I’m going to come clean. I did not like baseball. I did not play baseball when I was young. I did not watch baseball on TV. I did not talk about baseball with friends. To me, baseball was a very slow and incredibly boring game. It simply couldn’t match the excitement and the action of basketball. And, growing up in the college basketball-crazy Triangle region of North Carolina there simply wasn’t any more room for another sport. So, baseball wasn’t ever really on my radar.
Now, this is not to say that I was unaware of baseball. Quite the opposite. Like any kid growing up in the South in the 1980’s, my family had TBS on our cable lineup. So I frequently saw that many Atlanta Braves games were on TV, but I always saw them as a reason to turn off the TV or change the channel. The game was, to me, boring. I mean, a guy stands on a hill going through a lot of scratching, looking, adjusting and delaying and then throws a ball toward a guy trying to hit the ball as far as he could while all these other guys were merely standing around. And this went on for hours. (It also didn’t help that the Atlanta Braves were pretty bad during the 80’s, which made the game even more unwatchable). And heavens to Betsy, if the game were tied, they would play extra innings that could last as long as the original game itself! As a fairly active kid, I didn’t have time for that– so I just headed outside to play something far more interesting. And that’s pretty much the way things went for the next 20 years.
The Impact of Bull Durham
In the summer of 1988, there was a small movie released by Orion Pictures that was filmed in Durham, N.C. The movie was about baseball. Well, it’s really about a lot more than that, but when you’re 11 going on 12 years old, you’re not quite ready to pick up on those things just yet! But the cool thing to me about this movie is that parts of it were filmed in my hometown, Garner, N.C. In fact, while the film was being shot in 1987, there was a lot of buzz about the movie and a few people around town were cast as extras. The most recognizable part in the film is the scene at the batting cages. Crash Davis is talking with Annie as they hit baseballs at a batting cage. The batting cage scene was shot at the Par 3 golf course on US 401 in Garner. The Par 3 golf course had (obviously) a 9-hole par 3 golf course, a putt-putt course, and a golf driving range. At some point in time, the owners had a batting cage as a part of the setup. In the film, the camera position changes and shows the field that they are hitting baseballs into and you can see a large yellow water slide (think: small-scale water park) in the distance. I remember visiting that water slide once as a kid and it always stuck with me. Then, the camera angle shifts again and you can see a young boy walking in the background of the shot. I knew that kid. He was a few years older than me, but everyone in town knew that he got a part as an extra in the film. Needless to say, seeing a recognizable landmark and seeing an actual person you knew in the film was amazing! And that was it. Those two items were the extent of my interest in the film. But little did I know, that film would plant a seed that would sprout many years later.
I Rarely Attended Baseball Games
As I grew up, I did go to a few Durham Bulls games at the old Durham Athletic Park (DAP). I was in high school at the time and Durham was a single-A affiliate of the Atlanta Braves. I went to a few games with a couple of friends of mine. We had a good time. One of those friends– who most certainly shall remain nameless– was able to purchase his first beer at the DAP. He was 18 at the time. We were amazed that he was able to get away with that! (For the record, I did not purchase any alcohol while underage at any of these baseball games!). But mostly, it was a chance for us to go and hang out together on a summer evening watching a baseball team that had been immortalized in a wildly successful movie just a few years earlier. And that was it. I couldn’t tell you the score of the game, who was playing or how many innings they played. I was there for a good time.
When the Durham Bulls moved to their new stadium, the Durham Bulls Athletic Park, in the early 90’s, I was in college. This meant that I was working a lot during the summer to earn money to go back to school that Fall so I didn’t have a lot of time for many leisure activities. I don’t recall going to a baseball game at all for many years until my college alumni chapter began hosting an annual “night at the ballpark” event. I took my lovely wife and we had a great time. But I still didn’t pay attention to the game. I was mainly there to enjoy a night out with my wife and get away from the demands of work.
Discovering the Minnesota Twins
Fast forward several years to 2012. By now, I was a father of three. I had started my own business and was afforded the opportunity to travel for work. My travels took me to many cities across the US that I’d never been too previously. As I traveled, I began looking for interesting things to do in those cities and noticed a commonality: they all had a Major League Baseball team. Up to that point, the only Major League Baseball game I’d ever seen was at Turner Field in Atlanta in 1999 (the only thing I remember about that game is that the concession prices were astronomical and it was cool to be in the stadium used in the 1996 Olympic Games).
