by Adam Sobsey
I was prepared, as a book critic, to get very Proustian on you last night. Memory, nostalgia and the accompanying ache were all over this game—especially for me, because I grew up around the 1980s Bulls. I can name, from memory, a fairly large number of players from the 1980 team that re-inaugurated the Bulls' presence in Durham, and I will: Paul Runge, "Royal" Albert Hall, Milt Thompson, Gerald Perry, Hoot Gibson, Paul Zuvella, Big Ike Pettaway, Rick Behenna, Glen Bockhorn, Scott Hood. I can go on into the early and mid-1980s, when I worked for the team: Brad Komminsk, Bob Tumpane, Keith Hagman, Zane Smith, Mike Knox, Flavio Alfaro, Pat Hodge, Brian Aviles, Mac Rogers, Juan Fredymond, Brett Butler, Andres Thomas, Freddie Tiburcio, Steve Chmil, Maximo Rosario, Maximo Del Rosario, Simon Rosario, Chip Childress, Greg Tubbs, Joe Lorenz, Bob Luzon, and of course the legendary Tony Neuendorff. You could look them up, all of them. Not only that, but Ron Morris, who covered the Bulls back then, was at the DAP last night, up from South Carolina on assignment for the Raleigh newspaper to write a nostalgia piece.
So thank you, Toledo Mud Hens, for getting right up in Bull Durham's business "from the word get-go," as one of my favorite mis-sayings goes, scoring five runs in a two-homer first inning off of Durham starter Heath Phillips (the Bulls chipped in with an error), and turning off the sentimentality faucet quickly and decisively in a 6-2 Toledo win. Sure, the big blow on this unseasonably cool night was a silly pop-fly to right field by Brent Dlugach that became a 320-foot three-run home run (i.e. all the scoring Toledo would need), but kitsch has its costs: if you're going to be cute and stick pro players in a ballpark where it's 290 feet to the right-field foul pole, behold the payback. Sorry, Heath. If it's any consolation, Clete Thomas's opposite-field dinger to left one out later was a legit blast. Eighteen pitches and about six or seven minutes after the game started, it was 5-0, Mud Hens. The Bulls made it interesting a couple of times later on, but basically this one was over early. The only real novelty was the first appearance, at long last, of Bulls' pitcher R. J. Swindle, in what was essentially a mop-up relief role.
So there was plenty of time to contemplate the scene, which in any case really belonged in the realm of movies, not literature (sorry, Proust); specifically that movie, you know the one, that brought us all here in the first place. The cinema, the Swindle—and the home furnishing habits of minor leaguers—after the jump.
While I was on the field—which was in beautiful condition—talking to Fernando Perez about 20 minutes before game time, Justin Ruggiano came over to inform Perez that the reason there was no sign of the Mud Hens was that the bus driver had forgotten to pick them up. Soon after, they pushed through the lawn crowd onto the field, with a collective look on their faces that was somewhere between disdain and disbelief. You got the feeling that they felt vaguely slighted by having to play in this rinky-dink park, which may explain their mercenary outburst against Heath Phillips in the first inning. There, they seemed to be saying, take that you little lickspittles. Single, double, error on Joe Dillon, lineout to center field, homer, pop-out, homer. 5-0. Heath Phillips left the ball up all that inning. Maybe he was too amped up for the game, or just uncomfortable; Joe Bateman, who tossed 1 1/3 innings of scoreless relief, said afterward that the place felt uncomfortably "close." Whatever the case, Phillips deserves credit for settling down after his ruinous first inning, putting up
goose hen eggs until the sixth, when he gave up an RBI double to ninth-place hitter Ben Guez, who went 4-4. Guez, a recent promotion from Class A, came into the game with six hits in 44 at-bats this year. His average with Toledo improved from .118 to .286.
