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On Bull Durham Night, a cult classic comes to life

Taylor Seabrease was 15 the first time she watched the 1988 baseball film Bull Durham. That was back in 2009. Since then she has seen the cult classic at least 15 times. 

“I like baseball, I like Kevin Costner and I just think that all the comedy and inside jokes in the movie are really, really great,” she said, eyes wide and a smile flashing. 

Seabrease, who lives in Maryland, traveled from her home state with her boyfriend for last Friday’s annual Bull Durham Night, when the Durham Bulls honor her favorite movie. 

She looked forward to “seeing the Shower Shoes take home a win.”

Each year, players, coaches and the manager wear a new jersey referencing a scene from the film. This year, they were the Durham Shower Shoes: in an early scene, veteran catcher Crash Davis (played by Costner) finds the shower shoes of pitcher Ebby Calvin ‘Nuke’ LaLoosh (played by Tim Robbins) covered in fungus. 

“You’ll never make it to the Bigs [the Major Leagues] with fungus on your shower shoes,” Davis says.

Seabrease’s boyfriend wore a Shower Shoes cap he bought in the team’s retail store. The shower shoes scene is always fun to watch, Seabrease said. But her favorite scene? It’s when the team mudslides through a baseball diamond at night after drenching the field with sprinklers. It always makes her smile and laugh, especially on days when she needs a feel-good moment. 

Bull Durham Night is typically held at Durham Bulls Athletic Park in early to mid-June, around the anniversary of the movie’s world premiere. But this year it was held Friday, July 22, as the “Shower Shoes” played the Norfolk Tides. 

On social media, the Bulls became the Durham Shower Shoes. Ushers wore unique Shower Shoe-green polos. Fans scattered throughout the ballpark were clad in previous years’ Bull Durham Night merchandise and in Shower Shoes gear. Ahead of the game, the social media team tweeted a reference to Bull Durham character Annie Savoy (played by Susan Sarandon), the team’s biggest fan and the focal point of a love triangle that involves Crash and Nuke. 

“We believe in the church of baseball,” the tweet said, an homage to Savoy’s famous opening monologue.

The scene at the stadium traveled across the silver screen into real life.

Husband and wife Robert and Teresa Shell sat next to each other at the top right corner of the stadium, in front of the Bud Light bar. Robert, who appeared to be in his late fifties, wore a white, red and blue jersey with Davis’ name stitched on the back. Teresa, who looks to be about the same age, wore a matching LaLoosh one. Besides the one he wore, Robert owns nine other Bulls jerseys.

The two live in Fuquay-Varina, N.C., but are die-hard Bulls fans. Robert owns a collection of baseball movies, but his favorites are Major League (directed by David S. Ward), For the Love of the Game (directed by Sam Raimi) and, of course, Bull Durham (directed by Ron Shelton). Shelton, who this summer released The Church of Baseball—a book about the making of the film—was not in attendance Friday night. 

Robert has seen Bull Durham more than 30 times, he said. 

Since they moved to their town (45 minutes south of Durham) nine years ago, the couple has been to five Bull Durham Nights. 

Beyond those events, they’ve had their fair share of Bull Durham moments. Once, after visiting a pickle festival in the Warehouse District, they walked outside and noticed they were next to the Durham Athletic Park outfield (the historic stadium where the team used to play, and where Bull Durham takes place). Robert got giddy and began taking pictures of the field. When he walked into the stadium, a groundskeeper stopped him. 

“‘Oh, I’m sorry. I just figured out where I was. I had to take some pictures of it,’” Robert recalled. The groundskeeper nodded for him to go on inside. “Then I go, ‘Man, is this heaven?’ He goes, ‘Wrong Costner movie.’” 

Inside the stadium, scores of people carried bags with green T-shirts and hats from the team store. Mascot Wool E. Bull made the rounds taking pictures with fans, some wearing “Lollygagger” T-shirts — another movie reference. Some recited their favorite lines from the film.

“‘It’s a very simple game. You throw the ball. You catch the ball. You hit the ball. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains,’” said fan Steve Force as he waited in line to order food with his girlfriend and their friends. (He was quoting  Nuke in the movie’s closing scene.)  

Nearby, standing at an outdoor beer kiosk as Crash, Nuke and Annie mascots raced around the diamond, was Jeremy Trantham. He moved to Durham in 2010, when he was in his early twenties, and has been a Bulls fan ever since. He even used to attend the Bulls’ special game at Durham Athletic Park, played annually in honor of their old home. Since he moved to the city, he’s seen the team and town grow a lot.

“The old stadium has a very small intimate feel — kind of like the minor league baseball I grew up in my hometown,” said Trantham, who works in digital marketing. “I don’t think there’s an Annie Savoy in this stadium right now or [someone] that could access the players in the way that they did in the movie because it’s a different level of baseball.”

In 1995, the team moved from the old ballpark to its new stadium next to the American Tobacco campus. 

Three years later, the team went from Single-A, one of Minor League Baseball’s lower levels, to Triple-A, the stage just below the majors. By the early 2000s, Durham had grown its reputation beyond being the hometown of the American Tobacco Company and Duke University, becoming a tech and innovation hot spot. Companies such as Bronto Software (now owned by Oracle Corporation) and Burt’s Bees opened headquarters on the American Tobacco Campus. 

