BCR's Daily Fishwrap Report for September 16, 2009
Polak corrects record, called Woodard a "technocrat," not "plebe"

For a baseball fan, Bulls playoff games are addition by subtraction

My good friend, fellow blogger and weekly radio show foil Barry likes to grouse sometimes about the-way-things-were around Durham. One of his favorite subjects: they just don't make baseball games the way they used to.

"When I first started going to Bulls games at the old DAP," he told me over beers and dogs at a game earlier this summer, "the fans really cared about baseball games."

The die-hard Mets fan expressed his regret at seeing fan interactions become scripted events, a set of Pavlovian responses to flashing scoreboard instructions -- and an event that, for many, becomes a series of faux-sumo matches and bean-toss competitions interrupted by some hardball every now and then.

Of course, it's been hard for someone like me who was -- until recently -- a pretty low-key baseball fan to not to love the Bulls just the way they are. The minor leagues are all about a fan-friendly and family-friendly atmosphere, a place where kids and parents and friends all reconnect on a nice warm day in sunny North Carolina.

To a deep baseball fan like my pal Barry, it's all so much icing on top of the baseball cake. And he's been afraid that the baseball experience has gotten buried inside a veritable Blue Monster of cheesy cream cheese frosting.

One thing got stuck in Barry's craw in particular. "You know," he told me during one pitcher change, "this really shows you what I'm talking about."

"When there was a pitching change for the visiting team in the old DAP, the home crowd would make this WHOOOP-whooo noise while the new pitcher warmed up," he complained into his beer. "We were known for it."

Well, I had a chance to get to last night's 4-1 victory over the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees. (A match that ran late enough into the night as to explain the paucity of stories 'round here today.)

Just as I predicted in yesterday's story, and as augmented by some commenters, the players on both sides were a bit more of a rag-tag collection of AA-level players and vets, those not quite beloved enough by their bosses in the Bronx or St. Pete to have earned a one-month all-you-can-eat at the Big Show.

And the crowd was small -- I haven't heard any announced numbers yet, but it couldn't have numbered over 3,000. No big corporate-sales groups; relatively few kids; no lines at the playpen.

It was probably one of the best baseball games I've ever been to.

Not, mind you, that the ball played was all that spectacular -- though the game didn't lack for drama or key moments.

Scranton pitcher Romulo Sanchez was a beast through the first two-thirds of the game, holding the Bulls nearly hitless after letting slip a first-inning score by the home team. And Durham hurler Jeremy Hellickson was solid through most of his outing, including solid pitching under pressure in the fourth with runners holding down the first two bags.

Add to that a play that started the turning of the tide the Bulls way -- a bunt by DH Henry Mateo, which a Yankee error turned into a nice triple thanks to a sloppy double-error handling of the play by the Keystone Cops, er, Staters -- led to a pretty interesting few at-bats and more home team offense.

And the game's end -- a few nail-biting at-bats by Bulls closer Winston Abreu, normally rock-steady, but who twice ended up striking out runners who could have tied the game with a long ball -- was a nerve-inducing end to a game whose stakes were a wee bit higher than is the norm in the minor leagues.

No, what made these moments so special were the ways the crowd reacted.

An unsuspecting person wandering into the DBAP last night might have assumed they were entering a tea-bagger rally, filled with Medicare recipients preparing to rail against that "gummint-run socialist health care." The crowd was pretty male, pretty old -- or at least Barry-, er, middle-aged.

Which is to say, a great baseball crowd.

In some parts of the U.S. now, a preseason football game will outdraw the Major Leagues for TV attendance -- to say nothing of how baseball fares against that other sport where driving cars around in the same direction while spectators wear ear protection. (I've always thought NASCAR would be more interesting if the race directions were more freeform, but that's just me.)

I'm in my early thirties, and grew up in Florida. Not exactly your prime baseball demographic.

Heck, I had precisely one swing of a baseball as a kid -- as a third grader, at a Little League try-out. The coach pitched, and I, who had never really spent a lot of time in spring training, managed a stance and swing so poor that, simultaneously, my batting helmet flew off and I maneuvered my forehead into the path of the pitch.

A few nailbiting moments of unconsciousness were all it took to end my Little League days; I was designated for assignment to tee-ball, an unceremonious step for a big, grown-up third grader, and one which doomed me to rue the diamond for years.

A few years' stay in Boston during the time the Red Sox reversed the curse sparked an interest in a game that had long bewildered me.

But it was my arrival in Durham that cemented that curiosity.

First, seeing players up-close-and-personal in a way you can't in a major league park got me interested in the young men laboring away in burgs from Toledo to Lehigh Valley.

But then, watching those very hometown heroes get called up, er, down south to Tampa Bay, and watching that crew sneak their way from the basement of the AL East into the World Series?

I was hooked.

