Time and Tides: Notes from a Durham Bulls Road Trip to Norfolk

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A little interlude here (well, really a long one) while the Durham Bulls enjoy what Brandon Guyer called "this glorious off day"—the Bulls' last of the regular season—in a Tweet early this afternoon. After they split two games this past weekend up in Norfolk (see reports here and here), they find themselves six games ahead of second-place Gwinnett in the International League South Division with 15 to play. Gwinnett plays Charlotte at home tonight, so the number will change by half a game before the Bulls play Norfolk, again, on Tuesday; but either way Durham will still hold its largest division lead of 2011.

Let's say the G-Braves beat Charlotte tonight. That would make them 69-61. Durham is 74-53. Because of two games canceled by rain earlier this season (both at Syracuse), the Bulls will play two fewer games than Gwinnett. In a scenario in which the teams finish in what they call a virtual tie for first—that is, without numerically identical records but proportionally even ones—the Bulls would have a slightly higher winning percentage than the Braves. Thus the Braves have to finish a game better than the Bulls in order to win the division. Even if the Bulls were to go, say, 5-10 over these last 15 games—which would be their worst stretch of the season, by far—Gwinnett would still have to go 12-3 to overtake them.

Teams can fall apart at any time, but it should be noted that the Bulls haven't really done that this year, at any point. The team's worst slump this year lasted five games. That actually happened twice, once in late April and once in late May. Since the latter five-game skid, the Bulls have lost as many as three straight games only once, and that was in the first week of June. For the last two months or so, the team has slowly but steadily won the race, or at least nearly won it. Durham was just three games over .500 on June 12, when they lost to Norfolk in a game delayed over three hours by rain. They've gone 41-23 since then, and have really surged recently, having gone 12-4 over their last 16 games.

The dread September 1 major-league roster expansion threshold is approaching; that means, as it does every year, that some of the best Bulls will be called up to a higher pasture. But if the Bulls put together a good home stand, they could extend their lead to a more or less unreachable length. That would make September 1 just another day to say rabbit-rabbit, and Durham could leap on into the playoffs without missing a hop.

Still, they'll have to find a little more spring in their step in order to get there. The baseball season is long and taxing and full of wearying travel and nagging injury. My road trip to Norfolk left me with plenty to chew on, but nothing so chewy as this: Most of these players, much as they love what they do—they get to play baseball for a living!—would really like to go home.

More on that, by way of Dane De La Rosa, and then some thoughts about Norfolk—its team, its ballpark and its town—follows.

To get the important part out of the way first: Dane De La Rosa wasn't complaining, not one bit. Why would he? In his first season in Class AAA, not far removed from a long, five-year journey through the wilds of independent-league baseball, De La Rosa has pitched admirably, often in the Bulls' closer role, and has also had his first taste of the major leagues, making an appearance for Tampa Bay in July.

De La Rosa was speaking not long after a laborious, two-inning relief appearance that required 46 pitches. Called upon in the eighth inning of a tie game at Norfolk, the ballpark still soggy from rain that had fallen steadily upon the game for about an hour (the umpires didn't even call it when lightning flashed), De La Rosa put runners on base in both the eighth and ninth. In fact, the winning run was on second with one out in the ninth, and he needed 11 pitches to strike out the Tides' ninth-place hitter, Carlos Rojas, who kept fouling off De La Rosa's fastball with a two-strike count. (De La Rosa said afterward that his catcher, Robinson Chirinos, had played with Rojas in Venezuela and helped De La Rosa finally win the long battle.)

By the time De La Rosa struck out Rojas, with his 43rd pitch, he looked quite tired. Only twice this year, in 46 prior outings, had De La Rosa thrown that many pitches.

I asked him if he was tired at that point, and he acknowledged that he was. But the surprising thing was that De La Rosa described it not as arm soreness or anything physical, but as "mental fatigue." "My thing is trying not think about the off-season," he said, or about "going home." In that light, it was as if each of the 11 pitches De La Rosa had to throw to Rojas was another impediment, another delay—another car added to the jam—preventing him from going back to Southern California, where De La Rosa lives when he isn't playing baseball.

At this point in the year, De La Rosa's sentiments surely represent those of most of his teammates—indeed, of ballplayers everywhere. Even Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon has recently adjusted his players' schedule, allowing them to come to the ballpark later in the afternoon.

In the video interview (H/T to the fine folks at DRaysBay for posting it; scroll down a little to watch it), Maddon enumerates the reasons for the change. There were the usual physical ones—"baseball players swing too much," Maddon said; it's also that time of year when "little injuries are creeping up"—but the most salient, to me, was that he wants his players to "come later, take their wives or girlfriends out to lunch, mess with the kids and come in at a more decent hour, and play a game of baseball."