The rest of the city grew with it. Real estate developers built high rises and renovated old historic buildings downtown. Government projects revitalized dated neighborhoods with shopping and leisure districts.

All the while, the Durham Bulls’ brand was exploding too. Twenty-nine years ago, five years after Bull Durham’s premiere,  Minor League Baseball began releasing a list of the 25 teams that sell the most merchandise. The Bulls are the only team to make every list (the last of which was published in 2020). 

Events such as Bull Durham Night also attract crowds larger than the team’s typical game. Last Friday’s contest drew 8,513 people. The average turnout in 2019 — the year before the pandemic — was 7,668.

On Friday evening, when the Durham players batted, their jerseys and caps on the stat screen on the Blue Monster — the left-field wall —  featured the Shower Shoes logo (courtesy of photoshop). At one point during the game, a song from the movie, Bill Haley & His Comets’ 1955 single, “Rock Around the Clock,” blared throughout the stadium. Later, a baseball movie trivia game played on the screen, and showcased Durham players and fans in pre-recorded videos answering questions. 

As the baby-blue sky turned pink and orange, and the sun disappeared below the high rise buildings behind the outfield, fans sang along with Jatovi McDuffie, the Bulls’ on-field announcer. He led the crowd in Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” and Bon Jovi’s “Living on a Prayer.” 

In the first inning, Norfolk jumped to a 3-1 lead. But Bulls starter Kevin Herget emulated Nuke’s “million-dollar arm” across his next four innings — allowing just those three earned runs. Twilight turned to dusk in the sixth inning and the home team took a 6-3 lead, and fans began to clap to distract Norfolk’s hitters. 

“This fan base, they’re very involved with what’s going on in the game itself, which makes it more fun to pitch in,” said Herget, who came to the Bulls this season. He says he has found similarities between the team in the movie and the real-life club, even 34 years after its release. “It’s [Bull Durham] probably one of the most accurate [baseball movies] in how things work — how real, where a lot of the others are very fictional.”

Four more pitchers followed Herget in the final four innings. None allowed any runs. After the Bulls closed out the Tides in the ninth, the bull snorted, wagged its tail and glowed its eyes red. Fireworks soon lit up the dark downtown Durham sky. Seabrease got her wish.

Above: Robert and Teresa Shell enjoy the Durham Bulls’ annual Bull Durham Night., wearing jerseys with the names of two of the movie’s characters. Robert has seen the movie more than 30 times. The theme of this particular Bull Durham Night was “Shower Shoes,” in honor of a scene from the movie. Fungus-laden shower shoes were featured on the Bulls’ caps and jerseys. Photos by Ana Young–The 9th Street Journal

No Bull: Six questions about Durham’s famous sign

Sports Illustrated and Rotten Tomatoes (and many film critics) call it the best sports movie of all time. It’s got highly quotable characters, hilarious scenes and a hearty hometown feel to it. Thirty-four years ago this summer, the movie Bull Durham was released, transforming a relatively unknown minor league team into one of the most recognized names in all of professional baseball. 

The astronomical impact even got its director and screenwriter to write a book about it, released July 5, called “The Church of Baseball: The Making of Bull Durham: Home Runs, Bad Calls, Crazy Fights, Big Swings, and a Hit,” referencing the opening narration by Annie Savoy (played by Susan Sarandon).

“I’ve tried ’em all, I really have, and the only church that truly feeds the soul, day in, day out, is the Church of Baseball,” Savoy finishes her proclamation.

Today, when fans visit the Bulls at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park, they see iconic landmarks, such as the Lucky Strike water tower on the American Tobacco campus behind the Blue Monster, and of course, a giant bull sign in left field that reads, “Hit Bull, Win Steak. Hit Grass, Win Salad.” But where did the Snorting Bull come from, and what does the movie have to do with it?

Does the sign actually appear in the film?

Yes. The bull shows up in only one scene, where a character named Burt Crook from the Fayetteville Generals (an actual minor league team that played until the 1996 season) hits it.

In the scene, Bulls catcher Crash Davis (played by Kevin Costner) orders up a curveball from Ebby Calvin LaLoosh, aka “Nuke,” a hot-headed newcomer who thinks he’s smarter than the veteran catcher. Nuke serves up a fastball that Crook belts for a homer, striking the Snorting Bull sign that stands next to other billboards. 

“Look at that, he hit the f****ing bull,” says Davis, laughing at Nuke after the home run. “Guy gets a free steak.”

What was the idea behind the sign?

In the movie, the other outfield billboards—for a famous sports company, a cologne, and two Durham newspapers (one of which is now defunct)—represented actual businesses, but the bull sign was simply a nod to another iconic baseball sign: Abe Stark’s “Hit Sign, Win Suit” at Ebbets Field, where the Brooklyn Dodgers played until they moved to Los Angeles in 1957. Batters whose home runs struck the sign earned a free suit at Stark’s Pritkin Avenue clothing store.

 “Abe Stark became kind of a local personality,” said Bull Durham’s director and screenwriter Ron Shelton, in an interview with The 9th Street Journal, during which he recalled how he came up with the idea for the sign. “I read about all this. I wasn’t Brooklyn-born. So I always had that in the back of my mind. When I got there—the ballpark, the old Durham Athletic Park—I just was looking up over the right-field fence, and there was that mound of grass, and I thought, what a perfect place to do a minor league version of that. It wasn’t in the script. I added it once I got there.”

