Durham Bulls return to famous park

Updated: May 10, 2010, 1:33 PM ET
By Shane Mettlen | Special to Page 2

Durham BullsSara D. Davis/Getty ImagesFans watch an exhibition a few years ago at the ballpark made famous by the movie "Bull Durham."

Nuke LaLoosh isn't scheduled to start, Crash Davis isn't anywhere on the roster and it's doubtful you'll see Susan Sarandon waiting outside the clubhouse to meet the players.

But on Monday night, the Durham Bulls are taking a step back to their roots, heading back to the Durham Athletic Park, the stadium immortalized in the 1988 flick "Bull Durham" starring Sarandon, Tim Robbins and Kevin Costner. The Bulls, arguably the most famous and popular team in minor league baseball, haven't played at the DAP since making the jump from Class A to Triple-A and moving into the sparkling 10,000-seat Durham Bulls Athletic Park in 1995.

The Bulls, a Tampa Bay farm team, will play the Toledo Mud Hens at 7:05 p.m. in the first Triple-A game ever played at the park.

The Bulls' return to the 84-year-old ballpark -- which served as a cathedral for Annie Savoy's "Church of Baseball" in the movie -- has created quite a buzz in Durham, where the Bulls are as much a part of the North Carolina city's image as the renovated tobacco warehouses across the street from the new park.

[+] EnlargeKevin Costner
Sara D. Davis/Getty ImagesA few years ago, Kevin Costner and his band performed at the ballpark.

"The Bulls are definitely a representation of Durham and the city," Bulls pitcher Joe Bateman said. Bateman has bounced around the minors since 2002 and has seen his share of ballparks, but can't wait to experience the DAP.

"Just finding out we were playing there was real interesting to me," he said. "I walked down there the other day to check out the old park, and I could see the movie in my head and remember the scenes."

Playing a professional game at the DAP seemed like an impossibility three years ago when the stadium was used for farmers' markets and beer festivals and the field wasn't even in good enough shape to host Little League, let alone guys a step away from the majors.

But the city of Durham spent $4 million and the better part of the last few years turning the stadium into a ballpark once again. The local colleges, Duke and North Carolina Central, now play home games there on a regular basis. But the Bulls' return to the park that has 1,800 seats and can hold nearly 6,000 fans, including lawn tickets and standing room, has become a hot topic around town and in the front office.

"We actually started thinking about this six years ago," Bulls GM Mike Birling said. "We just thought it would be a perfect thing to try. So many people have moved to the area and haven't been able to see the Bulls play where they filmed the movie. We're still going to be doing some of our promotions, but we want people to remember the history and the movie and that we were the ones that kicked off the renaissance of minor league baseball."

Even though the city has changed a lot in the 22 years since "Bull Durham" was released and the franchise outgrew it's folksy Carolina League roots, Bateman said the film still hits the right notes with ballplayers.

"The whole minor league lifestyle," Bateman said. "They got that right in the movie. There's the scene when Tim Robbins is playing the goofy song on the guitar in the bus; that kind of stuff happens. When I was watching the movie as a kid, I had no idea about the long bus rides or the downtime. It gives you the right idea about the lifestyle. I'm excited to go play there because of the whole nostalgia thing. Watching the movie as a little kid, it's pretty ironic that I get to play for this team. For me it's really cool. It's a place where history is made."

Shane Mettlen, formerly of the Culpeper (Va.) Star-Exponent, is a freelance writer for Sports Media Exchange, a national freelance writing network.

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