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Bulls ballpark plays leading role
06/27/2008 10:00 AM ET
In the winter of 1987, the Durham Bulls were an ordinary Minor League team. Twenty-one years, one definitive movie and one classic-yet-contemporary stadium later, the Durham Bulls are the Minor League team.

Mention the Bulls and it's impossible not to think of their most famous players -- not Joe Morgan or Johnny Vander Meer or Chipper Jones, but rather Nuke LaLoosh and Crash Davis. Yes, Bull Durham, filmed in 1987 at the old Durham Athletic Park, made the Bulls a household name in sports.

But Durham Bulls Athletic Park, built in 1995, has cemented them as the preeminent team in the Minor Leagues.

In many ways, Durham Bulls Athletic Park, more colloquially known as DBAP, is the Camden Yards of the Minor Leagues. Built in 1995 by HOK Sport -- the same firm that designed Baltimore's gem -- DBAP brought the brick-faced, retro feel of Camden Yards to the Minors.

At the same time, it's a stadium that's distinctly Durham. The brick fits with the city's historic tobacco district while kick-starting its revitalization. Construction in and around DBAP has been constant since its debut, as old rundown warehouses have been transformed into chic office buildings and restaurants.

"They did a phenomenal job of keeping the character of Durham with the brick, the history and tradition of the tobacco warehouses and the history with the movie," said Mike Birling, the Bulls' general manager.

That architectural paradigm extends beyond the stadium walls. An office building following the brick-faced and green-roofed design of the stadium was constructed in right field in 1998, while a more modern office building featuring more glass than its predecessor was just completed in left-center field. That building connects the stadium to the Durham Performing Arts Center, which will open in December, down the block. All the while, apartment buildings continue to sprout up around downtown.

"Without the stadium, none of this exists. You ask anybody, they'll say that. There needs to be something as a catalyst," Birling said. "When I came here, you couldn't walk across the street. It was a rundown tobacco warehouse with barbed wire. It was a scary place to come and work. Now we've got beautiful buildings."

Birling added that Bulls ownership -- which also owns many of the tobacco warehouses in the surrounding area -- is far from being done.

"We're probably a third to a half of the way done revitalizing downtown Durham," he said. "And to be a part of that is really exciting."

While the revitalized surrounding area adds to the ambience of the stadium, it isn't like DBAP requires it. Continuous upgrades to the stadium -- including added capacity when Durham went Triple-A in 1998 and the playground area just built this year -- make the stadium seem a lot younger than it actually is.

One of its oldest features may directly lead to one of its best. Unlike most new stadiums, DBAP has a closed concourse that prevents fans from seeing the game when they run to grab food. This, however, keeps the upper deck right on top of the field, meaning there isn't a bad seat in the house.

"My favorite part is honestly the closeness of the seats to the field. We always get those comments when we tell people, 'All we have left [for sale] is the right-field seats.' And then they get out there, and 'Oh, man. These are amazing,'" Birling said. "They just did a great job of allowing fans to be close to the action."

The exterior and surrounding area of DBAP may be reminiscent of Camden Yards, but it's got a lot of Fenway Park on the inside. The Bulls brought Boston down south with the 32-foot-high Blue Monster in left field, which sits just 305 feet down the line and contains a manual scoreboard. A video board above the manual scoreboard was added in 2007, creating a nice contrast of classic and contemporary.

And just like the Red Sox, the Bulls have started putting seats on top of the monster. Tables and chairs sit on the outfield concourse, which now circles the entire stadium and connects with Diamond View II, the new office building in left-center.

But all that's secondary to the stadium's main attraction: the bull. Now in its third iteration, the bull sits 10 feet above the Blue Monster -- it was moved higher this year because so many home runs were flying over it. When a Bull hits a home run, the bull's eyes light up red, it wags its tail and smoke rushes out of its nostrils.

"That's such an iconic piece with the smoke coming out and the eyes lighting up," Birling said. "The fans that come here, they just want to see a home run so they can see the smoke coming out. That's what will forever distinguish this ballpark from any other one."

The original bull, which was built for the movie and sat in right field in the old Durham Athletic Park until 1995, had been on the DBAP concourse. But the Bulls decided to take it down in the off-season because of the wear the elements had taken on it. Birling made it clear the Bulls would eventually bring it back somewhere so the public can view it, but ownership was undecided where.

The bull, however, is just one remnant of Bull Durham's long-lasting impact on baseball in Durham. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the movie's release, and the Bulls are holding a season-long celebration, highlighted by a concert by Kevin Costner's band July 4.

In terms of amenities, DBAP compensates for its lack of suites with a multitude of picnic areas. There are picnic areas next to each foul pole, along with a Home Run Patio in right field and terrace boxes, which consist of small tables and chairs, down the first-base line. Additionally, there are party decks along both base lines and a small berm in center field.

A wide variety of food at the concessions -- including gourmet pretzels and vegetarian options -- and low prices keep the fans coming in at a record pace. Last season, Durham set a team record with 520,952 fans in attendance, and the Bulls are on pace to break that again this season.

"This area is such a sports area. You've got the whole Duke-Carolina-State thing, and the Bulls are the one team it doesn't matter what your school is," Birling explained. "This area is growing really fast. It's always known as one of the best places to live. With the influx of people, we've been able to keep our prices affordable and keep the family entertainment aspect where we continue to see our attendance rise."

And that's something Crash Davis can believe in.

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.