Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Run with the bulls

Run with the bulls

It’s a major chore when Durham’s minor-league team plays at home.


Though management can be as furtive with the figures as a catcher signaling for the next pitch, the numbers are anything but bush league. These are the storied Durham Bulls, Triple A affiliates of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. They began play 105 years ago as the Durham Tobacconists. The present name dates to 1912, when the team lifted it from Bull Durham, a popular brand of smoking tobacco. That was 76 years before the movie of that title, which made the team internationally known and solidified Kevin Costner’s status as a star. In addition to the fame, now fading, the film left the giant bull sign, originally a prop in the movie and now perched over the left-field fence. The beast’s eyes blaze red and its nostrils snort smoke when a Bull belts a homer. But its appeal is only one reason attendance at the 72 home games totals about a half-million each season. The team won’t say, but at $5 to $8 a ticket, the gate probably brings in $3 million or more. That doesn’t count what souvenirs and concessions contribute.

Since 1995, this 10,000-seat stadium has been the Bulls’ home, its red brick mirroring the tobacco factories that are turning into retail and residential space and its bankish facade a reflection of all the downtown development. On the day of a night game, head groundskeeper Scott Strickland arrives about 10 a.m. He and his two assistants begin mowing what’s grass and dragging smooth what’s not. Don’t call it dirt. You can pour 20 inches of water on the sand-based soil and play an hour later. “We maintain the field at the major-league level,” says Strickland, 24, who studied sports-turf management at N.C. State. “You can’t roll out the tarp and go home on a Friday night when you’ve got 10,000 tickets sold.”

Upstairs in the front office, a staff of 30 works through the day, while out on the field, Strickland obsesses. “Your worst nightmare is a player getting hurt because of something you did or didn’t do.” In the fall, he plants cool-season rye grass that greens up early, before the warm-weather Bermuda comes on. If he does it right, fans never notice change in hue. Cages come onto the field for batting practice, then off. The crew smooths the field again. The bullpen is sprinkled, the mound massaged. The afternoon wears on, but by 6:45, groundskeepers retreat in advance of the 7 o’clock start. “For the first couple of weeks, you watch the game,” Strickland says. “Then you get a little sick of baseball.”

As fans filter into the stands, Jamie Jenkins and his crews stir. His company runs the concessions. He’s secretive, too, about numbers, but simple math points to some big figures. A kiddie dog costs only $1.25, but a Hebrew National Big Boy will set you back $3, and a quarter-pound dog goes for $4. Need a beer to wash it down? It’s $3.75 to $6. Hot dogs are king, but chicken dinners are a close second in revenue, he says, adding, “We’re offering healthier versions of everything.” That includes turkey — not just pork — barbecue. At twilight, vendors circulate through the stands, barking out their fare. “Lemonade.” “Cotton candy.” “Funnel cakes.” At Wool E. Bull’s International Café, fish and chips, Italian sausages and burritos are moving. So is the night.

By 10, the game is over, the stands empty of fans. By 11, the stadium holds three people: Strickland and his two helpers. The big lights beam down. He smooths the mound. The job is never finished; the Bulls are home again tomorrow. “It’s a tough game we all play,” he says. He’s not talking about baseball.

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