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Durham Bulls in a league of their own

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In a league of its own

BY MIKE POTTER : The Herald-Sun

[email protected]

Apr 13, 2004 : 10:32 pm ET

DURHAM -- "Play ball!" will ring out again in downtown Durham tonight at 7, when the Bulls play the Toledo Mud Hens to open their 10th season at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park, generally considered to be one of the most attractive in baseball and certainly among the best in the minor leagues.

And slowly but apparently surely, the Bulls and their 10,000-seat park are helping to spark a revitalization of a once-dying downtown.

"The Bulls are probably one of the biggest jewels in the crown of Durham," Mayor Bill Bell said. "It's good, wholesome family entertainment at a good price. I like the whole ambiance, the way the park is laid out and its design. I go to as many games as I can."

"I think the Bulls have turned out to be the impetus for downtown development," said Peter Anlyan, who was general manager of the Bulls from 1993 to 2000 and is now general manager of Capitol Broadcasting's CBC Durham Real Estate, which is developing the former American Tobacco property across the street from the ballpark. Capitol also owns the Bulls. "Without the Bulls there wouldn't be the American Tobacco Project, and that's been the catalyst for development on Main Street and Chapel Hill Street and Parrish Street," Anlyan said.

The American Tobacco complex will include a 1,000-seat amphitheater under the refurbished Lucky Strike water tower, which was repainted in a style that both preserved it and makes it look historic.

"It's a part of the puzzle we're trying to put together to make Durham a destination point, 24 hours a day and seven days a week," Bell said of the American Tobacco complex. "There's no question in my mind that if American Tobacco [the project] hadn't been doing what it's doing, you wouldn't see what's happened at Brightleaf Square and the Liggett and Tom Niemann [blue Devil Ventures] projects."

Space in American Tobacco has been leased to such enterprises as GlaxoSmithKline, Duke University, Compuware (which owns the NHL's Carolina Hurricanes), the McKinney + Silver advertising agency and the capital investment firm InterSouth. Anlyan said two restaurants are also close to agreeing to leases.

But that hasn't always been the outlook for downtown Durham. And the Bulls' future in Durham was very much in question up until the decision to build the new stadium was made in 1992.

The Bulls, who celebrated the 100th anniversary of their first team in 2002, had been one of North Carolina's most successful minor-league franchises in the old days.

Then, after what was by all accounts a nightmarish season in 1971, the team closed shop and pro baseball was apparently dead in Durham. Minor-league baseball looked like an institution that had run its course, and factors like home air conditioning and major-league ball on color TV took the blame.

But the Bulls were just hibernating.

In the late 1970s in places like Columbus, Ohio, Nashville, Tenn., and Greensboro, the fans began to come back. The formula for success seemed to be the same: pick a city that had been without a team for a while, bring back baseball with plenty of promotions and make sure the hot dogs are hot and the beer is cold.

Despite having an antiquated, 42-year old facility in Durham Athletic Park, a young baseball entrepreneur named Miles Wolff acquired an expansion Carolina League team affiliated with the Atlanta Braves for Durham in the 1980 season. Fans came back in droves, and that has continued ever since.

Whether people were diehard baseball fans or not, they came out to games at "The DAP" because Bulls baseball had become an event. The old yard was crowded enough before "Bull Durham" -- the Kevin Costner movie some call the best baseball movie ever made -- was released in 1988. Since then, the Bulls have been a trademark recognized around the country.

Life after near-death

Wolff and others wanted a new park with the eventual goal of obtaining a franchise in Triple-A, the highest level of minor-league baseball. But what followed was a long political mess. A 1990 county bond referendum to finance a new park -- defeated by an overwhelming majority from outside the city limits in a low-turnout March election when it was the only question on the ballot -- looked like the death knell for the plan.

But the next year Jim Goodmon, the owner of Raleigh-based Capitol Broadcasting, bought the franchise from Wolff for about 100 times the original price. Deeper into the continuing squabbles that eventually either interrupted or ended several local political careers, the Durham City Council approved a plan in May 1992 to fund construction with Certificates of Participation, a form of debt that didn't require voter approval.

