When Winning Is Everything


Bull City Summer

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.

Things are happening on the field—a pitch is thrown, taken; another thrown, hit; outs are made; maybe there’s a single; men steal along the base paths—but the action unfolds at a remove, like a nearby conversation you’re only half hearing while dozing or gazing into someone’s eyes, or while stoned. You sink deep inside the nadir, which lasts an impossibly long time—that elasticity of the clock that seems unique to baseball. Yet the nadir is delicate, and although you hold it as gently as you can in order to preserve it, it’s soon and easily punctured by a strikeout, a double to the gap, or some fans’ instigation of the wave.

Photo: Ivan Weiss

Photo: Ivan Weiss

The nadir, and what ends it, isn’t necessarily yoked to the game itself. The score can be close or it can be a blowout. The Bulls can be winning or losing or tied. There can be men on base or not. It can be the visitors’ half of the inning or the home half. It usually falls in the middle innings, as DeLillo has it, but some nights it’s the third. It is, to repeat the mantra, not about baseball.

Oh, but of course it’s about baseball. No one would come to the ballpark simply for the junk food and mascot antics. Fans will MAKE SOME NOISE! on their own, without the video-board prompt, and it will often sustain much longer. Last week, a close game culminated in an agonizing, five-minute, nine-pitch at-bat, during which the visitors scored a run on a wild pitch and the tying run moved to third base with two outs in the ninth inning. Fans thronged into the lower concourse, leaning as one over the packed field-box seats, clapping rhythmically, oohing and aahing, cheering and groaning as Durham reliever Josh Lueke labored like a mythological hero to finish off the Gwinnett Braves’ enormous slugger, Ernesto Mejia.

The duel—pure baseball—took over our world for those five minutes. It occurred to me later that the Bull City Summer crew had never asked ourselves what we meant by the phrase “not about baseball.” The games themselves have defined it for us: our interest isn’t in outcomes, which is to say winning and losing.

“Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing,” football legend Vince Lombardi said. But in Triple-A, and in a Bull City summer, winning is nothing. It’s nothing to the vast majority of fans; the Bulls draw crowds win or lose. It’s not even all that important to the players. Just last week, Bulls starter Jake Odorizzi pitched badly and took a rare loss. He shrugged it off, though, focused mainly on what he could learn from it. “It’s all about development down here,” he said after the game—by “down here” he meant Triple-A—“and results kind of go by the wayside.” It’s a salutary Triple-A philosophy, and I have always preached it: “Bulls fans! The rooting you do has to be forgetful, unconcerned with outcomes, and free of attachments. You have to practice Buddhist fandom.” I wrote that five seasons ago, my first covering the team.

 And yet this year, it’s hard for Durham Bulls fans not to care about wins and losses: more than two-thirds of the way through the season, the Bulls have the best record in all of affiliated professional baseball. They are on pace to break the all-time franchise record for wins in a season, set in 1962. That’s why I feel the spikes and dips of energy so strongly this season: It’s not merely because I’m paying attention to them; all the winning has actually created more energy in the ballpark. It’s full of life, it’s shapely, and it’s fragile. “It’s an egg,” Crash Davis tells Nuke LaLoosh in Bull Durham, advising him not to grip the baseball so hard. “Hold it like an egg.” (You can hear current Bull Brandon Guyer deliver the line in the team’s twenty-fifth anniversary tribute to the movie.)

Photo: Kate Joyce

Durham Bulls pitcher Steve Geltz. Photo: Kate Joyce

Another line from Bull Durham, our local bible, imparts an equally important lesson in the fragility of what’s precious. Nuke to Crash: “I fuckin’ love winning. You know what I’m saying? It’s like, better than losing?” The Bulls won eight games in a row leading into the three-day All-Star break—the last of them secured when Josh Lueke got Ernesto Mejia to fly out at the end of their long battle—but when they returned, the mojo was gone. The Pawtucket Red Sox came to town and won three of four games here over the long weekend, bashing Durham’s once dominant pitching staff for thirty-five runs.

Pawtucket, the Triple-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox, comes to town for just one series a year. The Red Sox have baseball’s most dedicated, even rabid diaspora, and they turned Durham Bulls Athletic Park red for those four days. They know their Triple-A players. They have well-rehearsed chants. They do choreographed dance routines when “YMCA” plays. They are prepossessing, presumptuous, loud, obnoxious: in short, great fans.

The Bulls’ one win came in the series finale on Sunday night, the wildest game of the season so far. Three times, Durham built seven-run leads. Three times, Pawtucket stormed back to get within a hit or two of the lead. In the ninth inning, we had an echo of the Lueke-Mejia showdown from the previous week. This time, Bulls All-Star Kirby Yates was trying to protect a bloated 14-11 lead. But he allowed two runs, and with two outs it was 14-13. Pawtucket had the tying run on third base and the winning run on second. The crowd was split in two: Bulls fans went breathless and quietly desperate; the Pawsox contingent was lusty, smelling blood.

Yates didn’t need nine pitches, as Lueke had, but his work was no easier. Behind in the count to Justin Henry, he had to throw a fastball, and Henry cracked a grounder deep into the hole between first and second base. Bulls second baseman Mike Fontenot, an old-salt, thirty-three-year-old veteran, ranged way over, lunged, and barely gloved the ball. As the tying and winning runs steamed toward home, Fontenot made what seemed like the hardest, heaviest twenty-foot throw to first base in the history of baseball. It beat Henry to first, and the Bulls held on, narrowly, finally winners again. It had seemed like a very long time.

We learned something from this series against the Pawsox and their fans: they care deeply about winning, more so than Bulls fans do, because they know how hard it is, having suffered eighty-six years between World Series championships. Nuke knows winning is better than losing, but he doesn’t yet understand that it’s better because it’s so much harder. Even after decades of watching and writing about baseball, I don’t think I quite understood it, either. I hadn’t realized how fragile winning really is, and how important. As the Bulls pursue record-breaking history for the rest of the season, I’m going to care about winning as much as I care about nadirs. I’m going to hold it like an egg.

Adam Sobsey has been covering the Durham Bulls since 2009. He is a 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, and read the whole Paris Review series here.