Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Gwinnett Braves at Durham Bulls (International League) - July 12, 2015

The second day of my weekend jaunt to North Carolina started at the most iconic minor league stadium of all. You've all heard about the movie Bull Durham which chronicled veteran catcher Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) teaching a young rookie pitcher (Tim Robbins) as members of the Class-A Durham Bulls. The movie was a surprise hit and since then, the Bulls are the only minor league team that most casual sports fans can name. The name Crash Davis was inspired by a real-life major leaguer who went to Duke University and played a season with the Bulls in 1948. The movie has had such an impact that the Bulls retired Davis' #8 (it is not clear if this is for the movie character, the real-life player, or both) along with the #10 of Chipper Jones (Joe Morgan and Bill Evers are the other two honoured numbers).

The Bulls moved from the Carolina League to the AAA International League when major league baseball expanded in 1998, becoming the affiliate of the newborn Tampa Bay Devil Rays, an affiliation that lasts to this day. Their three-year-old ballyard, Durham Bulls Athletic Park (DBAP) had to undergo renovations to meet requirements for the higher level of baseball being played, and since then, it has been upgraded on eight different occasions. And what a job they have done! I last visited here during my trip in 2001 and don't recall much about the stadium, but now it is a premier destination befitting its fame. DBAP is located as part of the American Tobacco Historic District, which includes a number of shops and eateries in renovated warehouses that are worth visiting before or after the game.

Parking is $5 in a garage across the street, but if you get there early enough, there is free parking on Willard Street, approximately one minute from the stadium. The signs state "No Parking Except Ball Park Events". This is the opposite of what you normally see, when a street with ample parking is restricted during a sporting event, forcing fans to pay to park. Even with the free option here, many fans choose to fork over their money which is good news for budget conscious road trippers such as myself, who have no trouble finding a spot on the street.

Arriving at the front of the stadium, you are greeted by statues of kids playing ball and a couple of fountains. The ticket windows are to the left and offer a nice surprise - some of the cheapest minor league tickets available. The value is outstanding for AAA ball, with the top ticket only $14.99, which includes $5 credit towards food or merchandise. I was debating what to do when a gentleman asked me if I needed a single. I replied in the affirmative and he sold me a ticket in the top row under cover (an important concern on this very sunny day) for $5.

I really loved this seat because it was at the end of a row and against the back wall (below). A great place to relax and enjoy the game. I did move around near the end and had no trouble sitting right down close to home plate as ushers are quite relaxed here.

When you enter the stadium you walk up a staircase to reach the main concourse. Along here are dozens of concession stands with all the favourites, including hot dogs at $3.50. A turkey avocado wrap was tempting at $8 but I had to save myself for the evening game at Winston-Salem, which was dollar dog night.

The most recent of the aforementioned renovations came before the 2014 season and included a new high definition scoreboard in the Blue Monster, the left field wall. When a player bats, the scoreboard provides useful information such as birthplace, draft position, and other tidbits, something that really helps you appreciate what is happening in front of you.

Above it is the most recognizable target in sports, the bull, updated to include vegetarian options.

One of the interesting touches here is a plaque from Durham's sister city of Toyama, Japan. They have a ballpark of their own, but I don't know if a similar plaque can be found there.

Overall, this is one of the best ballparks in the minor leagues. It touches all the bases: affordable, beautiful, excellent location and neighborhood, spacious, friendly staff and fans, and a team with lots of prospects. Given that Duke basketball plays just a few miles away and the Carolina Hurricanes are just over in Raleigh, Durham might be the best sports city in the country, at least on a per capita basis. I'll definitely be back and if you have yet to visit, you should consider going as soon as possible.

The Game

The Gwinnett Braves were in town to finish up a four-game set before the All-Star break with first pitch set for 1:05. I had to be in Winston-Salem, about 75 minutes away, by 5:00, so I did not expect to see the end of the game, but I had hoped for a quick one, and that was what I got. Unfortunately, neither team could score more than a run, but it was pretty interesting.

The highlight for me was seeing J.P. Arencibia on his way back down. In 2009, I saw him play for Las Vegas as he made his way up to the majors. He had a short career with Toronto and spent last season in the Texas organization, but it is safe to say he won't have many more major league at bats as he is just not that good a hitter. I was lucky to get a shot of him making contact (above).

Gwinnett scored an unearned run in the second when Mikie Mahtook misplayed a single into a triple, but Durham answered in the bottom of the third as Taylor Motter singled home Boog Powell. After that, starting pitchers Matt Andriese (fresh off a spot call up for Tampa Bay) and Kanekoa Texeira each kept the other team scoreless, and the bullpens managed to do the same through 8 innings. Durham had a chance in their 8th when Powell led off with a single, but Arencibia grounded weakly to the pitcher to end the threat, and I decided to leave to make my way to Winston-Salem.

As I drove west, I listened to the rest of the game, which seemed pretty exciting with a couple of great defensive plays by the home team. As I neared my destination, the radio feed disappeared but I found out later that Gwinnett won 3-1 in 11 innings. That is the problem with doubleheaders in different cities, you always risk missing something. Such is the curse of the sports road tripper, but I'm gong to try my best to avoid these situations in the future. There is really no excuse for leaving early!



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