He added: “It’s fun in that….kind of vaudeville, show business aspect of the minor leagues. You know the bull snorted and the tail wagged and the eyes lit up and you know—it’s just a kind of minor league feel to it.”

How did it end up at the ballpark?

After production concluded, Shelton and the crew left the sign for the real-life Bulls as a memento. When the Durham Bulls moved to the newer ballpark at the American Tobacco Campus in 1995, a version of the Snorting Bull came with them. Tom Evans of the Syracuse Mets was the first player to hit the sign, on May 26, 1998. Scott McCain was the first Bull to do so, later that summer on Aug. 16. 

Is it the same sign as the original?

No. The bull from the movie was demoted to being on display in 1995 when the team moved to the new ballpark, while a new bull replaced the prop on the field. A third sign replaced the second one in 2008 after wind gusts tore the replica’s head off. Today, the current bull reads “Hit Bull, Win Steak. Hit Grass, Win Salad.” The original sign is in storage.

Do the players really win steak?

Yes. But only Bulls players get to cash in their prize, which they do at Angus Barn, a steakhouse in Raleigh, thanks to a partnership between the American Tobacco Campus and the restaurant. Players who hit the bull part of the sign get a $100 gift card to buy any steak or meal on the menu. 

(Players who hit the grass part win a free salad at the restaurant.)

“The Goodmon family [owners of the Durham Bulls] came up and said, ‘Would you guys like to do something?’” said Steve Thanhauser, co-owner of Angus Barn, in an interview with The 9th Street Journal. “…That bull is out there in the outfield….it’s said forever, ‘Hit Bull, Win Steak.’ And so we said, ‘Well, let us provide the steak.’”

Typically, players go to the restaurant the next day or pretty soon after hitting the sign. However, the steak/salad offer still stands even if they don’t redeem it right away. 

How often do players hit the bull?

Not often. In fact, entire seasons sometimes go by without a player launching a ball over the left field wall. 

“That’s a tough one to kind of plan on [hitting the bull]. You kind of just take homers, and wherever they go, you’ll just take as a hitter,” said Mike Brosseau, a Milwaukee Brewers infielder who played for the Bulls during parts of the 2019 and 2021 seasons. (He hit the sign last season.) 

“That’s one of the home runs in my career that probably sticks out a lot,” Brosseau said. “And, yeah, it was just one of those things that I think I was slumping pretty hard, and during that time when I hit that home run….I don’t know. Maybe that helped me turn the corner a little bit.”

Last summer, two Bulls actually struck the sign in successive at-bats in their Aug. 19 game against the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp. Josh Lowe (who now plays for the Tampa Bay Rays, the Bulls’ major-league affiliate) hit it first, pounding the grass to win a salad. Brosseau swung next and thumped the bull. Several days later, the two went to Angus Barn together to reap their rewards. Brosseau ordered the ribeye.

Above: The famous Bull sign reigns over Durham Bulls Athletic Park. Photo by Ana Young — The 9th Street Journal. 

Field of memories: Even without a home team, the DAP is Durham’s baseball home

On a humid Tuesday evening in July, more than 150 baseball fans sit scattered across the stands of the Historic Durham Athletic Park. Grandparents, families and toddlers have flooded through the old gates to watch the Rockhounds and Thunder go head to head. 

Sweltering in the heat, boys 13 to 15 years old take turns at the plate. Their coaches are  volunteers in the Long Ball Program, part of a Major League Baseball youth outreach initiative. A crack of a bat echoes out into the downtown neighborhood as the Rockhounds make a daring run to first base.

Durham Athletic Park — the DAP — was the home of the Durham Bulls from 1926 to 1994. A block away from Durham Central Park, the ballpark famously served as the backdrop for the 1988 movie Bull Durham, a romantic ode to baseball that helped put this little Southern city on the map. 

The team’s popularity exploded in response to Kevin Costner and Susan Sarandon’s saucy depiction of minor league baseball. In 1995, the Bulls moved a few blocks south to their newly constructed Durham Bulls Athletic Park (DBAP), where the team still plays today. 

The DAP remained standing but was poorly maintained until its renovation in 2009. Then the old park found new life as the home field for the N.C. Central University Eagles — but that era came to a close this year when NCCU, citing COVID-related budget cuts, eliminated its baseball program.

With the primary tenant gone and the surrounding downtown Durham rapidly developing, many wonder what lies ahead for this old ballpark. 

The DAP remains full of life this summer, hosting several youth league games each week. The Bulls — who manage their old park under contract for its owner, the city of Durham — are optimistic about its future. The ballpark’s next era remains unclear, but city leaders say plans are forming and the DAP is here to stay. 

Cars parked outside El Toro Park, circa 1927. Durham Historic Photographic archives, North Carolina Collection, Durham County Library

The story of Durham Athletic Park is a story of resilience, constant evolution and, above all, a love of baseball.

Worth a run in the bottom of the ninth

For nearly a century, the DAP has stood unmoving as the city of Durham grew and evolved around it. The occupants are always changing, but its concrete walls remain impervious to the ebb and flow of time. 

