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February 8, 2012

Sobsequy

When You Leave Durham, You Don't Come Back

by Adam Sobsey

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“There are more people out there touring the nation in conversion vans chasing the purity offered by minor-league baseball than you think. And Durham was their Mecca.”

So observes James Bailey in his new, self-published novel, The Greatest Show on Dirt. Bailey should know: he worked for the Durham Bulls for three seasons, 1990-92. You haven’t done the minor leagues until you’ve done Durham.

Why so hallowed? The Bulls are no more important, historically, or long-lived than any number of other minor-league teams (there was a Buffalo Bisons franchise in 1879, for example, nearly 25 years before there was baseball in Durham). Nor has it been the fixture it seems. After more than a decade of dormancy, in 1980 an impassioned entrepreneur named Miles Wolff revived the franchise and brought baseball back to World War II-era Durham Athletic Park. (Wolff, not yet 70 years old, is himself a historic pillar of the minor leagues—not only did he rebuild the Bulls, he also founded Baseball America, which is still based in Durham, and to which James Bailey is a contributor.)

But the Bulls no longer play at the old DAP, except for a couple of souvenir-type games, like this one. Since 1995, they have played in one of those new-old retro ballparks designed by HOK, now known as Populous, the firm that established the brick-and-bunting aesthetic trend with Camden Yards in 1992 (their first park was, in fact, in Buffalo: Coca-Cola Field, which opened in 1988). The Bulls now do business under the grandstand of a large media conglomerate that also runs, among other radio and television outlets, the big sports radio station on which Bulls games are broadcast. Capitol Broadcasting Corporation has operated the Bulls for about 20 years, which is some little accomplishment. (For real longevity, however, try the Norfolk Tides, who had the same General Manager, Dave Rosenfield, for 48 years, from 1963 until just last autumn.)

Long gone are the “old” days—I mean the previous epoch of the Durham Bulls, the 1980s and early 1990s, that last age of unsmoothed edges and oddball baseball, when Duke grad students and smoky toothless old-timers alike got drunk in the bleachers where mischievous kids smashed praying mantises for fun, and the rally chant was the accelerating “Bulls’ hit! Bulls’hit! Bullshit!” Brad Komminsk, who nearly won the Carolina League Triple Crown in 1981, was our king.

Those were romantic times, but under the Bulls’ bright blue and orange, they were actually quite shabby. Even though the club was, at the time, a Class-A affiliate of the Atlanta Braves, which farmed a lot of big-league produce (Blauser, Butler, Gant, Glavine, Justice, etc.), they weren’t a very successful team, making the playoffs in just six of 17 seasons under the Braves’ auspices. That mediocrity was right in line with the city itself. Durham was still something of a sluggard burg at the time, with a decrepit downtown and a reputation for crime.

The new millennium has transformed the city. The old, tobacco-built downtown is renascent with restaurants and trendy-looking architecture and design firms, crime is down, and the arts are flourishing—especially food artisans, a boon for the Bull City’s belly. The Bulls now play in 10,000-seat Durham Bulls Athletic Park, less than a mile from the old DAP (which is still in use by colleges, high schools, and others). Right beyond the newer DBAP, itself no youngster anymore, is the Durham Performing Arts Center, where people flock for big touring shows: Wicked, Paul Simon, etc. Probably not since the heyday of the tobacco industry has Durham’s leaf been so bright. You should come visit.

Appropriately, we are also experiencing another Golden Age of Durham Bulls baseball, or at least a gilded one. The luster comes from the Tampa Bay Rays, who regularly arm their Triple-A affiliate with big-league talent; they have spoiled Dermites (as we are colloquially known) with three International League championships in the last decade and trips to the playoffs for five straight seasons under manager Charlie Montoyo. On a summer night at the DBAP, you’ll find happy families, generally paying little attention to the game, which is just the background music for a larger civic party. Fans sit scarfing down funnel cakes and having their eardrums pounded by the relentlessly loud PA system and the emcee who commandeers it between innings for giveaways, “Sumo wrestling” contests, and so on.

That is to say that a Durham Bulls game is, nowadays, very much like almost every other minor-league ballgame in America, all the way down to the store-bought rally music. “(Ev-ry-bo-dy clap-your-hands!” Thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump…) Emblematic of the conformity is this recent detail: the Bulls were the last team whose web site functioned independent of the milb.com imprimatur. Last year, the front office gave in to the pressure of its governing body; now, when you type www.durhambulls.com into your URL bar, you are redirected to http://www.milb.com/index.jsp?sid=t234.

