The Durham Bulls won the International League championship on Friday. It was their fifth title and eleventh finals appearance in the last fifteen years—an extraordinary accomplishment, especially in the volatile context of Triple-A minor-league baseball, where rosters change almost daily under a major-league "parent club" that promotes and demotes players at its whim, rendering the notion of a coherent team dubious. Credit Durham's success to the Tampa Bay Rays—with whom the Bulls have had an affiliate agreement since 1998 and who keep the team stocked with good players and a stable coaching staff—and the Bulls' local management, which maintains a superb facility and fosters an energetic environment at Durham Bulls Athletic Park.
Most of the credit goes, of course, to the team. But what is the value of the championship to them? They are not really Bulls, after all, but employees of the Rays, who have dispatched them to this Triple-A corral. They're trying to get out of Durham, and those who are still here missed their best chance just before the postseason began. Triple-A is the minor leagues' top level, right below the majors. Every year on September 1—almost the 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 the big-league club call up extra players. Most 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 feature replacements from the lower minors making Triple-A debuts in uniforms they've never worn, alongside some teammates who toiled in Durham all summer but didn't get called up to the majors. They may be joined by a few detached big-league ringers on late rehab assignments, working out the last kinks of injury. There's no bonus for winning the championship, and minor-league pay is negligible. Post-season stats aren't officially logged. There's little to play for but fatigue and injury risk.
It's not just the players whose investment may be questionable. Attendance plunges after Labor Day. 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 the minor leagues' necessary exchange in their deal with the majors. With no control over rosters' competitive quality, minor-league baseball is marketed as summertime fun, not as a professional sporting event. Theme nights, fireworks, etc.: attraction by distraction. The appeal is to the casual fan who comes to one or two games a year. The postseason, excluded from season-ticket packages in case the Bulls fail to qualify, is for 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 league champion. Big-league clubs could call up players they want without crippling Triple-A affiliates at a critical time. The abandonment of fans and media would be avoided. The season would no longer end in depleted isolation.
But that's precisely the reason to keep, and even love, the Triple-A playoffs.
Last week, in game two of the first playoff round, 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 out with an injury. He leapt into the high five, uplifted by the adrenaline of triumph and instinctive comradeship. Durham went on to win, 2-0. A few days later, Robertson homered and drove in four runs to lead the Bulls to their championship-clinching victory over Scranton.
It's easy to forget, on a summer 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 championships 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 deprived of our best resources, our promise of reward and appreciation, and when nothing results from the outcome of our toil but more toil, that is when everything is asked of us and our efforts become their purest.
Our American moment is 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 hopes and history on their backs. The championship is not for them, who will be gone soon enough. They play for themselves and one another, driven by higher convictions and goals. The trophy they leave for us to cherish. To show gratitude for that hard-won gift under such onerous circumstances, and to praise their prodigal giftedness, is an act of the staunchest, most virtuous resistance.
An earlier version of this story appeared on our website on September 12, before the Bulls won the playoffs. After press time on Tuesday night, the Bulls beat the Memphis Redbirds in the Triple-A National Championship game.