No matter what, the DAP endures.

It was known as El Toro Park when the Durham Bulls played their first game there in 1926. The stadium was renamed Durham Athletic Park when the city purchased the property in 1933. After a few years of vacancy during the Depression, in 1939, the DAP’s wooden grandstand burned to the ground, with the groundskeeper barely making it out alive. It was quickly rebuilt, this time with steel and concrete. 

The Durham Bulls, circa 1930. Durham Historic Photographic archives, North Carolina Collection, Durham County Library

In 1951 the DAP was the backdrop for Percy Miller Jr.’s debut as the first black baseball player in the Carolina League. The Bulls played off and on there until 1972, when the team folded. 

Then in 1980, owner Miles Wolff revived the Durham Bulls, filling the ballpark with 4,418 fans the first night. In the steaming North Carolina summers of the 1980s, the DAP was the place to be. Retired sportswriter Kip Coons, who covered the Bulls for the Durham Morning Herald (and who appears in Bull Durham), remembers the DAP in its prime. 

“Most nights, it was 4000 [fans], 5000, standing room jammed in. And it was loud,” retired sportswriter Kip Coons says. Ninth Street Journal photo by Rebecca Schneid
“Here on a bad night, it was 3000 [fans]. Most nights, it was 4000, 5000, standing room jammed in. And it was loud,” Coons said. 

He recalls a deafening roar in the small stadium, with fans shouting at the players on the field when they weren’t playing up to snuff. With a narrow foul territory and a field-level press box, the DAP was an intimate ballpark. 

Regularly breaking minor league attendance records, the fans made Bulls games special. Coons said his friend Brian Snitker, now manager of the Atlanta Braves, used to say that, “the crowd in Durham was worth a run in the bottom of the ninth.” 

This culture was partially why Bull Durham director Ron Shelton made Durham the setting for his now-classic film. Shelton, who had played in the minor leagues himself, wanted to capture ordinary baseball in small-town America.

And as Coons watched the movie’s premiere, he knew Shelton had succeeded. The Bulls players were laughing and joking in the theater until the scene where a player was released from the team. 

“It was like a church. It was so quiet.” said Coons. “Because all the players realized, ‘Damn, that could be me tomorrow. I could be out of baseball.’ And when they reacted like that, I realized at that moment, Ron Shelton has nailed it.”

Bull Durham’s authenticity made the film a national hit, grossing $50.8 million and earning recognition as one of the best sports movies of all time. It helped revive minor-league baseball as a nationwide pastime and “shot Durham into national consciousness,” said Susan Amey, president & CEO of Durham’s tourism marketing agency, Discover Durham

Ninth Street Journal photo by Grace Abels

Suddenly, everyone wanted to see the Durham Bulls play, and the team began to outgrow the aging DAP. In 1990, a crowd of 6000-plus had the venue bursting at the seams. 

When Jim Goodmon bought the Bulls that same year, plans for a larger ballpark were announced. The team played its first game in the new Durham Bulls Athletic Park in 1995, and three years later, the Bulls became a Triple-A minor league team — the highest before the majors.

The city began to blossom, too. 

“I think Durham’s financial and cultural renaissance directly results from the Bulls’ success as a minor league franchise,” Coons said. 

The Durham Bulls Athletic Park was one of the first visitor features downtown, along with Brightleaf Square, the American Tobacco Campus, and the Durham Performing Arts Center, Amey said. The restaurants, hotels, and shops were quick to follow. 

As the team moved on to bigger and better things, the DAP was mostly forgotten. After the Bulls’ departure, the old park was used occasionally for festivals and softball, but the facility was rundown and the field poorly maintained.

In 2009, as a part of a broader move from the city to improve its facilities, the city gave the DAP a $5 million facelift. Renovations were done to improve the structure, surplus seating was removed, and the field was restored to a professional level playing surface.

Minor League Baseball operated the refurbished stadium for a few years as a training area for umpires and groundskeepers. Management, paid for by the city, was passed in 2012 to the Durham Bulls, who remain dedicated to the space.

“We kind of consider ourselves caretakers of the museum, so to speak,” said Scott Strickland, who manages the DAP for the Bulls. “And that’s a lot of responsibility, but it’s a whole lot of fun, too.” 

Old park, new life

NCCU’s baseball program revived the Historic DAP, bringing life and a full schedule to the venue for more than a decade. The Eagles’ daily practices and games occupied most dates September through November and January through May. The team’s final regular season game on home turf was a 6-1 victory over Florida A&M on May 15. 

That would have been a pretty full calendar for a normal field, but due to the few baseball stadiums in the area, the demand for the space was high, so Durham School of the Arts and Voyager Academy also play several games there each year.

In summer, the DAP schedule is packed with youth games.

“I’d say we have activity in the ballpark six days a week,” said Joe Stumpo, the DAP’s head groundskeeper. The ballpark hosts traveling youth teams that play four games a day Thursday through Sunday. The rest of the dates are filled by the Long Ball program, a youth league that provides an alternative to expensive travel teams. 

Families find seats in the stands to watch youth teams play at Durham Athletic Park. Ninth Street Journal photo by Grace Abels

For youth leagues, the historic nature of the DAP continues to draw in a younger generation. 

