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.
Barry would be so proud.