The Daily

Bull City Summer

The Church of Baseball

September 18, 2013 | by

Fireworks over the Durham Bulls Athletic Park. Photo: Kate Joyce

Fireworks over the Durham Bulls Athletic Park. Photo: Kate Joyce

On Saturday, the Bulls won the International League championship. They won the championship! We showed up to document them, and it’s as if they responded to the scrutiny, performed for the cameras. I can’t help thinking of the observer effect. Did we help cause this?

The series was tied at one win apiece after the Bulls and the Pawtucket Red Sox split a pair of 2-1 games in Durham. The run deprivation bottomed out in game three at Pawtucket: neither team scored for an incredible thirteen innings. The futility (or great pitching, if you prefer) went on for nearly six hours. It was dazing and gripping, by turns, with blurry, barren stretches punctuated by a few dramatically thwarted rallies.

Around midnight, it became clear that whoever won this game would go on to take the best-of-five series, for the blood would go right out of the loser of this marathon. Finally, in the fourteenth inning, the Bulls scored two runs—without getting a hit, naturally: Pawtucket coughed up two walks and two errors. Even though Durham closer Kirby Yates loaded the bases with two outs in the bottom of the fourteenth, there was no doubt he’d pitch out of the jam. A rousing strikeout on a full-count pitch ended the game and, essentially, the series. Read More »

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Seventeen Innings, Twenty-Nine Years

September 4, 2013 | by

The Old Durham Bulls Park. Photo: Kate Joyce

The old Durham Athletic Park. Photo: Kate Joyce.

Should anyone flatter us by asking us what we are searching for, we think immediately, almost instinctively, in vast terms—God, fulfillment, love—but our lives are actually made up of tiny searches for things … Add them together, and these things make up an epic quest. —Geoff Dyer

The playoffs begin in Durham tonight. It’s tempting to dismiss minor-league championships as dubious, if not entirely factitious, especially in Triple-A: major-league rosters expanded on September 1, so the Bulls and their competitors have been raided for some of their best players. The post-Labor Day games draw tiny crowds anyway. So who cares?

I do. The most exciting game I’ve ever seen was a Durham Bulls playoff game.

September 4, 1984. Twenty-nine years ago today, the Durham Bulls beat the Lynchburg Mets, 8-7 in seventeen innings, in game two of the Carolina League Championship series. I was at the game in a nominally official capacity. That year I was the “statistician” for Steve Pratt, the Bulls’ radio broadcaster. My job was also factitious: Steve kept his own stats; he was just carrying out a favor for the team owner, who was collegially friendly with my stepfather and humored him by taking me on. My pay was a free sandwich after the fifth inning. I had a calculator and crunched some numbers, but mostly I sat there all summer and watched baseball. Read More »

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Ground Down

August 21, 2013 | by

Shelley Duncan at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park, on August 9, 2013. Wet-plate tintype by Leah Sobsey/Tim Telkamp.

Shelley Duncan at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park, on August 9, 2013. Wet-plate tintype by Leah Sobsey/Tim Telkamp.

On his first night in Toledo, in his first at bat, Shelley Duncan cue-balled a dribbler to the pitcher. On contact, he yelled, “Shit,” and began his reflexive sprint down the line. When he returned to the dugout, nobody on the team said anything to him or even looked his way. On this road trip, he was 1-10, with a .217 average for the season. He arrived in Durham from Tampa on May 6, after hitting only .182 in twenty games with the big club. As he pulled off his helmet to reveal a tangle of blond, thinning hair, I noticed a far-off look in his eyes, as though they had been hollowed out. It’s a look familiar to anyone who has seen the photographs of Walker Evans: complete exhaustion meshed with pure confusion. He took his helmet in his right hand and walked down the steps, lightly tapping the plastic against the metal railing; his lips, as he spoke to himself, made only slight putters of admonishment. He carefully put the helmet away in its nook and sat down on the bench with his white batting gloves still velcroed at the wrists. Before I even got to know Shelley Duncan, I was already worried about his future in baseball.

I first became interested in Duncan a week earlier when, watching the team in Columbus, I had spotted his name in the Durham Bulls’ media guide as having the most major-league experience of the roster. He had two considerable stints with the Indians and, before that, had made his rookie debut with the Yankees. I was intrigued because, on the surface, he seemed the aging veteran with big-league time, now toiling in the purgatory of Triple-A where everyone is either on their way up or down, or out of baseball altogether. Watching him at the end of the bench, I had no idea that his mother had passed away from brain cancer earlier in the summer or that his brother had been diagnosed with the same disease. I didn’t know that his twin sons had been born last July and he’d been away from them for almost half their lives. He was just a player who seemed near the end. Read More »

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The Liminal Space

August 7, 2013 | by

Hiroshi Watanabe. Photo: Ivan Weiss

Hiroshi Watanabe. Photo: Ivan Weiss

For the past thirty years, the photographer Hiroshi Watanabe has split his time between Tokyo and Los Angeles. I met him at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park when he reported for his first day of work on the Bull City Summer project. He’s a compact man who moves carefully but fluidly; at age sixty-two, he resembles a boxing trainer or a retired gymnast. On meeting, he said to me, “I have a question—why did you invite me? I don’t follow baseball and I’ve never photographed it.” He already knew the answer—I think he wanted to find out if I did.