“I think that’s why we get so many more people coming,” said Patricia James, founder of the Long Ball Program. “That is our drawing card. When they find out this is our home field.” 

The view from the stands isn’t bad, either. 

“I guess it’s neat for me to see my son play on a field that Hall of Famers have played on,” said Courtney Smith, mother of 14-year-old Bryce. Smith attended Bulls games here as a kid, so “it’s a lot of younger memories that come back” when she visits the park.

Strickland was sad to see NCCU ending its program, but he isn’t worried about filling the new hole in the DAP schedule.

To Strickland their departure just means the next evolution of the DAP. While the venue has always been able to host non-sporting events, from dance recitals to Mayor Bill Bell’s retirement, the building constraints and field protection made them quite expensive and hard to squeeze into the calendar. 

With NCCU off the schedule, “We’ll be able to be a little more selective on the type of events that we do,” he said. Strickland envisions it will look more like a normal baseball field schedule peppered with concerts, movies and other non-sporting events.

City leaders are ready for the DAP’s next evolution as well.

“We want to increase its usage. But we are in the early stages of thinking about that,” Mayor Steve Schewel said. He sees it as a “fantastic public asset” that ought to be used by more of the Durham community. Conversations between the city and Durham Bulls are in their infancy, but Schewel said new information should be available in a few months.

A piece of Durham’s soul

While the Durham Athletic Park has witnessed almost 100 years of a morphing Durham landscape, the last 30 years have been particularly astounding. 

Downtown Durham and the streets around the DAP are crowded with big apartment buildings, new nightlife, and large construction equipment dedicated to building more and more each year. 

Because of the limited land available, the 5.4 acres of land the DAP occupies is valuable real estate. For reference, in 2019, a plot of 0.6 acres across from the farmers market sold for $3.3 million. Several new developments around the ballpark will begin construction soon. 

The DAP is valued at $8.2 million and developers say it would surely fetch more if the city decided to sell it, but Schewel says that’s not an option. “In my 10 years on the council and as mayor, I have never heard a single conversation about selling the property. That is not going to happen,” Schewel said.

Surprisingly, some local developers agree. 

“I would frankly, as a developer, be disappointed to see that go from the neighborhood,” said Ben Perry of East West Partners, the developers in charge of the Liberty Warehouse apartments up the road on Foster Street.

They see it as precious green space, a recreational amenity, and a protected view. 

“Who doesn’t like to look at a baseball field at night. It’s just a beautiful view-shed with activity and life” said Paul Snow, a developer and commercial appraiser who worked on a nearby condo property.

“I think that it is such an important part of that neighborhood that nobody is wishing to see that gone,” Snow said. Perry said a place like the DAP has a different kind of value to the community. “It can’t always be measured in dollars and cents,” he said.

The truth of it is: People just love this old ballpark. 

For Kip Coons, the DAP was where he learned to be a sports writer.  For Joe Stumpo, it was where he had his first full-time job at 19. For Scott Strickland, it was where he watched baseball as a kid with his dad. For Courtney Smith it is where her son plays baseball with his friends.

For others, it is the background in their wedding photo, where they hit their first home run, or maybe just where they walk their dog. 

“I think it’s a connection for generations,” said Stumpo “I just think this place has a lot of history to a lot of people.”

After so many years, Durham Athletic Park has firmly established itself as a part of the city’s identity. 

“I think it carries a little piece of Durham’s soul in it,” said Amey. “It’s something that residents treasure.”

“If I sit here, you know, I expect to see Annie Savoy walk by,” retired sportswriter Kip Coons said. Ninth Street Journal photo by Rebecca Schneid

Places like the DAP are important to keep not just because of their history. “There are ways to preserve memories. Some of them are museums, and some are natural things like parks, and some are just living memorials like a baseball stadium,” Coons said.

When Coons stands by the old ticket booth, the memories come flooding back — from the DAP’s heyday in the 1980s, and from the movie version, too.

“If I sit here, you know, I expect to see Annie Savoy walk by.” 

At the top: The Bulls are long gone and the NCCU Eagles played their last game in May, but the DAP is busy with youth baseball this summer. Ninth Street Journal photo by Grace Abels

Wool E. Bull, ready to play

Wool E. Bull forgets his mask as he gallops out of Durham Bulls Athletic Park. He quickly realizes his mistake and returns with it looped over his furry ears. It is giant and looks more like a diaper strapped across his snout than a mask. It is adorned with baseballs. 

As his team prepares for a new season after being shut down for the pandemic, the 6-foot tall, furry bull – proclaimed to be “The Greatest Mascot in the World” – is making some adjustments as he gears up for Opening Day on May 11. The team says he has been vaccinated.

I learn this from talking with Emily Almond, the director of promotions for the Bulls and Wool E.’s translator. “I speak bull,” she explains. 

I feel a giddy nervousness in front of the fluffy bull that stands on two feet outside the ballpark. Even without a bull translator, I would’ve felt his excitement for the upcoming season. As we begin to talk, fans honk at him. He jokingly points to me, realizes the commotion is for him, and shrugs off the attention. A humble bull. 