So, unlike the baseball neophyte of past seasons, I've come to Bulls games of late with a greater focus on the action on the field than I might have in years past. Not that I still fully understand the game -- but then, who ever does? Isn't that part of its weird fascination?

Last night, I found myself among a few thousand kindred spirits.

The cues on the scoreboard were still there -- but they really weren't needed.

The crowd clapped when it should have clapped.

It expressed concern when it should have (like when Hellickson got charley-horsed by a pitch hit straight back to his thighs) and a sense of the-fates-have-spoken (when his opposite number Sanchez had exactly the same thing happen to him an inning or so later.)

It stood when it should have -- like when Hellickson finally left the game, which earned him a heartfelt standing-o from the crowd. Watching the young man -- who's barely old enough to drink, much less be hurling the kind of heat this prospect can -- tip his cap, ever so demurely, to the passionate crowd was a moment you can imagine he'll look back on long after he might have otherwise forgotten Durham.

The fans around me? Behind me sat a couple of hard-core fans, season ticket holders from the sounds of it. One was an attorney, it seemed, regaling his compadre with stories of all these minor league parks he'd been to, all around the country. A hobby, it seems.

In front of me: more season ticket holders, who had in front of them (in the first row, right behind the netting at home plate) some young men whose love for the suds were surpassed only by their love for a good heckling -- the kind that you can only hope will rattle the away team.

(I took one of my first-ever tries at baseball heckling, after a tasty PBR to wash down the sauerkraut and onions piled upon a wiener. "[New York Yankees GM Brian] Cashman thought he signed Zack Greinke, not you!" I yelled out to sputtering Scranton reliever Zach Kroenke. Note to self: homonym humor that assumes preternatural knowledge of the fact that some guy on the field has a name that sounds like the ace of the Kansas City Royals? Maybe not the best heckling idea.)

As the game wore on, Jatovi McDuffie -- the emcee of so many games, the lead announcer of the on-field antics that Wool E. Bull and the Blue Monster and kids and adults pluck from the audience get mixed up in -- came into the section, grabbing a seat, chatting and laughing with the fans and the hecklers.

Not part of a production, not part of the schtick. A genuine moment from a guy who really likes the fans, and the team, and a nice night out at the park. A put your feet up, put your hands behind your head and laugh moment.

But the baseball was the star of the show. And the show's audience was a crowd that was there to see baseball, gosh darn it.

Sure, there's a great energy to a sold-out, packed DBAP -- but it's the energy of humanity, not strictly of baseball.

Last night's crowd might have squeezed into the old DAP, though it would have been a tight fit.

But it was a pretty hard-core baseball crowd.

The best kind.

Sometimes, addition-by-subtraction really does work.

Hell, when ol' Romulo Sanchez had had enough of the Bulls hitters, and the Mini-Me version of the Evil Empire yanked the pitcher in favor of Kroenke, the crowd gave him the appropriate cackles.

And when Kroenke was warming up, you damned well know what sound he heard.

"WHOOOP-whooo."

Barry would be so proud.

Comments

Steve

I find the vast majority of your posts entertaining and informative, but this might be my all-time favorite. As a lifelong baseball fan, it is very interesting to hear how one can "drink the Kool Aid" as an adult.

BTW- You probably already know this, but the Bulls are having a "Return to the DAP" game next season. I'll be online trying to get tickets to that one the day they go on sale.

merry

Some of us old timers still try to get that "WHOOOP-whooo" cheer started, but it's difficult when they start blaring bad pop music.

Another favorite old cheer apparently no longer welcome at Bulls games: "Bulls hit! Bulls hit!"

Steve Graff

I love the "Whoop Woooo"! I heard it for the first time at a Bulls Game at the DBAP either earlier this season or last season (not a big baseball fan mind you) and it made me laugh. I'm giggling now at the thought of it.

alex

the game tonight was pretty exciting. and the crowd was interesting too. the crowd felt a little less southern and polite with several "yankees sucks" cheers. i really enjoy minor league baseball, and i think durham is really lucky to have a team here, cheesy as it is on a sunday afternoon game between innings.... i've lived in cities in ohio with major league teams and another with a minor league team too, and there's something special about the minor league, so enjoy it. now if i could just get municipal stadium mustard for my veggie dog in durham, i'd be in heaven....

Scott Jennings

I was one of your sudsy hecklers in the front of 101. We couldn't help it - the second baseman's name was Reegie, which was a huge mistake on his part.

Jatovi is not only a natural at managing the between-innings spectacle, but he also knows exactly what's going on between the foul lines. While he was chatting with us, he rattled off all the recent roster changes for the benefit of a fan who missed Jon Weber's assignment to USA Baseball. He's also a performer at ComedyWorx in Raleigh, which explains where he got the chops to roll from little kids running the bases to frat boys in sumo outfits to chastising unruly hecklers.

Is it April yet?

