Thursday, April 05, 2007

Daaaaaaaaa Bulls

Tonight is the season opener for the Durham Bulls, the AAA affiliate of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Minor league baseball is one of the most generally underrated sporting events in the country. For four years when I was younger we had season tickets behind home plate of the New Jersey Cardinals, the short-season single-A affiliate of St. Louis, and even though maybe 1% of the players would make it to the big leagues, it was still baseball in one of its purest forms.

The games are cheap- tonight I will be sitting in dead-center field in the first row for $6. And I will probably enjoy at least one beer at the low (for a sporting event) price of $4. On the field will be players that are so close to The Show that they can taste it; others have been to The Show and regale their teammates as Crash Davis did in Bull Durham. For those who aren’t aware, this is the same franchise featured in the movie that first brought together Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon. It is played in a new stadium now, a couple miles from the Durham Athletic Park (now home to events such as Beer Fest). As of last season, the Bull was still there (hit bull, win steak), but I’ve heard rumors that the giant blue wall in left field was coming down this season.

I attended opening night for the Bulls last year as well, paying student price to sit on the lawn in left-center field for $4. The Bulls struggled much of the night in front of a record crowd (11,060, the first time they’d ever cracked 11K). Entering the 9th inning, the home team was down 4-1 and the opposing starter (I wish I could find a box score) was still going strong. He got the first two on grounders, but then back to back singles and an error put runners on second and third. The opposing manager brought in his closer, who was wild and walked Delmon Young on four pitches. My friends and I joked that this set up the walk off home run, and stood up to cheer. Up came B.J. Upton, who was about to start a tumultuous year in which his face showed up everywhere from mug shots to the starting third baseman for the Devil Rays. On the first pitch, Upton swung mightily and the ball left into the night, high over the aforementioned Blue Monster, high above the Hit and Win a Steak Bull. A walk-off grand-slam. It was definitely one of the top three moments I’ve had at a live sporting event.

This season will probably be a little less exciting for the Durham Bulls. Unlike last year, when prospects like Upton, Elijah Dukes, and Delmon Young were featured, this year those players all made Tampa’s roster. With the Devil Rays getting even younger, this has meant that the Bulls’ roster is full of slightly older players who are in the traditional AAA role of major league backups, rather than prospects. Upton has displaced Jorge Cantu at second base in the majors, so Cantu will start the season for the Bulls. The pitching staff is even more this way, featuring struggling young pitchers such as Jason Hammel, Tim Corcoran, and Seth McClung. Many of the Devil Rays top prospects, such as 3B standout Evan Longoria, are in the lower levels, but could see promotion later this season. The lone Bull on the roster and the Top 10 Prospect List is 22 year old infielder Joel Guzman. The team also features two players who I saw on the NJ Cardinals many years ago- Brent Butler (on DL- and BaseballCube seems to disagree with my memory, but I have a baseball card with his picture on it) and Chris Richard.

I want to try to go to as many games as I can this summer and give frequent updates on the status of players on the Bulls and on other clubs' AAA teams. I'm real excited to see the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees come into town this June, and see one of the deepest AAA pitching staffs in recent memory. But mostly, I just want to watch baseball.

1 comment:

JS said...

Just like last year, the Bulls only come to Pawtucket once. Although last year's visit was pretty memorable, what with the bat toss.