Unless you are a baseball adept, or familiar with Durham, North Carolina, your relationship to the words Durham Bulls may be an inverted one. Perhaps your mind flips the words to Bull Durham, the 1988 movie about life and love in the minor leagues. Kevin Costner stars as journeyman catcher Crash Davis (there was a real player by that name, long ago), who is sent to Durham to tutor the young, talented, and wild Nuke LaLoosh (Tim Robbins), a flamethrowing pitcher who is never sure where his pitches will go. Nuke spends the summer canoodling with Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon), an aging baseball groupie, before he is called up to the “Show,” the major leagues. That clears the way for Crash and Annie to become the batterymates, as baseball argot puts it, they were destined to be. It is a mellow, even melancholy consummation, a sadder-but-wiser ending to an antic, shaggy, often profane baseball tale of getting all the way to the major leagues, or just to the end of summer—to the end of a dream.
Bull Durham gets a lot right, and real minor-leaguers approve of it—my multiyear polling of ballplayers in clubhouses shows it to be the truest baseball movie: they identify with the bus-ride scenes (the minors are still known colloquially as the bus leagues), with Crash lamenting the “dying quail” difference between hitting .250 and .300 (the difference that’ll get you to the majors), and with the lecture Crash gives Nuke on how to fob off sports clichés on reporters like me.
But Bull Durham does omit a crucial detail, one that the casual viewer will probably overlook. To most people, professional baseball divides into two absolute milieus: the majors and the minors. In fact, the minors themselves comprise multiple levels, from short-season rookie ball through the levels of Class A, Double-A, and—just below the majors—Triple-A. The real Durham Bulls were a Class-A team when Bull Durham was made, and the movie’s depiction of the game is of that level: sloppy, clumsy, jejune. Most players at the Class-A level lack the tools to make it to the majors (they’re out of baseball long before they get close), which is what makes Nuke LaLoosh so extraordinary. When he is called up to the majors, he leapfrogs right over Double-A and Triple-A. This is so rare an occurrence that it rings a little false—most players climb rung by rung through Triple-A, with a few straight-from-Double-A outliers—but the problem is less one of inauthenticity than of simple irrelevance: most moviegoers don’t really care which circle of minor-league purgatory Bull Durham occupies. We only need to know what Annie tells Nuke, who, after his call-up, promises her that he’ll come back for her. “Honey,” she says, with tender condescension, “when you leave Durham, you don’t come back.”
It’s on that line that Bull Durham and the real Durham Bulls part ways.
The modern Durham Bulls have upgraded both of their settings. In 1994, they moved out of historic Durham Athletic Park, a charmingly shabby World War II relic (Bull Durham was shot there), and into retro-modern Durham Bulls Athletic Park, about a mile away from the old park and twice the size. In 1998, the Bulls themselves were promoted from the High-A Carolina League to the Triple-A International League, in which they are now the top affiliate of the Tampa Bay Rays.
This means that when players leave Durham, they do come back—all the time, and by design. Up through Double-A, the minors are mostly about advancement, progress, and hope. Not so in Triple-A, which is primarily a holding pen for fringe major-leaguers, most of whom have already played there and now find themselves on an up-and-down escalator between the fine wine of the Show and the small beer of Triple-A. (It’s a long way down.) There are a few hot prospects on their inevitable rise to long, starry careers, but Triple-A rosters are largely shadow squads of doppelgangers and reservists, rehabbers and reclamation projects. Injuries, misfortune, age, fatal flaws, and regression have beset them all.
The revolving-door roster means that there are few runaway champions or yearlong doormats in Triple-A. Despite the appearance of progress in the form of constant change, that change actually results, mostly, in regression to the mean—the shrug of .500. Consequently, although the essence of all sport is winning and losing, it doesn’t much matter to most Triple-A ballplayers (or to their parent club) whether their team wins, except as a vestigial matter of morale. They wear the Durham Bulls uniform, but they do not work for the Bulls. They are paid by, and property of, the Tampa Bay Rays, and every baseball player would rather play for the worst team in the majors than the best team in Triple-A. That’s why it is sometimes said that the difference between Triple-A and all the other levels of baseball is that no one wants to be in Triple-A.
The game of baseball is so slow, so daily, and so pastoral that the moody and sometimes resentful anxiety that hangs over Triple-A—where many players are vying with their own teammates for major-league jobs—can appear instead to be mere drift, wash, stagnation. In that way, Triple-A perhaps best exemplifies baseball itself. To the unpracticed eye, the mostly static conditions on the field can seem slack or desultory, but in fact the opposite is true: the game conceals in its apparent inactivity (even woolgathering) maximum tension, precision, aspiration, tactics, worry, and grudge. And just as a ball batted into play is equally as likely to result in an out as a hit—with almost random variation over time—there’s virtually zero correlation between most Triple-A players’ performance and their chances of being called up to the majors. The Bulls’ best hitter last year, a twenty-nine-year-old Cuban defector named Leslie Anderson, had no shot at the big leagues, for so many reasons that it would have been foolish even to suggest him for a promotion. Thus a sort of Buddhist detachment is necessary in the clubhouse. You simply keep swinging, keep pitching, and worry as little as possible about the outcome of your work. There is only the here and now; only the curious, ephemeral isolation of Triple-A—this is certainly not the majors, yet it’s not quite the minors: Triple-A is a border town, an extras’ tent, a depot. Meanwhile, the fans cheer happily, unknowingly, most of them just there for the fun and funnel cakes, the game and its labors merely a backdrop to a summer night.
The phrase national pastime captions the sepia-toned nostalgia that dominates most discourse about baseball—all that sentimental stuff about fathers and sons. But there’s a reason ballplayers prefer Bull Durham to Field of Dreams: one’s living truth, the other is myth. The first professional baseball team, the Cincinnati Red Stockings, was formed in 1869—the same year the city of Durham was incorporated. Durham looks old, but it’s really rather young and currently undergoing an astonishing reinvention, from a “dreary tobacco town” (as Thomas Wolfe called it) to a bright cultural destination. Baseball, too, is fundamentally subject to change and renewal, after every single pitch. Nowhere is that molting pleasure more present than the chimerical and volatile realm called Triple-A: never the same game, the same team, twice. Triple-A is what baseball—the game famous for having no clock—really is: the national present time.
And that brings us to Bull City Summer, a new project that gathers a summer-long team of writers and photographers (plus some big-league pinch hitters) to document the 2013 season at Durham Bulls Athletic Park and beyond for The Paris Review Daily. We’re drawn to this project not by Bull Durham or by nostalgia or romance or sentimentality, which quickly decays into kitsch, but by the daily volatility and mutability of the Triple-A world: its struggles and paradoxes, its desperation and detachment. The documentary impulse is hard to identify, but deep down it’s summoned by what is startling and short-lived and demands to be captured before it’s gone for good. “It is all falling indelibly into the past,” Don DeLillo writes about one of the greatest major-league baseball games ever played. Triple-A baseball, though, is eternally unfinished and present, part of no history. It takes two-fifths of a second for a pitched baseball to reach home plate. Bull City Summer is drawn to that generative but lethal moment before it arrives, before it is swatted into life—and followed, endlessly, endlessly, by the next pitch.
Adam Sobsey has been covering the Durham Bulls since 2009. He is a weekly columnist for Baseball Prospectus and a contributor to its recently published guide, Baseball Prospectus 2013. Follow him on Twitter.
Read more about the Bull City Summer project here.