The Church of Baseball


Bull City Summer

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.

It was hard to pay attention to the clincher the next night for two reasons. After the grueling march of zeroes in game three, the Bulls charged out with four runs in the first three innings of game four (they’d scored just five in the previous twenty-nine innings of the series). They even hit a home run, which had become a rarity for them. With the Bulls’ great pitching, and the Pawsox’s wimpy hitting, the rest of the game was a formality. Durham went on to skunk them, 7-0.

The other reason I had trouble concentrating was that my sister, Leah Sobsey, who is a core photographer of the Bull City Summer project, was in the hospital giving birth to twin boys. Like the Bulls and Pawsox on Friday night, she had long, difficult, empty hours of labor, but on Saturday it was clear that she, like the Bulls, was going to deliver—and quickly. Just a few hours before the Bulls came out stampeding in the series-ending game, Leah’s boys were born. These simultaneous, overabundant parturitions—twins, many runs—were like a pair of victories hard-won after an anxious, toilsome night and a long season of expectancy.

In August, Leah came to the ballpark and made a series of wet-plate portraits, a nineteenth-century photographic technique. One of the sitters was slugger Shelley Duncan, the Bulls’ oldest player (he’s thirty-three), who brought his own young twin boys to the field and posed with them. I know that seeing Duncan and his children made an impact on Leah—there they were, right before her, still and present, a living example of the life to come for her. As the 7-0 blowout of game four wound inertly toward its end, I looked at the pictures of my newborn nephews, only hours old, coming in on my phone. My gaze was already turning away from baseball.

Photo: Revill Photographic

Photo: Revill Photographic

After the game was over, the perfunctory trophy presentation made, I went down to the champagne-soaked clubhouse to watch the celebration, congratulate the team, and conduct a few interviews. Here, as when the Bulls clinched the regular-season division title in August, Shelley Duncan was at the center of the revelry. Soaked and half-stripped, he balanced his jocular antics by leading his teammates in a tribute to dearly departed Bulls: the injured, the promoted, the released. Even in his loonier moments, Duncan has a sense of gravitas, even grimness, about him—and vice versa. This was the worst season of his career, but after a miserable August game in which he went hitless, failed to drive in an important run in the clutch, and hit only one ball well all night—a rocket down the line, but foul—he sat at his locker and announced loudly, to no one in particular, “I felt good about my foul ball today.”

I never spoke with Duncan this year. Not once. I must confess it’s tough to talk to ballplayers who are struggling, especially if their team is doing well without them; they get left out of the overall narrative. In the longer view, after years of pursuing an interest in players like Duncan—fading older guys mostly consigned (or condemned) to Triple-A—this year I was drawn to younger talents: players on the way up, like the Bulls’ twenty-three-year-old speedster Kevin Kiermaier, who was promoted to Durham from Double-A in July and kick-started the team’s moribund offense. It was Kiermaier who raced to third on an error and scored the tie-breaking run in the fourteenth inning on Friday, and Kiermaier again who hit the two-run homer the next day, giving the Bulls the breathing room they needed to strut to the title.

Nor did I ever really talk to the Bulls’ other thirty-three-year-old veteran, Mike Fontenot. The only time I tried, way back in April, he answered my question about his tight hamstring courteously enough, but he clearly wasn’t interested in having much to do with the media. There’s usually one veteran in the Triple-A clubhouse who anoints himself team spokesman or go-to sage for writers, but it wasn’t going to be Fontenot. He and Duncan had another job to do: they were the team’s veteran clubhouse leaders; both their manager, Charlie Montoyo, and their teammates told me so throughout the season.

That’s why, in retrospect, I’m glad I left them alone. The observer effect again: Michael Croley talked to Duncan on the road in Ohio, and wrote about it, and my sister made pictures of him on the field, but in the home clubhouse he went unwatched. He was never burdened with assessing his poor performance or advancing age. He didn’t have to be pinned to his numbers, and he could lead without them. He just got to be himself.

Sunday’s game five was unnecessary, of course, and I was staying in Providence, so I walked up College Hill to Brown University. It’s my alma mater, and I hadn’t been there for many years. My memory was jolted more by the names of streets I’d forgotten than by anything else (Hemingway: “finally only the names of places had dignity”). My ramble on the hill was the perfect transition away from the Bulls, from Bull City Summer, from this all-consuming daily matter of baseball. I escaped the present by touring my past while I thought about the future—about my nephews, our next generation.

Fontenot fist-bumps the nephew of catcher Craig Albernaz. Photo: Revill Photographic

Fontenot fist-bumps the nephew of catcher Craig Albernaz. Duncan is second from right, in the back row, and Montoyo is standing behind the trophy. Photo: Revill Photographic

I got hungry after a while and stopped into Louie’s (or Loui’s—there are two contradictory signs). Louie’s belongs to that category of campus greasy spoons that are legendary in situ but unloved and almost unknown a mile away from school. The food is pretty bad, but the place is great anyway. Louie and his wife, Nina, passed away more than a decade ago, but their sons own and run the place now.

I ordered an egg sandwich to go so I could keep walking. While I waited, I chatted with Annie, who works the register. She’s a longtime friend of the Louie’s clan, a retiree; she helps out in the restaurant because she likes it. We talked about how little had changed: the big menu above the counter, the painting of the woman having a beer with a chimpanzee, the ugly tile floor. Under the countertop glass lay an old interview with Nina. I remembered it from my undergrad years—one of my fellow writing students had conducted it.

Annie wanted to know if one of my classmates had been John Kennedy Jr. (no, he was before my time). She said, with some disappointment, that there weren’t as many celebrities coming into Louie’s anymore. By “celebrities” she meant the children of celebrities. Bruce Willis’s daughter was a Brown student, she said, but had graduated in May. Oh, but Susan Sarandon’s son: “He’s so handsome.” She’d noticed how handsome he was well before she discovered his celebrity. He’d been a frequent customer by the time she was flipping through “People’s magazine” one day and there he was, with Sarandon. “He’s so handsome,” she said again, though ruefully: she hadn’t been able to lay eyes on him as much this past year. “I think he’s in Japan this semester,” she said, adding that before he went overseas, he’d been zipping down to New York most weekends. “Red caah-pet affaihs,” Annie explained in her Rhode Island accent.

I smiled, somewhat ruefully, too, because Annie had inadvertently pushed me back into the present Bull City Summer, and I felt oddly subject to the observer effect myself, forced to enact a baseball life. Sarandon’s son, Miles, is the progeny of her twenty-year relationship with Tim Robbins. She met Tim Robbins in 1987, while they were shooting Bull Durham.

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Postscript: Last night in Allentown, the Bulls played Omaha in an exhibition called the Triple-A National Championship. It’s basically a marketing sham, and the teams’ investment in winning it is slight. The Bulls lost, 2-1. More of their games—fourteen in all—ended 2-1 than in any other score this year, including half their post-season games; they were true to themselves right to the end (or perhaps some iron law simply reasserted itself). I barely registered the action, but I won’t forget something I saw during warm-ups, around four o’clock. Six-foot-five Shelley Duncan and five-foot-seven Mike Fontenot were horsing around in the outfield. They rolled around on the grass until they had each other in a pretzel of dueling headlocks, laughing like little boys just learning how to wrestle.

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.