A few days later, during one of that week’s many rain delays, Hiroshi wandered into the dark, narrow room inside the left-field wall, behind the manually operated scoreboard on the thirty-foot Blue Monster. In this barnlike storage space, placard numerals are lifted and installed in the appropriate slots, facing outward into the stadium, to indicate runs, hits, and errors during games. Here’s how Hiroshi described what he found there:

I saw all these panels with numbers on them. I realized that the number zero had a certain translucent quality the other numbers didn’t have. The paint on the zero has been faded by more exposure to sunlight. This fading has made beautiful patterns—maplike, veinlike cracks. The passage of time offers different textures on different materials. In the scoreboard numbers, it’s just faded paint. Only zero shows the passing of time I’m looking for. Read More »

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When Winning Is Everything

July 24, 2013 | by

Durham Bulls mascot Wool E. Bull. Wet-plate tintype by Leah Sobsey/Tim Telkamp.

Durham Bulls mascot Wool E. Bull. Wet-plate tintype by Leah Sobsey/Tim Telkamp.

“Not really about baseball”: we’ve adhered pretty well so far to this watchword of our Bull City Summer documentary project, but cultivating indifference has been hard for me. I really care about baseball, and I watch the games closely. Still, I’ve made a season-long effort to notice the surroundings in a rather moony way—trying to soak up the ambient energy in the ballpark, its sheer quality and quantity.

That energy rises and falls throughout the game, but it does so unevenly and unpredictably, not always (in fact, usually not) in step with the action on the field. The video board command to MAKE SOME NOISE!, in huge, undulating letters, can whip the crowd into a lather, as can a Bulls home run, but these exclamatory moments have a short life span. As soon as the words leave the screen, as soon as the next pitch is thrown, the energy reverts, subject to its own mysterious forces.

There is plenty of early froth and surge: the singing of the National Anthem, the anticipatory buzz at first pitch, the grandstand up-and-down for hot dogs and beer and cotton candy, the breakthrough of early hits and runs, the sideshow pileup of mid-inning contests and mascot high jinks and blaring pop music. But then “the game turns inward in the middle innings,” as Don DeLillo puts it in his novella Pafko at the Wall (which is also the opening chapter of Underworld). At the deepest recess of this inward turn, there inevitably comes what I have dubbed “the nadir”: a quiet, satisfying, and almost narcotic moment when all of the energy, on the field and off, recedes, as if subdued by its own exuberance. The crowd noise falls to a low, warm murmur, like a dovecote. Read More »

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Taking It to the Mattress

July 10, 2013 | by

Howard Craft, Topps Comics, 1979

I’m eighty-one but I can feel like I’m fifteen when I’m talking baseball. It brings you back.

—Buck O’Neil, Kansas City Monarchs, Negro Leagues

The ball explodes from the pitcher’s hand like a bullet, but it’s high and inside. “BALL!” the umpire yells, and the batter takes his base. The Bulls have two men on with no outs, bottom of the seventh. Neither team has scored a run. I sit near the visitors’ bullpen, watching the drama unfold. The pitcher on the mound has been throwing the proverbial smoke up until now. He’s given up two walks in a row, and if he gives up a third he’ll load the bases with our designated hitter coming up.

The visiting team’s relief pitcher starts stretching in the bullpen. A gangly Latino fellow, he rotates his arm in big circles and begins to throw. Slow at first, then faster, harder, until the ball disappears the moment it leaves his hand, only to reappear less than a second later in the catcher’s mitt. For anyone who’s ever played baseball, the ballpark is a time machine: the green of the grass, the crack of the bat, the pow the ball makes when it hits the glove all release memories buried by the daily grind called life. The ballpark allows us to live multiple places at once: at the game we watch and at the games played on the sandlots, backyards, parks, and school diamonds of our yesterdays. Each ticket is also a ticket to ride one’s personal baseball memory train.

I’m standing in my grandmother’s backyard, pitching distance from her tool shed. My Houston Astros cap pulled low, head down, holding the ball in my glove, I check my finger placement for my fastball. I am J. R. Richard and I can throw a hundred miles per hour. Really, I am Howard Craft, twelve years old, most often referred to as June Bug by family and friends. My fastball isn’t a hundred miles per hour, but it’s loud enough to make a bang when it slams into the side of the tool shed. After several of these bangs, the back door of the house opens and my father comes out. He crosses the backyard like an angry manager en route to pull a pitcher after he’s given up a home run in the bottom of the ninth. Read More »

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