The mask isn’t his only adjustment this season. In past years, Wool E. frolicked with players and fans alike. He danced in foul territory, stole hats from coaches, spun along the warning track in his go-cart, played tug of war with fans, or led the “running of the bulls,” when kids chased him and then tackled him before he reached safety.

This year, Wool E. will be banned from the field and will have to mix with fans in the stands. How close he gets will depend on the fans. Almond says, “We are comfortable with whatever our customers are comfortable with.” 

Wool E. Bull, Photo by Sho Hatakeyama – The 9th Street Journal

Fans can choose to hug Wool E, or stand at a distance of six feet. “You have to choose to go see him, rather than him interacting with you,” she says. 

The Bulls are working to make sure they follow the latest restrictions from the city, state and Major League Baseball. “It’s really about just working with the guidelines that we have right now, just trying to modify and still make it a great fan experience while still being safe,” she says.

She assures me that the pandemic hasn’t altered his personality. 

“We are still planning on having a whole bunch of Wool E. antics,” Almond explains, “Obviously he hasn’t changed much.” As she says this, we look over to find Wool E. crawling towards a camera, looking more like a cat than a bull.

With no games in the last year, Wool E. made virtual appearances at kids’ story-times and P.E. classes (since he can’t talk, no one on Zoom has to remind him to unmute himself) as well as private, in-person events. He also helped deliver meals to hospital workers.

With a job that requires energy and strength for constant dancing and hugging, Wool E. finds himself battling some of his lazier quarantine habits. “We don’t need an out of shape Wool E. for the season,” Almond says. But he appears fit.  Wool E. flexes his muscles for the camera as two fans walk by. Almond sighs, clearly used to this behavior and says, “C’mon now, don’t get too full of yourself.”

Wool E. is still planning on having his annual birthday celebration at the game May 23, an event when even the Tar Heel and Blue Devil set aside their differences. 

Almond and Wool E. are trying to come up with new gags that are appropriate for the unusual summer of transition. They have just come from a two and a half hour brainstorming session to dream up new ideas to entertain fans. They’re considering lots of different bits, although “within reason,” Almond assures, “He’s not allowed to eat the grass during the game.”

In photo at top:  After last year’s season was canceled, Wool E. Bull is ready for baseball – even though he’ll be confined to the stands. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama – The 9th Street Journal

Durham Bulls Opening Day delayed until May

Durham Bulls fans will have to wait an extra month for Opening Day. 

The team announced Wednesday the 2021 season will be delayed by about four weeks from its original April 6 starting date.

Major League Baseball officials said the delay would improve the safety for everyone involved. It will allow more players to get vaccinated against the coronavirus before the season begins and allow more fans to feel comfortable filling the stands.

In a statement, Mike Birling, the Bulls vice president of baseball operations, broke the news to fans.

“While this isn’t the news we wanted to hear, we are in agreement the health and safety of our fans, players and staff are of utmost importance,” he said. 

The Triple-A Bulls will now start their season about the same time in May as Double-A and Class A teams. While no new date has been announced, team officials said they will provide fans more information when it becomes available.

Durham Bulls hope state officials will allow 2,500 fans on Opening Day

Updated: Gov. Roy Cooper announced Wednesday he was easing the state’s COVID-19 restrictions, which should let the Bulls have 2,500 to 3,000 fans per game. “We are very happy with the governor’s decision,” said Mike Birling, the team’s vice president of baseball operations. “We were currently at just over 700, so to be able to jump to 2,500 – 3,000 will really be beneficial to our business.”

By Nicole Kagan and Claire Kraemer

When the Durham Bulls open their season April 6, team officials hope that the state will allow them to fill their ballpark to 25% of its 10,000-seat capacity. But for now, COVID-19 rules permit just 7%.

In an interview with The 9th Street Journal and in a virtual town hall with fans, team officials said Tuesday they are taking special measures to assure fans’ safety for the Bulls’ first season since minor league baseball was shut down by the pandemic last year. And they hope state rules will soon permit more fans.

Mike Birling, the team’s vice president of baseball operations, said an announcement about greater capacity could come as early as Wednesday.

Durham Mayor Steve Schewel said earlier this week that the stadium’s capacity would be determined by state guidelines in April, but that, “I think by that time we will be doing a lot better.”

He said he was hopeful that “they’ll be able to open with a decent amount of fans there.”

Chip Allen, the Bulls assistant general manager for sales, said the team has taken many precautions to keep fans safe. The ballpark has also gone cashless and ticket sales are now completely digital. The ticket takers that used to greet fans at the stadium’s entrances will be replaced by free-standing kiosks that allow fans to scan their tickets themselves.

The Bulls will play only five other teams to minimize travel and there will not be any playoffs or an all-star game.

Merchandise and concession stands will still be open for fans looking to buy a baseball cap or a footlong hot dog, but there will be more mobile ordering so fans don’t have to stand in line.

Even with these changes, the Bulls acknowledge that some fans may be uncomfortable returning to a stadium, particularly early in the season. So they’ve offered season ticket holders flexibility, allowing them to bypass the first couple months of the season in exchange for credits later on. 

“Our long-term goal is to have our fans for life,” Allen said. “So we’ve got to do right by them now.”

The team is well-known for entertainment and fan contests on the field between innings. But given that fans are no longer allowed on the field, entertainment will be pre-recorded and fan contests will take place around the concourse. 