On the other side of Heath's ledger, Mud Hens' starter Phil Dumatrait, a former first-round pick of the Boston Red Sox, was perfect through four innings save for an error by third baseman Maxwell Leon (nightmare visions of Dallas Braden were dancing in our heads). Dumatrait allowed a leadoff homer to Dan Johnson in the fifth, Johnson's league-leading 10th, and then got himself into an F.O.B. jam in the sixth with two outs. The lefty was then pulled, at 90 pitches, by Toledo manager Larry Parrish with big right-hander Ryan Shealy coming to the plate as the potential tying run. Dumatrait stalked off the mound muttering at home plate umpire Jason Bradley and his strike zone—he had thrown Dan Johnson something very close to strike three before hitting him with a pitch to load the bases—and Robbie Weinhardt came on.
Things got very loud, with no prompting from anyone or any technology (there's no video board at the old DAP to demand "NOISE!"). Throughout the evening, the crowd seemed to be paying much more attention to the actual game than DBAP fans do. They berated the umps, booed the Mud Hens, cheered for their home team. A swell of decibels rose as Shealy worked the count to a favorable 2-1. But then he grounded out to shortstop to quell the threat. I was hoping that Weinhardt would give way to Josh Rainwater (Wein into Water, don'tcha know), but instead he returned for the seventh inning, allowed leadoff singles to Chris Richard and Angel Chavez—and then struck out Jose Lobaton and got Desmond Jennings to ground into a lame double play to end the inning and, to all intents and purposes, the game.
"I feel like I'm in a movie," a guy behind me said at one point, and you could understand why. The DAP floodlights were abetted by imported, truck-mounted light towers that gave the scene a cinematic night-brightness: not only the DAP but Stone Brothers and Byrd garden supply store, the cars parked beyond the wall, the immediate surround of still-frowsy old Durham, were all incorporated into the mise-en-scene. Nighthawks darted in stark, lit-from-below relief.
Moreover, we all felt a bit movie-ish because of the looming psychic presence of the film Bull Durham, which was shot here about 23 years ago. So fixed is its aura that the movie has blurred the actual team it framed within its narrative. Where does one begin and the other end? The lead article on the Minor League Baseball web site after the game last night was about the Bulls' return to the DAP. Aside from the wonderful typo "t-shits," there was only one mistake in the piece, and it was a telling one: "The DAP," wrote Danny Wild, "iconic for its huge wooden 'Hit Bull, Win Steak' sign in left field, fell into disrepair following the Bulls' exit in the mid-'90s." What Wild didn't know was that the taurus-shaped sign was actually invented and built by the production team that made Bull Durham, and then carted over to the new DBAP in 1994. In other words, it's the movie that's iconic, not the Bulls; or perhaps its better to borrow from the UNC-Chapel Hill graduate Walker Percy's great novel The Moviegoer, which essentially argues that you don't feel like your life is real unless it has the imprimatur of a movie to "certify" it:
Panic in the Streets with Richard Widmark [that link not for people with sensitive eyes] is playing on Tchoupitoulas Street. The movie was filmed in New Orleans. Richard Widmark is a public health inspector who learns that a culture of cholera bacilli has gotten loose in the city. Kate watches, lips parted and dry. She understands my moviegoing but in her own antic fashion. There is a scene which shows the very neighborhood of the theater. Kate gives me a look—it is understood that we do not speak during the movie.
After the movie, she looks around the neighborhood. "Yes, it is certified now."
She refers to a phenomenon of movie-going which I have called certification. Nowadays when a person lives somewhere, in a neighborhood, the place is not certified for him. More than likely he will live there sadly and the emptiness which is inside him will expand until it evacuates the entire neighborhood. But if he sees a movie which shows his very neighborhood, it becomes possible for him to live, for a time at least, as a person who is Somewhere and not Anywhere.