After a year's worth of construction delays on the site of an abandoned parking lot once owned by American Tobacco Co., the Durham Bulls Athletic Park opened in 1995 to rave reviews, some calling it a minor-league version of the wildly popular Oriole Park at Camden Yards that HOK Sport designed for Baltimore

Since then DBAP, designed by HOK Sport and the Freelon Group and originally constructed at a cost of $16.1 million, has been the site of three Atlantic Coast Conference baseball tournaments and a Carolina League-California League All-Star Game.

The expansion Tampa Bay Devil Rays teamed with Capitol to win the Triple-A expansion franchise that began play in 1998.

"When the Bulls came into the league in 1998, we got a very recognizable city and a recognizable baseball team," said International League President Randy Mobley, who will be at the park tonight to present Bulls players with their 2003 championship rings. "They brought in a top-notch playing facility and a very stable, sound ownership situation. And with the Devil Rays' putting winning clubs on the field, it's been a complete positive."

The park was enhanced to Triple-A seating standards with new seats behind the right-field wall replacing what was a grassy berm, with a new four-story "Diamond View" office building above and behind the seats closing off what was open air on that side of the park in contrast to the city skyline behind left field.

"I think it's the best park in the International League, and I can't imagine any place in the minor leagues being better," said Bulls infielder Brooks Badeaux, a Florida State alumnus who will be collecting his second IL championship ring tonight. "I played here twice in the ACC Tournament in '96 and '98 and I got to see it expand. The [Diamond View] building and the bleachers were up the second time, so it was fun. That building reminded me of the warehouse at Camden Yards."

Bullish on the future

Since moving to Triple-A the Bulls regularly draw nearly 500,000 fans a season, falling less than 7,000 short of that mark in a rain-drenched 2003.

And the park is continuing to host more than just the Bulls.

USA Baseball, which sponsors America's Olympic and Pan Am Games teams, moved the home games of its top-level team to the DBAP last season with series against Japan and Mexico. It will host Canada and Chinese Taipei -- that's Taiwan in Olympic-speak -- this season and is scheduled to complete the move of its headquarters into the park this fall, joining the Bulls and WDNC radio.

The Canada games June 23-26 will be held in conjunction with the National Hockey League's Entry Draft that Saturday and Sunday at Raleigh's RBC Center. Parts of the refurbished American Tobacco complex across Blackwell Street are scheduled to be ready for those events, as is a new deck parking behind the complex's massive Foster Building.

Improvements to the park itself for this season include a new playing surface and drainage under the warning tracks, a Prostar Video Plus display board above center field, and a permanent rock-climbing wall for the playground. Part of tonight's pregame ceremonies will include the hoisting of banners atop the 32-foot "Blue Monster" wall in left field -- reminiscent of the "Green Monster" at the Boston Red Sox' Fenway Park -- saluting the Bulls' 11 league championship teams.

"[The DBAP] is one of the best facilities in the country, and we've played all over the United States including a lot of major-league parks," said Paul Seiler, executive director and CEO of USA Baseball. "We're still in the formative stages [of establishing a solid local fan base]. But we averaged about 4,000 fans a game last year, and that was a great start."

---

The Durham Bulls will have plenty of ceremony before tonight's opener of the 10th season at Durham Bulls Athletic Park.

The festivities will start at 6:30 p.m. with a "history of champions" presentation, raising pennants atop the "Blue Monster" wall in left field to salute the Bulls' 11 league championships, including its current run of back-to-back Governors' Cup titles.

Zeve and Edith Ann, daughters of the late "Smokey Joe" Caviness -- the winningest Bulls pitcher of all time and a star of the 1922, 1924 and 1925 Piedmont League champions -- will participate in the ceremony, as well as family members of the late Bulls pitcher Alfred Falzone, of the 1941 PL champions.

Rich Folkers, the winning pitcher of Game 1 of the 1967 Carolina League championship series, also will be in the ceremony, along with Bulls utility infielder Brooks Badeaux, Durham Mayor Bill Bell and Baseball America publisher Lee Folger.

After the flag ceremony, International League President Randy Mobley will present championship rings to returning members of the 2003 Bulls. News anchor Debra Morgan of WRAL will have a 10th-season commemorative presentation on the new Prostar Video Plus display board above center field.

Father Joe Vetter will offer a prayer, and after the Young Marines of Raleigh-Durham present the colors, former Miss North Carolina Rebekah Revels will sing the national anthem.

Former Mayor Harry Rodenheizer and former City Councilman Chuck Grubb will throw ceremonial first pitches.

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