Still, with games on the schedule and players on the field, team officials are eager for Bulls fans to return to the stadium.

“We can’t wait to see you guys,” Birling told fans in the town hall. “We can’t wait to get that first pitch.”

Photo above, Bulls mascot Wool E. Bull is ready for the new season (Team photo)

Hopes dim for Durham Bulls games this summer

Officials of the Durham Bulls have been hopeful they could still play games with fans this summer. But it’s looking increasingly unlikely the stars can align to make that possible.

Durham Mayor Steve Schewel was blunt about it Wednesday when he told faculty and staff at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy, “We’re not going to have a minor league baseball season.”

He later clarified his comments in a text message to The 9th Street Journal: “I probably should have been more explicit. I think it is possible that there will be games with essentially no crowds. They are still waiting to hear from Major League Baseball. But I am pessimistic about even that.”

While other professional leagues across the country are starting to make a comeback, the 2020 baseball season remains on hold while Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association continue slow negotiations about a return to action. Owners and the union are trying to strike a deal on the number of games and how much players should earn, but they are still far apart. 

The league’s second offer came on Monday, and, per ESPN, included a 76-game regular season ending by Sept. 27, an expansion of eight teams per league for the 2020 postseason. Players would receive 75% of their prorated salaries, contingent on the completion of the postseason. 

The players association responded on Tuesday proposing an 89-game regular season, eight teams per league in the postseason for 2020 and 2021, and players get their full prorated salaries. 

AAA teams such as the Bulls are dependent on that agreement to spell out the details of their seasons and Bulls officials have said they need games with fans for the team to be profitable.

In the meantime, another Triangle-area team owned by Capitol Broadcasting, which also owns the Bulls, is calling it quits. 

The Holly Springs Salamanders released a statement Wednesday canceling the 2020 season. The team informed the Coastal Plain League that it would not be playing ball this summer due to the growing number of COVID-19 cases in Wake County, and the uncertainty of how many fans might be allowed to attend games. 

“We appreciate the work the Coastal Plain League has done during this difficult time, but we felt this was the best decision for the health and safety of our fans, players, and staff,” Salamander’s General Manager Chip Hutchinson wrote in the statement.

Bulls Vice President Mike Birling said he was not aware of the comment made by Schewel. The team continues to wait for the outcome of the MLB-union negotiations. 

In photo above: It’s looking increasingly unlikely that players will be able to hit the bull and win a steak. Photo by Henry Haggart | The 9th Street Journal 

While his team waits, Wool E. Bull has been busy

Kitchen fires smoldered. Meals needed to be delivered. Local businesses needed support. It was time to call a local superhero: Wool E. Bull. 

Since March, the Durham Bulls mascot has been the face of several efforts by the minor league team to help the community in a time of need. The Bulls can’t play until Major League Baseball figures out if there will be games for minor league teams. So in the meantime, the team has been doing some community-minded public relations. 

Bulls’ Marketing and Fan Engagement Coordinator Emily Almond said the team is “always looking for other ways to help out our community” and that Wool E. Bull was perfect for the job.

With schools closing across the city, the Durham Public Schools Foundation rushed to make sure that children were still getting meals. About 1,000 people volunteered to distribute meals across Durham, including Wool E. Bull and several members of the team’s front office. 

Riding in the recognizable blue Wool E. Wagon, the Bulls’ mascot made his way around town delivering food to kids. Alyzia McAlmon, equity and youth empowerment manager at the foundation said having the furry mascot deliver meals to kids was the “perfect situation.” 

“You’re delivering food, but you’re also getting kids excited,” she said. “We got a lot of feedback from parents of how their kids were so ecstatic to open the front door and see Wool. E Bull was delivering their food.”

He was also the face of several other campaigns, including the “Wash Your Horns” campaign with the United Way of the Triangle (to encourage people to stay home and use good hygiene), and one with the Durham Fire Department to warn about kitchen fires. 

As of late April, the campaign sold over 1,000 “Wash Your Horns” t-shirts, and raised over $16,000 for the Triangle, according to a report from the Capitol Broadcasting Company. 

And the furry mascot had unique credibility to warn people about kitchen fires. Carol Reardon, the department’s fire education captain, said Durham had seen an 88% increase in kitchen fires since the stay-at-home orders were put in place. So Wool E. Bull starred in a kitchen fire safety video to help raise awareness of how to stay safe while cooking at home. 

The video featured team’s on-field announcer, Jatovi McDuffie, popping out from trash cans and behind doors to give kitchen fire safety tips like he was announcing the entertainment between innings at a game, with members of the fire department and, of course, Wool E. Bull, as the audience. 

“Having Wool E. support what we’re doing is huge,” said Reardon, “better than any money we can spend on advertising.”

The Bulls also teamed up with two of their local partners, Pie Pushers and LocoPops, to provide meals for healthcare workers. The Pizza and Pops campaign allowed locals ordering from either restaurant to donate money or purchase a LocoPop or pizza for a healthcare worker in the community. In one month they were able to donate 50 pizzas and 400 LocoPops.

“Large sports organizations tend to partner with large other organizations,” said LocoPops founder and owner Summer Bicknell. “The Bulls have always made it a priority to partner locally. I just love that they called me and said, ‘How can we help sell your product in this time?’, as opposed to partnering with some national brand.”