Mohammad Goldberg

Great post. Having Jeremy Hellickson playing for the Bulls has been one of the high points of my summer (yeah, I know, I need a better life). I would love to see the Rays keep him in Durham through next June. Give him the additional time to mature (that the should have done for David Price). He will be a player to watch in the future.

At tonight's game, Elliot Johnson was responsible for turning a 6-4-3 double-play, that has to be the most incredible play I have ever witnessed live.

The first few seconds of the video at this link is the play I am referring to:
http://tinyurl.com/op3jsc

Emerson

I thought I'd find the Jatovi fan page on Facebook a couple of weeks ago, and was shocked to find there isn't one. Worse yet, the Bulls website hardly acknowledges him at all - Wool E. Bull is on the roster page, but not Jatovi?! That's a crime. I've been to a lot of minor league parks and games, and he's a master emcee, entertaining those who don't care to focus on baseball and bolstering the energy and pace for those come to watch the game.

Kevin Davis

@Emerson: Actually, back to Scott's point above (Scott, I didn't know that was you there!), I wouldn't have been able to find Jatovi, whose name I didn't know how to spell, if I didn't overhear him talking about his time at ComedyWorx.

Agreed in re the need to get him some recognition on the Bulls' web site. He does a fantastic job as the "face of the crew" at Bulls games.

Matt Johnson

I was also at the game, and I didn't think about it until I read this post, but you're right about the crowd. Other than the tired "Yankees Suck" chants at the end of the game, the crowd did show baseball intelligence and a pretty unique engagement with the game. Another commenter mentioned Elliot Johnson's double play, which was nifty, but the crowd also got really into Ray Olmedo's double play in the eighth. The crowd gasped when Jackson lined the ball, cheered when Olmedo caught it. There was a silence as Olmedo seemed to bobble the ball and then just jubilation when he fired to first to get Corona.

I also liked the cheering of the Bulls after their last at bat in the bottom of the eighth. Thanks for a great recap of the game!

aburtch

Having lived in major league, minor league an no-baseball cities and towns, we are very lucky to have a team with such history as the Durham Bulls. The games are exciting, inexpensive, family-friendly, and accessible. Thanks for the great post Kevin, the commentary is spot on.

@Mohammad - Thanks for the video snippet, that was a FANTASTIC double play!

Steve

I loved the post, Kevin. It brought to mind the old DAP announcer who would introduce lineup changes with "'ttention, 'ttention! Now pitching for the Bulls..." It was always purposeful for him to drop the "a" but I never knew why. The other thing he would do is announce the license plate of a car with its lights on. The first time was "DBF3862, your lights are on." Then later "your lights are on but they're getting dimmer." And then an inning later it would be "Never mind, they're off NOW" followed by laughter from the entire crowd.

barry

I always thought his first name was Jacoby. Whaddaya know? Also, can't remember his name, but the old DAP announcer did make the transition to the new ballpark for a couple of years, along with Kathy (i think that's her name) who operated the Bull when it was manual. My favorite memories of the DAP involve my kids, who were 4 and 8 in the summer of '94 getting to spend a half inning each game watching from the narrow ledge on the back of the bull, and getting to pull the lever to make his tail go up and down if the Bulls scored that half-inning. That got brought to the new park for a year as well, before they decided that liability issues, or whatever, made it too risky.

Anyway, rumor is that season ticket holders and people who bought tickets to this year's playoffs will get first crack at next year's one-off against the Mud Hens at the DAP. I'm keeping my stub handy.

Also, had a chat with with another blogger over a beer Tuesday night, and we talked about my plan for a regular throwback night at the ballpark. No canned music, no sumo wrestling, no ants in the pants, just baseball, Cracker Jack, and the organist. He suggested a name - "No Bull Mondays." So, i'll be pitching this idea as often as i can during the off-season. The game at the DAP, scheduled for Monday, May 10, is a natural.

eah919

Barry's idea is awesome.

Maybe on those days they can also include info on the scoring- such as 'Score that play FC 6-5.'

I am pretty old school, and find that scoring a game really helps me get into some of the subtleties and flow of a game. I am also pretty sure that noone born after about 1978 would even consider doing something like this- (wait! i got it! an iPhone app for baseball scoring!)

I had the good fortune to be able to see a game at Fenway Park this summer, and was struck by the knowledge level and appreciation of the fans there: they were all wathcing pretty intently (even the kids), and cheered knowingly at things like the right fielder making a strong throw to the cutoff man to prevent a run from scoring. (They slso post some scoring info on the scoreboard there).

Baseball, unlike any other sport, only reveals its riches to those who watch patiently, over the course of a season. It's hard to sell it this way to casual fans, but for those of us who know this, it is in incredible amenity to be able to walk to a ballpark in your hometown, walk up and buy a cheap ticket, and see how the home team does today. Even with the sumo, ants, and whatever else...


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