Still, without the Durham Bulls, there would be no Bull Durham, one of the great baseball movies of all time and the only Durham movie of all time (unless you count this suppressed execration), and without Bull Durham, there would be no Bulls, at least in their present form. There are still fans at the DBAP who shout “lollygaggers!” There is the mascot, Wool E. Bull, who “was born in July 1992” according the Bulls’ web site but can be seen, sporting an earlier guise, in the 1988 movie. (I have long thought that his name derived from Tim Robbins’ misheard lyrics to “Try a Little Tenderness” in Bull Durham—“she may  get woolly” instead of “weary”—but the available evidence doesn’t back that up.) In fact, much of what the world thinks of as the Durham Bulls is actually Bull Durham.

So perhaps, rather than “hallowed,” another word applies to the Bulls. It comes courtesy of the novelist Walker Percy, who went to college at the nearby University of North Carolina. Here it is, from The Moviegoer, right after the two main characters go to see a movie which was shot in the very New Orleans neighborhood where they watch it:

After the movie, she looks around the neighborhood. "Yes, it is certified now."

She refers to a phenomenon of movie-going which I have called certification. Nowadays when a person lives somewhere, in a neighborhood, the place is not certified for him. More than likely he will live there sadly and the emptiness which is inside him will expand until it evacuates the entire neighborhood. But if he sees a movie which shows his very neighborhood, it becomes possible for him to live, for a time at least, as a person who is Somewhere and not Anywhere.

The Durham Bulls are “certified,” of course, and Durham is Somewhere thanks to Bull Durham. The movie’s legacy continues to loom over the city—literally: a big wooden bull that sits atop the left-field wall, which snorts and smokes and goes red in the eyes after a home-team home run. “Hit Bull Win Steak,” reads the Miyagi-like text under the animal, a promise to hungry sluggers who might drill one high, right down the line and over the 30-foot “Blue Monster” (which is itself, of course, a replica of that more famous, even cinematic wall). The bull has the feel of quirky local kitsch, like the Cadillac Ranch or Goo Goo Clusters.

Ye Olde Snorting Bull, however, like “lollygaggers!” and Wool E., is in fact not indigenous. It too is an invention of the movie production back in the late 1980s. (The one at the DBAP is in turn a souped-up duplicate of the moviemakers’ DAP “original.”) Without Bull Durham, the Bulls and their home might as well be in Norfolk or Buffalo, or any number of other minor-league American teams and towns that are almost, but perhaps not quite, certified by Hollywood.

Baseball is already hazy with mythologies—start with Field of Dreams and go from there—and it is salutary to have it periodically exfoliated by the pitiless calculus that governs the sport. Here in Durham, we’ve just had two such mythbusters. First, there was the departure of outfielder Justin Ruggiano. The Roodge is something of a local legend, having played five seasons for the Bulls and done some heroic things here; he owns multiple Triple-A franchise hitting records in Durham.

Late last month, Ruggiano was designated for assignment, for the second time in about a year. He had the option to refuse another assignment to Durham, and he exercised it, following his teammate Dan Johnson out the door. Johnson signed a minor-league deal with the White Sox, thus virtually guaranteeing his return to the DBAP—the White Sox’ Triple-A affiliate, the Charlotte Knights, play in Durham’s division in the International League and are the closest thing to a “rival” the Bulls have.

“I think I served my time there,” Ruggiano told Tampa Bay Tribune reporter Roger Mooney. He may have been referring to the Rays organization as a whole, but practically speaking he meant Durham, and there is no mistaking the prison imagery in “served my time.” He was dying to get out, and had been for a good long while; he told me early last season that the Rays were “already in my rear-view mirror.”

In Bull Durham, Annie Savoy tells Nuke LaLoosh, who has just been called up to the Show, “Once you leave Durham, you don’t come back.” Ruggiano is a living refutation of that claim—he kept coming back here for half a decade—but it’s important to look past the immediate details of the Savoy-LaLoosh transaction and see the deeper meaning of what she tells him: no one should want to come back to Durham, not if they have big-league dreams. The only sane way to make peace with the place is something like Chris Richard’s approach: the erstwhile Bulls first baseman played four seasons in Durham, set some Triple-A franchise records of his own (Ruggiano broke a couple of them), bought a house here, retired at age 36, and now runs a local baseball academy.

