Walking down Morris street toward the ball field in Durham, N.C., you can smell the past. The city was built with tobacco money—Bull Durham leaf, primarily—but these days the warehouses arc barren, relics of a bygone age before cigarettes were deemed a health hazard. Durham Athletic Park is a place where for many years young talent was delivered, to cure and mature in the humid southern air. Soon the park, too, will seem like an abandoned warehouse. Nothing left but the aroma.
On Sept. 4 the final out will be recorded at the Dap or D.A.R, as it is interchangeably known, wrapping up more than a half century of Durham Bull baseball on this sandlot. The moment will punctuate an era for the minor leagues, for the Bulls have helped the bushes bloom since the 1988 release of Bull Durham, the movie that glorified the old ballpark but also hastened its demise. New ownership is replanting America's (minor league) Team across town, where a modern stadium will be built in time for next April's opener.
Mine will be among the many spirits that linger at D.A.P. During the summers of 1987 and '88, I chronicled the Class A Bulls for the Durham Morning Herald, witnessing the baseball puberty of some of the 19 Bull alums who are currently in the big leagues. At spring training this season, in the Atlanta Brave clubhouse in West Palm Beach, I asked second baseman Mark Lemke, Bull class of '87, about his former playground.
"Players excelled at D.A.P. because we felt special, like we were part of the city's identity," Lemke said. "You know, I'll always remember that tobacco smell coming through the car window at three o'clock on one of those wicked 100-degree afternoons. Do you suppose there's any way I could get a picture of that yard?"
August 15, 1993
Seated beside Lemke that day, shortstop Jeff Blauser, class of '86, pricked up his ears. "Durham was the first time I felt like I was accomplishing something in baseball, because it felt like the big leagues," Blauser said. "Any chance I could get a souvenir of the place, too?"
Moments later reliever Mike Stanton, class of '88, leaned over from his stool at the locker beside Blauser's. "I'll never forget the way D.A.P. fans got me psyched up to play baseball, game in and game out," Stanton said. "I'd love to have a photo of that place for my scrapbook."
Blauser smiled and said, "Heck, Stanton, how long did you play there?"
On April 28, 1962, Pete Bock was a 12-year-old kid when his grandfather, Claude (Buck) Weaver, a former Bull pitcher, was granted his dying request. Bock, in the stands at D.A.P, bowed his head as Weaver's ashes were raked into the pitcher's mound. Bock grew up to become the Bull general manager in the early '80s and later worked as a consultant for Bull Durham and made a cameo appearance as a preacher in a wedding scene on that same mound.
"I guess the beauty of this park is that the line between fiction and reality has always been blurred," Bock says. "The real Bulls and the real D.A.P. are beyond anything Hollywood could ever capture. The players of the past and the fans of the past have left a lot of emotions behind, and they roam freely about the grandstands. D.A.P. is about the mystique of baseball. It's about Americana."
It's about the fans, like Martie Byron, a nursing assistant who bakes cakes for Bull players on their birthdays. "I never worry when we're behind on cake nights," says Byron, whose Bulls are 12-6 on birthdays in '93. "By the seventh inning that sugar rush kicks in, and we start hitting the ball harder. Just the other night we came back from three runs down after one of my blueberry streusel swirls."
It's about history. Earlier this summer, on the evening of June 17, the Bulls had a ceremony for their first-ever retirement of a uniform number. Joe Morgan, class of '63, watched proudly as number 18 was unveiled behind the rightfield wall. Never mind that Morgan wore number 8.
And it's about Bull Durham, the film that grossed more than $50 million and accelerated the team's exodus from its aging home. The movie transformed the Bulls into a diva and D.A.P. into the dinner theater left behind in the wake of a star. "It's definitely the end of an era," says Miles Wolff, who owned the team from 1980 to '90. "It was an old ballpark in a bad neighborhood—a blueprint for bankruptcy. But we slapped a coat of paint on it, and the city of Durham led a minor league renaissance. Now nobody wants to leave."
The fans' concerns about the impending move were summed up by Crash Davis, namesake of one of the movie's main characters and an infielder who played for the Bulls in the late 1940s. In a letter to the editor last year in the Herald-Sun, Davis wrote, "Sometimes people are in a hurry to modernize and they end up destroying the heart and soul of a city in the name of progress."
You can't help but wonder if the Bulls in their new ballpark will continue to be the feel-good hit of the summer in Durham. But with 15 home games left at D.A.P, there might be one last chance to get a souvenir. Pete Bock's son Jeff was drafted by the Braves in June and is now pitching in the rookie league at Idaho Falls, a level below Durham. What if Jeff were to be called up for the final game in the Dap? What if Jeff, after cleaning his great-granddad out of his spikes, goes to work on the mound where his father once preached? Just a thought.