The Bulls also donated over 20,000 masks and gloves they found in the stadium to healthcare workers in the community.

With the season still uncertain, the Bulls are trying to maintain fan interest through their often-irreverent social media platforms, and they are finding new revenue sources,  like allowing fans to rent their field this weekend for $250 an hour.

“I think it’s just a really great feeling to give back to the community because of how much they’ve done for us and rallied around the Bulls and made us,” said Emily Almond. “We wouldn’t be who we are without Durham.”

Above, the Durham Fire Department enlisted help from Wool E. Bull for a video about preventing kitchen fires. Screenshot from Durham Fire Department Video

Bulls players getting stipend as they await decision on season

The Durham Bulls are waiting to see if they’ll get to play baseball this season, but their players will still receive a $400 weekly stipend for the next month. 

The Tampa Bay Rays, the parent club for the Bulls, notified their minor league teams on Thursday that players will continue to be paid through the end of June.

“They will be paid at least through the end of June,” Tampa Bay Rays Vice President of Communications Dave Haller said in an email Thursday afternoon, adding that the team “will reevaluate when the time gets closer.” 

The Bulls are faring better than some other teams. The decision comes just two days after the Oakland Athletics notified its minor league teams that they will no longer be paid this season. 

Tampa Bay Times reporter Marc Topkin, who first broke the news Thursday, also confirmed that The Rays did release a few players from the roster, although these players would have likely been part of the “standard end-of-spring cuts that didn’t happen then due to the shutdown,” he tweeted.

The Bulls are hoping for a decision from Major League Baseball and the player’s association about the future of the season in the next week. 

Photo above: The team is hoping the bull will be lighting up and blowing smoke again soon. Photo by Henry Haggart | The 9th Street Journal

Durham Bulls still hoping for games with fans (and a half-full stadium)

The Durham Bulls are in limbo, awaiting a decision by Major League Baseball about starting a shortened season this summer. But the vice president of the Bulls said Tuesday night that he’s hopeful the team can resume games with fans in July, although social distancing will require the stadium be kept at no more than 50% of its capacity.

“If you’ve been following in the news, Major League Baseball is looking at a condensed season,” Mike Birling, the minor league club’s vice president for baseball operations, told fans in a Zoom call. “They’re negotiating right now with the Players’ Association, so really until that gets figured out, we’re kind of stuck.”

Birling said that although major league teams could survive without fans in the stands, minor league teams depend on revenue from fans. 

“We have made it very clear to Major League Baseball that in no way do we want to have a season if there are no fans in the stands. It just doesn’t work,” he said. “At the major league level it works because you have hundreds of millions of dollars in TV revenue. The amount of money we are losing already, and then if you throw in team travel and everything else, no team would be able survive that.”

The Bulls held the town hall meeting Tuesday night for 919 Club Members, fans that buy season tickets or other ticket packages. The meeting gave fans a chance to ask questions about everything from merchandise to what mascot Wool E. Bull is doing to pass the time. 

Birling said the Bulls are preparing for all scenarios. 

If there is a season, Birling said there is a possibility of games resuming in early July and stretching into late September or early October, rather than ending in late August. It’s unclear if there will be minor league playoffs because league officials may decide playing more games is preferable to crowning a champion.

If there are games, fans should also be prepared for a new normal at the ballpark, including social distancing in the stands. 

Durham Bulls Athletic Park can seat up to 10,000 fans, but Birling said that the capacity would be maxed at 50% – and that he would be shocked if they were allowed to have even 5,000 people in the stadium.  

Fans would be spread out throughout the stadium, but families and people that have purchased tickets together would not be required to social-distance. 

“If you had four season tickets, we’d skip a couple seats, and skip the row behind you,” he said

Birling and other team employees in the meeting said the Bulls are doing as much as they can to assure season ticket holders that if they are assigned new seats, they will be as close to their original seats as possible. 

Birling said fans will not be required to wear masks in the ballpark (although the Bulls just began selling masks with the team logo). 

“We will require our staff [to wear masks], but we will not require fans to do it.”

There also will be extra precautions with food and drink sales. The Bulls are looking to expand their use of FanFood, a mobile app that provides a contactless and cashless way to order food in the ballpark.

If the MLB decides to return to play, there are several challenges unique to the minor leagues that will need to be sorted out. 

Compared with other leagues with nearby opponents, the Durham Bulls would need to face teams from Toledo to Buffalo, which brings up the challenge of traveling. 

“The difficult part from our perspective is how spread out our league is. In a lot of these leagues, you’re kind of closer – it’s only a few states. But in Triple-A baseball, obviously, we’re everywhere” Birling said. “We got to go to Toledo, we got to go to Buffalo. So each one of those situations is different, and that’s the challenge we have at Triple-A baseball and that’s something we’re all trying to figure out.”

Birling thanked Durham fans for their support and said team officials are still hopeful they will be allowed to play this summer.

“You can’t get a better opportunity if you’re Major League Baseball, to put aside your differences and figure out how to play for the good of the game, for the good of the country.”

In photo at top, the “HIT BULL, WIN STEAK” bull overlooks the empty stadium. Photo by Bill Adair | The 9th Street Journal