I quickly cooked up a plan to go to a major league game in one of these cities the next time I had the opportunity. And that’s when it happened: on May 8, 2012, I was in Minneapolis, MN and decided that I’d buy a ticket to a game between the Minnesota Twins and the Los Angeles Angels. I rode the train into downtown Minneapolis, got out at the stadium, walked up to the box office at Target Field and purchased a ticket. I sat in the outfield under a covering and took in the game. As a southerner, I was amazed at how cool the temperatures were in May. But what struck me even more was seeing the deep hues of the green grass on the field as they were illuminated by the floodlights on top of Target Field. It was neat to see the outfielders up close. And the best part: the entire pace of life slowed down for just a little while. In fact, I even called my wife from the game and remember telling her “baseball has to be one of the most leisurely sports to watch.” I said that while standing there eating a hot dog (I elected to forgo the option of walleye; I didn’t know what it was until I asked the person at the concession stand!).
As I walked around the ballpark, the beauty of the scene captivated me. Here were thousands of people sitting outside watching this game. They were having a great time. And the pace of life was so much slower. That really appealed to me.
Rediscovering the Durham Bulls
As I mentioned, I’d attended a few Durham Bulls games when I was younger. That wasn’t unusual. Most anyone that lived in the Triangle region attended a Bulls game for the social aspect. But after my Minnesota Twins experience, I thought it might be cool to take my oldest son, Ryan, to a Durham Bulls game. I found a great deal on a couple of tickets and Ryan and I headed over to Durham to watch the Bulls take on the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs. Candidly, I wasn’t sure he’d make it through four innings. Was I ever wrong! From the moment he walked into the stadium, to the time the last out was recorded (the Bulls won!), he was absolutely captured by the game.
I started to look at baseball a little differently after that game. When I was a little boy, my dad took me to Duke basketball games. We always had a great time, no matter the outcome. When I look back on those times with my dad, the thing that I remember most is that this was something we did together. We had the best conversations on the drives to and from the games. But the best part: I just loved being with my dad. When Ryan and I went to that baseball game together, I had that same feeling. Except this time, I was the dad.
In March of this year, the Durham Bulls announced that they were hosting their annual fan fest. It was a chance for fans to come out to the ball park, go out on the field, take photos and hit balls at home plate. They also wanted you to buy season tickets. We weren’t ready to buy season tickets, but our interest in baseball was growing and we were ready for the season to start. I took Ryan to his first game on his 5th birthday. It was a beautiful May evening. Two of Ryan’s friends and their dads joined us for the game. We had a blast. As the players took the field, I saw that amazing sight once again: the stadium lights illuminating the green grass and the players taking the field. We enjoyed
every minute and it was great to see Ryan having so much fun with his friends while watching the game. The only disappointment was the sudden rainstorm that washed over the stadium late in the game. The game was called early, but as we took those boys back home, the 2013 baseball season was officially on!
Over the course of the next few months I found myself listening to Durham Bulls games on the radio through the passionate broadcast delivery of Bulls broadcaster Patrick Kinas. We also took our kids to several games using the Jr. Bulls Kids Club membership my in-laws gave them for their birthdays. We had a blast! And each time, our kids got an up-close view of the players because of the size of the ball park. That’s one of the things I believe makes minor league baseball special: you are so close to the players that you feel like you are a part of the game. And that’s where you build a real love of the game. When you can see every pitch, hear every sound, see every hit and analyze every aspect of the game, you come to appreciate it. You come to experience it. And in the end, you fall in love with it.
Attending the 2013 AAA National Championship
A couple of weeks ago, I did something a few years ago I never thought I’d ever do. I was in Philadelphia for work. The Durham Bulls were just an hour up the road in Allentown, PA. They were there to play for the AAA National Championship against the Omaha Storm Chasers of the Pacific Coast League. I bought a ticket to go. A colleague and I made the drive up to the game and as we took our seats, I was genuinely excited to watch the game. It had everything that I came to see: a laid back atmosphere, up-close access to the players and the chance to cheer on “my” team. Unfortunately, the Bulls didn’t win that night. They fell short by a score of 2-1, but it didn’t matter. Baseball. It was the game I’d grown to love.
As the MLB playoffs have progressed during the past week, I’ve listened, watched and followed the games much more closely than I have in the past. I cheered for the Braves when they won and lamented their series ending defeat in Los Angeles. I was excited when the Tampa Bay Rays won game number 183 against the Rangers to make it into the post season on a wild card, cheered again when they beat Cleveland to advance to the ALDS, cheered again when they hit a walk-off home run to win game 3 and was disappointed when they were closed out by the Red Sox in game 4. And I’ll continue to follow the remaining teams all the way to the end. And for the first time in my life, I can honestly say that I’m eagerly looking forward to spring training and the start of the 2014 baseball season!