file photo by D.L. Anderson
The Durham Bulls begin the International League championship series at home tonight. It’s the Bulls’ seventh appearance in the finals in ten years, a remarkable accomplishment in the volatile realm of Triple-A baseball.
But what exactly is the value of a minor-league championship, even to the players vying for it? They wear Durham Bulls uniforms but are employees of the Tampa Bay Rays, the Bulls’ parent club, which controls farmhands’ assignments to working affiliates that function as training grounds. These guys are trying to get out of Durham.
Those who are still here just missed their best chance. Triple-A is the minor leagues’ top level, just below the majors. Every year on September 1—the virtual end of the minor-league season but the beginning of the monthlong pennant drive in the majors—a procedural allowance known as “roster expansion” lets as many as fifteen extra players join the big-league squad. Most teams call up less than half that many, but nearly all are summoned from Triple-A, robbing teams like Durham of their best players on the eve of the playoffs.
Thus it’s common for do-or-die games to be started, weirdly, by unknown pitchers from the lower minors making their Triple-A debuts in uniforms they’ve never worn before. Behind these upstarts are fielders who may have toiled in Triple-A all season but didn’t get called up to the majors after September 1. Minor-league pay is negligible, and there’s no cash bonus for winning the championship. Not even postseason stats are officially counted. There’s little to play for other than mounting fatigue and injury risk.
It’s not just the players whose investment may be questionable. Attendance plunges for the playoffs. The Bulls average more than seven thousand fans per game during the regular season but often draw fewer than half that many in the playoffs. School has started, the summer crowds are gone. And press coverage nearly disappears as football season hogs media attention.
Neglected playoffs are part of the minor leagues’ necessary deal. Beholden to rosters created and constantly meddled with from above, with no control over competitive quality, minor-league baseball thrives via marketing as summertime fun, not a professional sporting event. Theme nights, fireworks, etc.: attraction by distraction. The appeal is to the casual fan, for whom the ballpark is more like the State Fair (especially with the copious food). The postseason, which can’t be included in season-ticket packages, in case the Bulls should fail to qualify, is left to diehards, whose enthusiasm far exceeds their numbers. Even when the Bulls win championships, they’ve lost their audience.
So why not end the Triple-A season on August 31? The team with the best record could be declared league champion. Big-league clubs could call up the players they want without crippling their Triple-A affiliates at the most critical time of the year. The abandonment of fans and media to the school year and to football would be avoided. The Triple-A season would no longer end in strange isolation.
But that’s precisely the reason to keep the playoffs, and to watch them—more than ever.
Last week, in game two of the first round of the playoffs, the Bulls led Indianapolis 1-0 in the third inning, but Indianapolis had the bases loaded with one out and their cleanup hitter ahead in the count, 3-1: a dangerous moment. He hit the next pitch hard, but the Bulls turned a rousing, inning-ending double play, the kind that looks routine yet requires deceptive athleticism, taut execution, and practiced teamwork. On his way to the dugout, Bulls pitcher Yonny Chirinos waited for third baseman Daniel Robertson, who had started the double play with a nifty grab, and offered him a grateful high five for bailing him out of trouble. Robertson played just eleven games with Durham this season, which he spent mostly in the majors and on the sidelines with an injury. He didn’t just return the high five. He leapt into it, uplifted by the adrenaline of triumph and instinctive comradeship. (“Clubhouses are conducive to chemistry,” one longtime Triple-A journeyman once told me.) The Bulls went on to win, 2-0.
It’s easy to forget, on a lazy night at the ballpark, that the Bulls are among the very best ballplayers on earth. But watch the way they pour themselves into their sport, even in the empty-stakes, empty-stands playoffs. They dive simply because there’s a ball to catch. The uniform they share gives them team pride. They strive for the trophy because, to the truly elite competitor, anything less is nothing. This must be what Camus understood when he wrote that everything he knew of morals he owed to soccer. And he certainly knew that when we are dispossessed of our best resources, our promise of reward and appreciation, and when nothing depends on the outcome of our efforts, that is when everything is asked of us and our efforts become their purest.
Our American moment is one of simultaneous, paradoxical abandonment and coercion: power consolidating by excluding, culture at once separating and homogenizing, truth and comity eroding, and with them the American ideal that marries local individuality to federal interdependence. These players grace us by a distant authority, yet they are Bulls for as long as they wear the uniform, carrying our home and history on their backs. The championship is not for them, who will be gone soon enough. It is for us that they play, driven by a higher, absolute conviction. To show loyalty to them here and now, in the face of their predicament, is an act of the staunchest, most virtuous resistance.
The Bulls host the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders for the first two games of the International League championship series at Durham Bulls Athletic Park, Tuesday, September 12, and Wednesday, September 13, at 6:35 p.m. For tickets and information, visit www.durhambulls.com.