There’s an element of nostalgia woven into the fabric of baseball that affects me in a completely unique way. Maybe it’s the way baseball history sings in harmony with the history of America. Maybe it’s knowing that so many of my fellow countrymen have played the game and loved the game and understand what I’m talking about. Maybe it’s that it can be timeless and enduring even while it changes and evolves. For me, there’s nothing like it this game.
In my travels, I’ve visited the baseball cathedrals in Boston and Chicago. I’ve enjoyed the timeless classics in Kansas City and Baltimore and I’ve taken in that new stadium smell in Minneapolis and Atlanta. Perhaps no ballpark captures what I love about baseball the way Durham Bulls Athletic Park does. There’s real history here among the old brick factories that have been given new life in this rejuvenated city. This is the ballpark of Crash Davis and Nuke LaLoosh. But it’s also not that ballpark at all.
The field is surrounded by modern stands with comfortable modern seats. The outfield is bordered by brick and glass office buildings that give the park a wonderfully cozy feel. The giant bull sign is there in left field atop the Blue Monster, but it’s also bordered by a fancy glass railing and outdoor dining where you can catch a home run with your French fries. This is where the superstars of tomorrow come to make their final case for a promotion to “The Show.” And it’s where factory workers and research scientists have gathered to watch fresh-faced kids start their professional journeys for decades. It’s old and new. It’s baseball as it was and baseball’s future in the flesh.
The good people that run the Bulls’ game day experience have a great feel for what makes this place special. The on field entertainment is professionally done and family-friendly without feeling zany and over the top. They put on one of the best fireworks shows in MiLB every week and they invite the city in when they take fireworks to a whole other level every 4th of July. You’ll find a great balance of Bull Durham movie references without feeling like you’re at a Bull Durham theme park. It’s as if they know they’re stewarding something special and they’re determined not to ruin it.
I’ve never needed an excuse to come here. I’d gladly watch two teams made up entirely of organizational depth play baseball on this field. But the second week of the MiLB season featured a collision of two of the deepest, most talented systems in the game. The Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp, the AAA affiliate of the Miami Marlins were in town to take on the hometown Bulls who represent the Tampa Bay Rays. Vidal Brujan is led off for the home team and consensus #1 prospect Wander Franco is hit second. Josh Lowe was in right field and hit third behind the big two. Fellow top 100 prospect and two-way threat Brendan McKay was in the DH slot and Taylor Walls at shortstop. This is the future of the Tampa Bay Rays on display. It was a preview of a team core that, once joined with the likes of Brandon Lowe, Randy Arozarena and the Rays elite pritching program, will expect to win multiple championships in Tampa.
The Jumbo Shrimp countered with one of the hottest names in MLB, star rookie second baseman Jazz Chisholm who was in on a short rehab assignment. Shortstop Jose Devers, first baseman Lewin Diaz and center fielder Monte Harrison all figure to spend time with the big club this season. Nick Neidert, who has already made a couple of starts for the Marlins, made a start during this series.
The games didn’t disappoint as the Jumbo Shrimp took the series 4 games to 2. I was in the press box for a doubleheader on Wednesday, May 13th and got to see the behind-the-scenes action when a rare call by the umpire completely stumped the official scorer and the TV crew.
In the top of the 2nd inning with the bases loaded Jazz Chisholm hit a high chopper to Bulls first baseman Dalton Kelly who quickly fired home to get the force out, but catcher Brett Sullivan pulled his foot off of the plate early before firing back to Kelly for what looked to be an inning ending double play. The home plate umpire was all over the call and he quickly ruled that the runner from third was safe and the inning would continue. I was out on the concourse filming Chisholm’s at bat and walked back into the press box just as the official scorer wondered aloud how on earth to score that play. I’ve been scoring nearly every game I attend for years, but I was just as stumped. After a few frenzied minutes, it was determined that there was a fielder’s choice AND a 3-2-3 put-out of Chisholm and he would be awarded an RBI. That was easily the strangest play I’ve ever put in my scorebook.
I was back at the ballpark for the series finale on Sunday the 16th, this time as a paying customer along with my wife who is my constant baseball companion. What baseball fan doesn’t dream of meeting someone that shares their love for the game? I am truly blessed. We have had some great baseball adventures, but the DBAP is our baseball home. On this day I was excited to see Joe Ryan start for the Bulls, but his day didn’t go as planned and he was out of the game after 2 2/3 innings. After a few innings we grab some pizza by the slice and cold beverages from the concessions. It’s not cold pizza from a big chain either. They are real New York style slices that hit the sweet spot.
The concessions here are really top notch and reasonably priced. The Bulls offer highly discounted concessions on Thursday nights for Family Night, making taking the family to a game quite reasonable. The offerings range from real Carolina-style BBQ to street tacos to the standard ballpark fare. When we reach the 7th inning stretch I made a run for our favorite ballpark treat, frozen custard – chocolate for me and vanilla for the lady. Sharing a frosty treat with her on a warm night at the best ballpark in MiLB watching some of the best prospects on the planet play the greatest game on earth? Yeah, that’s going to work. Just don’t judge me for wearing my Jazz Chisholm T-Shirt. I’ll wear my Bulls gear next time.