In other words, that mental fatigue comes from homesickness to some degree, a homesickness that can afflict ballplayers even when they're at home. If they're usually at the park from 3:00 or so until late at night, those that have families don't get much of a chance to spend time with them. Many of those who don't have families nearby are probably, by this time of the season, struggling to stay mentally sharp. There are the mind-deadening effects of video games, TV, bars, or even the blunting effect of the more upright routine of trudging out to the park to run poles or practice bunting in the mid-afternoon heat. Maybe it's better to live one's life in a fuller, richer, baseball-free way during the day and then simply, as Maddon put it, "play a game of baseball." That approach has been working for his team: The Rays are currently playing their best games of baseball this year, and are edging close to playoff contention again.

Now there are players, like the Boston Red Sox' Dustin Pedroia, who are so driven and monomaniacal that they might be at a total loss if they couldn't be at the ballpark 12+ hours every day. They might as well have no life outside of baseball. While talent is, of course, the biggest key to making it in the major leagues, sheer ambition and its concomitant obsessiveness aren't far behind. There are plenty of guys in Class AAA with skills equal to those of many big-leaguers; what they lack is that extra charge, that unstoppable motor of discipline and work, that unwavering dedication. To have those things requires one to sacrifice other cares, like family and friendships (not to mention potential long-term happiness). If a ballplayer's humanity competes for his attention with his careerist ambition and work habits, then the end of summer brings not just aches and pains but also that "mental fatigue" Dane De La Rosa is fighting off. The codes of athletic machismo prevent him from calling it "emotional fatigue"—there's not only no crying in baseball, there's barely even feeling—but that's properly what it is.

Labor Day has nothing to do with the baseball season, but it's well-timed to that of Class AAA. The very last regular-season game falls on Labor Day, and it's as if the reward for reaching that holiday is a well-deserved, extended break from suiting up and playing—unless you make the playoffs. The reward for that sustained excellence is having to try to keep it up. When you do something well, people will notice and ask you to keep doing it. Such is the Durham Bulls' probable lot after September 5.


The Bulls Brandon Guyer in the Harbor Park outfield, August 20, 2011
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  • The Bulls' Brandon Guyer in the Harbor Park outfield, August 20, 2011


All of the above really sunk in during the trip to Norfolk. Most folks who go to Bulls games, including myself, probably tend to see the players as a bunch of happy locals playing under the brightness of the DBAP lights and the warm summer attentions of its home crowd. It's very easy to forget that, for half the year, they're just another bunch of visiting players who bus into one of the International League's mid-sized cities for a few days, play some games of baseball, try in their inconvenient and awkwardly scheduled down time to get out of the sterile hotel room they share with a perhaps snoring roommate and find something interesting to do (or eat), and then move on to the next destination—another off-radar mid-sized city, probably on or near the Rust Belt.

Sure, the Bulls are the most celebrated franchise in the minor leagues, and so maybe there's a little extra frisson of interest when they come into town; but on a nightly basis, being the Durham Bulls doesn't have much to do with the price of milk in in Norfolk, Rochester, Toledo—wherever the Bulls find themselves. In Norfolk, they love their Jake Fox, two years ago the front runner for the Chicago Cubs' catching job, and now just another 29-year-old toiler trying to muscle his way back up to the Show. The Bulls? Who in Norfolk cares about the Bulls?

The thing is, though, as bad as the Tides are—they're 30 games under .500 and haven't had a winning season since 2005, when they were a New York Mets affiliate—why would anyone in Norfolk care about the Norfolk Tides, either? Well, they don't, not really: The Tides are 11th in the 14-team International League in attendance. The team has no spirit whatsoever. Manager Gary Allenson is deep in late-season despondency, his 49-79 club long past retrieval. He sighed loudly at one point in his post-game remarks, it was almost a groan, as if everything was too far gone to keep talking about. Asked about his first baseman and outfielder Rhyne Hughes, Allenson noted that the former Bull (2009) had an oblique strain that sidelined him for five weeks, that he hasn't done much since then, that he keeps swinging and missing all the time—but that "we're gonna keep throwing him back out there." Circumstantially, that's because the Tides are temporarily thin on the bench: Ryan Adams was called up to Baltimore and Josh Bell, demoted, has a few days to report to Norfolk—it's hard to imagine Bell making any kind of haste to Harbor Park.

More than that, though, the resigned phrase, "we're gonna keep throwing him back out there," is indicative of the team as a whole. What else can Allenson do? He's got 15 more games to play, no matter his record—you can't just pack it in—and he has to make a lineup card every day and unhappily watch his players struggle. While Carlos Rojas batted against Dane De La Rosa with an opportunity to win Sunday's game in the ninth inning, the Norfolk radio announcer was saying that Rojas was a good candidate to ground into an inning-ending double play. It's that kind of morale.