I'm still not sure how to feel about Bull Durham. Surely it has helped the Bulls and the city that hosts them, but it also obscures the actual doings of the team, the actual soul of the city. Yes, the movie has its authenticity. (Fernando Perez told me—a member of the media—that the most authentic part comes when Crash Davis instructs Nuke LaLoosh in the finer points of how to talk to the media, i.e. by talking a lot while actually saying basically nothing. Scranton/Wilkes-Barre manager Dave Miley gave me an expert rendition of that dialogue on Sunday.) But its authenticity and Durham's, though permanently bound, aren't the same. There is kitsch value, there is Baudrillardian simulacrum, there is the peculiarly American pathology that repackages almost all true experience into marketable commodity; but I don't want to overstate the hardness of the conundrum nor do more than mention the fan who shouted "lollygaggers!"—an unimaginative one-word reference to the Bull Durham movie—late in the game when the Bulls were shambling toward defeat. The foul balls that come screaming into the crowd are what's hard, and real. Losing is real. Ryan Shealy looked pretty morose after the game, his failure to deliver that cinematic grand slam weighing on him, and he gave us reporters only a few brusque seconds before heading—along with his anxious-to-leave teammates—for the bus that took him back to the new, multi-million-dollar DBAP where he had dressed (in a throwback costume-version of his uniform, which he may never wear again) before the game. The DAP last night was a sound stage; it just so happened that the game was real, and the Bulls lost. The intransigence of results is what keeps baseball resistant to the sentimentalizing tendencies of moviemakers—and sportswriters.
So I asked Fernando Perez a very un-cinematic, very practical question: do you buy your furniture or rent it, knowing that you may not be in any minor-league city for very long? There are package deals, he told me, where you rent a furnished place out in Research Triangle Park and a $200/month surcharge is added for the furniture rental. Perez did that in 2008, but he didn't like it out there in the RTP strip-mall hinterlands; so this year, he and a teammate, catcher John Jaso, rented a place in the Walltown neighborhood of Durham, and bought cheap vintage furniture instead. And then came another practical intrusion: Jaso was promoted to Tampa within weeks of opening day. Perez thinks he'll get reimbursed for Jaso's half of the rent later on, but he isn't sure; as for the furniture, you could ask him when he gets called up in September.
Perez, by the way, confirmed that he turned his ankle diving back into third base on Sunday. He expects to play before the homestand ends.
The name R. J. Swindle sounds like an alias, or even the moniker of an impostor, and it made some sense that Swindle was the 2009 Pitcher Who Wasn't There. Designated for assignment by Milwaukee in early August last season, he was claimed on August 8 by the Rays—who DFA'd him themselves the very next day. If memory serves, they made that bizarre move because they then had a chance to reacquire Winston Abreu, whom they had traded to Cleveland in late June. Swindle was claimed off waivers by—yep—Cleveland. So Abreu was almost traded for himself. The Rays then signed Swindle to a proper contract after the season ended. During spring training, he got hurt: it seems appropriate that the injury was to his oblique.
But now here he was, a guy named Swindle no longer oblique in a movie-version of the Bulls at the old DAP. Swindle threw two real innings, though, featuring a sidearm curveball that can't be more than 65mph. The Mud Hens pecked at it but couldn't do much with it. Other than the obligatory hit to Ben Guez, Swindle was perfect. He threw 28 pitches, which means the only lefty at Charlie Montoyo's disposal—indeed, the only lefty he's had, I think, since Randy Choate was here briefly last spring—has already been burned up for tomorrow's game. Is Montoyo's bullpen never not thin?
And guess who starts tomorrow's game? Jeff Bennett—the second injured Bulls pitcher to return to action in two days. Aneury Rodriguez will move to the bullpen; that Richard De Los Santos kid stays in the
picture starting rotation. That's a bit of a surprise, given that Rodriguez is very highly regarded; but on the other hand, De Los Santos has looked better lately, and wasn't some local sportswriter just saying that Rodriguez probably ends up in someone's bullpen down the road?
One other injury note: I spoke with Justin Ruggiano, who told me he feels much improved since injuring his biceps swinging and missing at a curveball last week. His arm overextended a bit on the follow-through, causing the injury. He said he felt well enough play right now, but players are always itching to come back sooner than their trainers will let them. In the movie version of last night's game, Ruggiano comes off the bench and hits a dramatic ninth-inning homer into the starry night. In the real version, he watches from the tiny, uncomfortable home dugout at the DAP, sipping coffee, and probably headed for another stint on the treadmill back at the DBAP after the game—a real guy with a real family and real furniture, trying to keep on making a real living at an unlikely game.