and Rocco Baldelli are among those who have graduated from Triple-A to the majors.

Last year, 26 Bulls played in the majors. This year's roster ranges from top prospect B.J. Upton, a first-round draft pick in 2002 who played briefly with the Devil Rays last year and is one of the game's top prospects, to veteran catcher Tim Laker, who originally was drafted by the Expos in 1988 and has seen action in parts of nine big-league seasons.

It's hard to tell which is better, the new or the old Bulls. "We were more funky," Wolff says. "Now it's a big Triple-A operation with great concessions and a great
stadium. It's a whole different animal than when we were in the old stadium.

"It's more geared to families now than we were. I think we were more
fun, but that's obviously a biased view. [Back in the 1980s,] it was a
pretty natural, authentic baseball experience."

Jeff Merron is a staff writer for Page 2.