As we were heading down to interview Allenson, Norfolk's young beat reporter was talking about how the local team comprises mostly washups and lifers and so on—guys who are never going to make it (back) to the majors. We had too short a walk for me to reply that you could say the same of the Durham Bulls, whose washups and lifers and guys who aren't going to be big-leaguers are steaming confidently toward a fifth-straight division title, while Norfolk's are slouching toward Labor Day. I mean no offense to Allenson—and I do admit that his team lacks the talent of the Bulls—but only to reiterate that, whatever it is Charlie Montoyo does, it works. Norfolk, on the other hand, is broken.

What was surprising, though, spending two nights at Harbor Park, was how happy the place seemed to be. That's not only despite the Tides' awful season—they're just phoning it in by now, even their manager—but Harbor Park itself. It was built in 1993, just before the DBAP, is about 20% larger (official capacity is about 12,000; the DBAP is around 10,000), cost about the same amount of money ($16 million) and was designed by HOK, (now known as Populous), the firm that designed Baltimore's Camden Yards and a host of other urban-renaissance parks.

Yet Harbor Park couldn't be less like the DBAP even though it is, like the DBAP, downtown. For one thing, Harbor Park sits at the fringe of central Norfolk, hemmed in against the water by an elevated freeway and some rather bland old buildings. There's nothing else really around it. No bars, no food.

To get to the park from the Sheraton, the nearest hotel (it's where the Bulls stay), you walk about 15 minutes along a rundown section of a service road, under the freeway and by a weedy riverbank from which a couple of guys were furtively fishing late Saturday afternoon.

Harbor Park is right on the Elizabeth River, which empties into Chesapeake Bay. One's mind runs to the glorious settings of other waterfront ballparks like those in Pittsburgh and San Francisco, but the minute you walk into Harbor Park, you get a very different feel. The view of the water is obstructed by the high scoreboard, which towers over right-center field; by the batters' eye, essentially a giant oblong black tarp that is like the world's largest censor's bar; and by a ballpark restaurant called Hits at the Park, a 225-seat eatery above and beyond the right-field wall. The restaurant was built partially as a justification for moving the right-field wall in closer to home plate. The wind off the water blows right-to-left and in a little bit, and fairly briskly; thus, for years, the park was a career-killer for left-handed hitters, whose long fly balls were often knocked down for outs. (Harbor Park remains a tough place to hit a home run; this past weekend, both Stephen Vogt and Robinson Chirinos hit homer-worthy drives to left-center field that died at the warning track.)

Harbor Park is mostly plain concrete. I wonder if the architects' idea was to pick up on the battleship-gray that dominates not just the huge boats in the harbor (and the yards where they're built and repaired) but much of the city of Norfolk. If so, it's an interesting thought, but actually painting it battleship gray would have been a better gesture. The park isn't unattractive by any means, but it feels rather dark. I'm sure the sun shines on it, but sequestered as it is in a drab part of the downtown margins, facing as it does an industrial harbor full of raised drawbridges and cranes, it feels like a place in perpetual shadow. During the vespers-hour rains that fell on Sunday's game, a rather Dickensian gloom overcame the place, the rusty drawbridges and hulking maritime gargantua silhouetted in the falling dark, the lights on the water oily and weak. In the distance, throughout the game, you heard the low and incessant rumble of a ship engine churning in the night.

And yet—hear me out—it was a fun place to watch a ballgame. The crowd may not have much to cheer for, but they have a certain ragged lustiness about them. The staff, from usher to parking attendant to beer vendor, was as friendly and solicitous as could be. The employees all work under the apparently stern eye of a somewhat Napoleonic yet legendary General Manager, Dave Rosenfield, who has run the team for nearly five decades. According to one report, he has been known to stand on the roof of Harbor Park, spot cars parked in the VIP lot without permits, and have them towed away.

Yet he commands not just the respect but also the affection of his minions. Rosenfield had to leave town on Sunday for a fairly serious heart operation (valve replacement), and folks were quite obviously concerned for him. It was cheering to see that sort of family atmosphere, where the GM is not just feared but also rather loved, where the regulars all know the names of the ushers in their season-ticket sections, and where the elevator attendant strikes up unsolicited and friendly conversation with out-of-town reporters.

It's probable that Rosenfield's long tenure at the Tides' helm is responsible for Harbor Park's feel, which is oddly characterful and warm despite the colorless surroundings. The Bulls, to make an apposite comparison, have a long history in Durham, but the franchise we know now is actually a relatively new corporation. Capitol Broadcasting Company, Jim Goodmon's local empire, bought the team from baseball entrepreneur Miles Wolff in 1991 and built the kitsch-heavy DBAP in 1994-95. The Bulls have led Durham's charge out of decades of decrepitude and into its economic and spiritual revival.

