by Adam Sobsey
DBAP/ DURHAM---Old-school friends of mine will sometimes show their age by betraying surprise at discovering that the Durham Bulls are no longer an affiliate of the Atlanta Braves. I can sort of forgive them that outdated conception; after all, the Bulls-Braves partnership lasted 18 years.
But this afternoon at the DBAP, right under the "Hit Bull Win Steak/Hit Grass Win Salad" Bull, a beaming General Manager Mike Birling announced that the Bulls and the Tampa Bay Rays have extended their working agreement, which was set to expire after 2010. The four-year extension will take them through 2014, for a 17-year total---the Rays will have been here almost as long as the Braves were.
With Birling were Chaim Bloom, who is the Rays' Assistant Director of Minor League Operations, Durham Bulls Vice President George Habel and Durham Athletic Park Manager for Minor League Baseball Jill Rusinko.
When asked what it was about the Durham Bulls that especially appealed to the Rays' front office, Bloom mentioned the fans and the community. But the first thing out of his mouth was "the playing surface." It's a credit to the DBAP grounds crew that they've maintained the field so well, despite the meteorological challenges of 2009.
The 2010 schedule was released. As usual, both the beginning and end of the season will pit the Bulls exclusively against the other three teams in the International League South Division. This clustering is done deliberately, and the weather is again a factor: April being the cruelest month, it's better to stay close to home. And the pennant drive in late summer forces the issue by matching up teams from the same division.
The 2010 home stretch, however, is an extreme version: From August 10 until the last day of the season, September 6, the Bulls play 28 games in a row against Charlotte, Gwinnett and Norfolk, without a single day off. That includes an 11-game road swing to all three cities from August 13-23. The Bulls also have an 11-game roadie June 14-24, when they visit Gwinnett, Louisville and Indianapolis. Their big stand at home runs from June 25-July 5, when they play 11 straight games at the DBAP versus Lehigh Valley, Louisville and Gwinnett. In July, the Bulls play 17 of 28 games at home.
Two red-letter days. On April 2 or 3 (exact date TBD), the Bulls will play an exhibition game against the Tampa Bay Rays. That's not only a chance to see major-league talent, but also to watch former Bulls who have gone on to stardom, like Carl Crawford (if he hasn't been traded) and Evan Longoria.
Then, on Monday, May 10, the Bulls will play a home game at another Durham ballyard: the old Durham Athletic Park, which officially reopened this year. The Bulls last played at the DAP in 1994. The game was scheduled for May 10 for a very deliberate reason, said Mike Birling: "When people think of the most famous minor-league teams, they think of the Durham Bulls, obviously because of [the film] Bull Durham, and they think of the Toledo Mud Hens, because of M*A*S*H*." (To our younger readers: M*A*S*H* was a television series that ran in the 1970s and 1980s. It was set during the Korean War, and one of the characters, a Toledan named Klinger, was trying to get his discharge from service by cross-dressing---oh, just read this.) Bulls versus Hens at the old farmyard!
It's easy to take the Bulls-Rays affiliation for granted. But it's important to appreciate how active and forward-thinking the Tampa brass is when it comes to their player development. We see that in the results. The Bulls are bidding to make the playoffs for the third straight year and the sixth of the last eight. Almost every season brings exciting, big-league-bound talent to the team. Look for more of it next year. And don't miss the Bulls' current charge, which resumes in just a few hours at the DBAP.