Ruggiano’s breakup with the Rays was really no surprise. It has long been clear that they only ever thought of him as a replacement player, despite his five-tool promise, and so he may be. He certainly didn’t do himself any favors, immediately upon his call-up last May, by abandoning his already erratic plate discipline, drawing just four walks against 26 strikeouts in 111 major-league plate appearances in 2011. The Rays, to be fair, gave him an extended opportunity last year (and tried him a bit in 2007 and 2008, as well). They have simply spent money on better-established players during this offseason, and there is no longer room for Ruggiano’s marginal, though tantalizing, skills. He expressed a desire to play in Japan last year, and there were rumors that he was after the same thing following his recent DFA by the Rays, but on Monday he signed with the Astros. Ruggiano hails from Austin, Texas (and attended Texas A & M University), so the signing makes sense for two reasons: he is closer to home, for one; and for another, the Astros are awful, and Ruggiano stands a reasonable chance of competing for a roster spot.

Ruggiano’s farewell to the Rays and to Durham opens our eyes to the passage of time. You can’t help but stop and think back to 2007, when he first arrived, at age 25. Downtown Durham was still mostly asleep then, though prospects were bright. How do our five years stack up against Ruggiano’s, to what degree are we big leaguers, and can those dreams come true in our present home? We assess ourselves, at the moment of his departure, in the mirror of the Roodge. It was time, in any case, for him to move on. There is a little sadness, but mostly sweet sorrow in the parting. Surely for him it is as gleeful as parole. One hopes, for his sake, that he never comes back to Durham.

The second mythbuster is colder. Not long after Ruggiano was designated for assignment, his 2011 teammate Russ Canzler met the same fate. Canzler was claimed off waivers by the Cleveland Indians—or so one would assume, given that the Rays dealt him to the Tribe days later. Plenty of ink and pixels have been devoted to the reigning International League MVP—more by yours truly, I would venture to guess, than by anyone else in history—so there’s no need to tread back over this ground.

The thing that lingers in the mind, though, is what the Rays got for Canzler, who like Ruggiano was 25 years old in his first and only season as a Bull. The Indians paid the Rays $100,000—or, to put it another way, a bag of baseballs. (The Bulls’ own manager, Montoyo, recalls just such a transaction from his younger days, involving a pitcher who would later edge his way into the baseball annals: Tim Fortugno allowed George Brett’s 3,000th hit.)

Multiple myths get busted up here: first, the Tampa Bay Rays as Happy Family. Because the Rays are paupers in the wealthy AL East, a feel-good underdog vibe has surrounded them since 2008, when they surprised everyone by making it all the way to the World Series with their band of rookies in ear-flap caps. That vibe was heightened by 2011’s now-legendary 162nd-game magic that propelled them back into the playoffs.

But make no mistake: the Rays, as much as any other team—and probably more than most of them—succeed on their budget by doing cold, hard business. They not only weren’t impressed by Canzler’s major-league bid (after his impressive Triple-A campaign, he got a cup of coffee late last season), they weren’t even interested in him as a Durham Bull. Tampa Bay didn’t require much more cash for him than the Indians will pay Canzler to play in Columbus in 2012, and he’ll be a bargain of unthinkable value should he succeed in the major leagues. (His former teammate Dirk Hayhurst insists that he will.)

Thus the Bull Durham balloon is popped, ruthlessly, by Andrew Friedman’s fingernail. “When you leave Durham, you don’t come back” has a particularly grim finality in the light of unsentimental, even harsh decisions like this one, made far from Durham by the Tampa Bay brass. Canzler may indeed play at the DBAP again, but it will be in a Clippers uniform and out of the tiny visitors’ clubhouse: our local hero, deemed a mule, has been sloughed off for a fistful of dollars.

My Baseball Prospectus colleague R. J. Anderson told me, “Canzler's face always reminded me of Casey Blake.” He’s right; look at their pictures. He also happens to look a little like Brad Komminsk, around the time when Komminsk played for the Durham Bulls. (Coincidentally, with Canzler’s trade to the Indians, all three of these players have been Cleveland property.) Russ Canzler could very well thrive in the big leagues; or he could turn out to be yet another Brad Komminsk. There’s no way of guessing, really.  

Komminsk himself came back to Durham last year, as the hitting coach of the Norfolk Tides. Previously, he had managed the Orioles’ Double-A affiliate in Bowie; prior to that, he managed farm teams in the Indians’ organization (Komminsk is from Ohio). Like a lot of minor-league lifers, especially those stuck with bad ballclubs and slovenly organizations—the Tides were terrible last year, and manager Gary Allenson was as gloomy as Norfolk’s Harbor Park by August—Komminsk, who is 50 years old, looked haggard, out of shape, joyless, defeated. He made acid comments in the coaches’ office after games.

Thinking of him, and thinking of Russ Canzler, his descendant of sorts, another myth is busted, or must at least be reconsidered: you do come back to Durham, but you come back as someone else. 

Adam Sobsey is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Adam's other articles. You can contact Adam by clicking here

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