Rosenfield, on the other hand, has run the Norfolk Tides since Dr. Martin Luther King's March on Washington and Lee Harvey Oswald. The franchise is his singular pride and joy—and, sometimes, pain. He is, as Heather put it, the tyrannical dad of Harbor Park, but that tyranny must be an essentially loving one: No one stays in baseball—let alone minor-league baseball—for five decades unless they love the game all the way down to their bones and teeth. Rosenfield, and the Tides, persevere.

I'd argue that that perseverance, and close-knit feel, get a boost from Norfolk's military community and influence. The Navy is here, and their presence is noticeable in many ways at the ballpark. There's a we're-all-in-this-together camaraderie, a kind of embattled pride. During both games this weekend, the seventh-inning stretch opened with "God Bless America," and most of the crowd sang along. (So did the Bulls' Matt Moore, the son of an Air Force man.)


The view from the Norfolk-Portsmouth ferry.
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  • The view from the Norfolk-Portsmouth ferry.


But lest we think of the Norfolk Tides, and their city (whose population has been declining), as nothing but a bunch of scrappers fighting both the minor-league royalty known as the Durham Bulls and also the march of time, here are some correctives. The latest of these is a light rail system called the Tide, which just began service on August 19. The Tide makes a stop right in front of Harbor Park, and that must have had something to do with the crowd on Saturday night, over 11,000, the Tides' largest of the season: The Tide was not only newly open for business, it was free to ride for the first week of its operation.

You can ride the Tide (a convenient rhyme for the system's marketing people, no?) around the Hampton Roads area, and within a few minutes of Harbor Park you can disembark near the beautiful Norfolk neighborhood of Ghent. You're right near the Chrysler Museum, a fine and deceptively full repository of art from antiquity to the present which holds some real treasures: works by Greuze, Hopper, Mapplethorpe, Matisse, Tintoretto—and the last sculpture the great Bernini made before he died. The museum also has a world-class collection of glass art, from the Tiber to Tiffany and beyond.

From there, just off a Tide stop nearer downtown, you can wander by the pagoda and teahouse that was a gift from Taiwan back when, gaze upon the imposing sides of the U.S.S. Wisconsin, now part of the Nauticus museum, duck into Cure Coffeehouse for a cup of fair-trade mud (or for a sandwich and a craft beer). There's a good independent bookstore downtown, a huge mall for those so inclined, and—on a gloriously dilapidated block of Granby Street—a venerable haberdashery called Stark and Legum that sells gentleman's threads which would have been swanky way back when David Rosenfield became General Manager of the Norfolk Tides, and still are today.

I make this touristic divagation because I like to think that there are plenty of Bulls fans out there—maybe I'm dreaming—who might fancy a road trip with the team at some point. Norfolk, like Durham, is a place with character, much more so than Charlotte (where the Knights don't even play—they're down in the nowheresville of Fort Mill, S. C.), and it isn't far away. The Bulls go back there September 2-5, if you're looking for a getaway. I've got half a mind to return, myself—but those games will probably mean little, I admit. It's warming, in any case, to imagine the players distracting themselves, if only just a little, from their end-of-season homesickness with a late-morning visit to the Chrysler Museum or a stroll on the deck of a battleship.

More broadly, it's easy to dismiss the actual places where the Bulls go when they're away. How much do most of us really know about places like Allentown, Indianapolis, Rochester? The International League is not only a consortium of ball clubs but also, in its way, an alliance of faded-glory American cities. Many of their industries helped build this country, and all of them are rich with a kind of igneous-rock national history. It's at their mid-level stratus where much of the U.S. laid its foundations. While I was in Norfolk this weekend, enjoying not only the ballgames but the city, I found myself wishing I could cover the Durham Bulls on all of their road trips, not only to get deeper into the industry of the team itself—my knowledge of the Bulls is really only half-knowledge—but in order to explore America's original power plant, its gritty and humble old ports and mills and ore—and tobacco. It's called the International League, but in spirit and quality it's truly the National League.

***

For now, though, I'm grateful to have been sent to Norfolk by the Independent, and I'm looking forward to the Bulls' final home stand. Matt Moore, the electrifying young left-hander, pitches for the Bulls tomorrow night—you may have only a handful of chances left ever to see him pitch here—against Norfolk's Chris Tillman. Game time is 7:05 p.m., and while I enjoyed the road trip tremendously, I admit that I'm ready, like Dane De La Rosa and the Durham Bulls, for the comforts of home.

See you Tuesday night.

Andy Sonnanstine pitching at Norfolk, August 20, 2011
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  • Andy Sonnanstine pitching at Norfolk, August 20, 2011

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