Perspectives: A Minors Hall of Fame?
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We here at MiLB.com and the rest of Minor League Baseball are proud of our product -- and with good reason. It's pro ball at its most up-close and personal, it's affordable family fun and it's a chance to see the game's top prospects and say you knew them before they became stars.
The list of things to love about the Minors is as endless as the reasons that 40-plus million fans have turned out and set an all-time record for attendance in each of the last four years.
But I also think much of the Minors' popularity over the last couple decades can be traced to the movie "Bull Durham," written and directed by former Baltimore Orioles Minor League infielder Ron Shelton, who at the time was making his directorial debut on his third script.
This summer, the Triple-A Durham Bulls are celebrating the 20th anniversary of the film's release. Back in the day, 'Bull Durham' seemed a small gem that was headed for cult-classic status.
It starred quasi-newcomer (or at least not-yet-superstar) Kevin Costner as fading Minor League catcher Crash Davis, Tim Robbins as flame-throwing nut-case Ebby Calvin "Nuke" LaLoosh and Susan Sarandon as erudite groupie Annie Savoy. Though the three played equidistant points in the film's love triangle, once the latter two met on set in real life, there were no third points in a love match that has lasted to this day.
Made at the Bulls' actual stadium at the time, antiquated Durham Athletic Park (DAP), the film's appeal was broad. Baseball fans got a sometimes-realistic look at a level of the game not often portrayed. Non-fans -- mainly women -- got a great chick flick with good-looking guys and steamy romance.
To guarantee authenticity on the field, Shelton brought in one of the Braves' Minor League managers, who lived an hour away, to serve as a baseball trainer in the film, oversee on-field accuracy and work with the "Bulls," who were a mix of actual Minor Leaguers and actors.
That guy, Grady Little, went on to manage the real-life Durham Bulls from 1988-1991 and, if memory serves, a few other teams after that.
Only one of the active players in the film also played for the 1988 Bulls, but everyone on the team that summer found themselves local celebrities. Current Carolina Mudcats hitting coach Theron Todd, an outfielder for Durham from 1988-90, still remembers that crazy summer of '88.
"We were on 'Good Morning America,'" recalled Todd, who said it would often take 10 minutes to walk just a few feet from the clubhouse to the field because of the throngs of autograph-seeking fans. "We had Miss America come to town."
In 1989, the first full season following the film's release, I got to know the Bulls, Grady Little and the old DAP up close as a first-year Minor League beat writer covering the Prince William Cannons (now Potomac Nationals) in the Carolina League.
In an eight-team league, over the course of a 140-game season, you get to know the opposing teams and field staffs nearly as well as you know your own club. As a result, I had the supreme pleasure and honor of getting to know Grady Little, one of the true gentlemen in the game.
In the league finals, the Cannons upset the mighty Bulls for their first and only Carolina League title.
That summer, after the release of the film, you could see how things were starting to change in the Minors, first in Durham but in rippling waves throughout the game.
From a marketing angle, orders poured into the Durham gift shop for caps, shirts -- anything with the Durham Bulls insignia. Even during the off-season, people would drive up to the park and come in off the street, making their pilgrimages to the new Minor League mecca, pilgrimages that continue to this day.
Coincidentally the current head of marketing for MiLB, Rod Meadows, was the radio voice of the Bulls from 1989-1997.
"Even in the middle of winter, people would literally pull off the interstate, come to the park, knock on the door and ask if they could walk around," said Meadows, who estimates he's seen the movie 15 or 20 times. "Not a week went by when that didn't happen."
Before "Bull Durham," the only Minor League baseball team with any recognition factor was the Toledo Mud Hens, thanks to "M*A*S*H" star Jamie Farr. But it was "Bull Durham" that brought the Minor Leagues to the forefront for the average baseball fan.
As Bulls merchandise sales went through the roof, other teams realized there was money to be made in selling their paraphernalia to fans beyond just those who came through the turnstiles. Cute logos and wacky names became de rigueur.
Fans were reminded that baseball could be seen not just in big Major League cities, and they sought out affordable family jaunts to Minor League ballparks. Some even planned vacation trips to see Minor League games around the country.
To celebrate the anniversary in Durham this year, posters and other memorabilia have been placed throughout the new Durham Bulls Athletic Park. Crash Davis and Annie Savoy are featured on the cover the 2008 media guide, special commemorative souvenirs are available at the gift shop and a 10-game ticket mini-plan called the "Bull Durham" includes tickets for a "Bull Durham" cap giveaway July 6 against Norfolk and "Bull Durham" T-shirt giveaway July 26 when the Bulls host Louisville.
It's been 13 years since the Bulls relocated from the DAP to Durham Bulls Athletic Park, and a decade since they jumped from the Class A Carolina League to the Triple-A International League. They've also hooked horns with the Tampa Bay Rays as their parent affiliate.
People who still come through looking for the site of their favorite movie are undoubtedly disappointed to find the old DAP looking more like a long-abandoned movie set than a stadium that had been the home to a vibrant Minor League team for nearly 70 years.
Luckily, that will not be the case for much longer. Minor League Baseball, in conjunction with the city of Durham and a $5 million bond, has begun a renovation project that will restore the old DAP to spit-shined glory. It will serve as the home field for Durham's North Carolina Central University baseball team as well as the site for a new Baseball Lab run by MiLB to train its employees.
Hopefully in a few years it will also serve as the home for the planned Minor League Museum. Because really, where else could it go but Durham?
Lisa Winston is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.