The Durham Bulls have come a long way since Bull Durham
The Bulls of today have very little in common with the decrepit and oft-desolate stadium surroundings immortalized in the classic 1988 film. Durham Bulls Athletic Park, built in 1995, is one of the crown jewels of Minor League Baseball. The facility, located in downtown Durham, has rejuvenated an area that had been left to decay following the collapse of the city's once-thriving tobacco industry.
And perhaps nothing embodies the innovation and optimism of the "new" Durham Bulls than the Explorer Post 50 Program, started by Bulls owner (and Capitol Broadcasting CEO) Jim Goodmon in 1998. The program provides area students between the ages of 14 and 20 hands-on experience in the field of broadcasting.
And "hands-on," in this case, is meant literally. The Bulls broadcast their games in HD (locally on Time Warner Cable and online through MiLB.com), and students from the program comprise the production and camera crews. There are 110 chosen each year to participate, working 10-15 games a season as part of a crew of 16.
Operating a field-level HD camera or cuing up instant replay for a professional broadcast can be a stressful, high-pressure situation -- but that's precisely the point.
"We're all here to learn, and the goal is for the students to learn from their mistakes," explained Ken Bland, a volunteer adviser for the program who assists the students throughout each broadcast. "The program is designed as an unpaid internship, and we hope that the skills that they're learning here lead them to choose a broadcasting career."
Diving right in
If high school kids can do it, then I can, too. That was my thinking Saturday, at least, when I spent innings three through six as an honorary member of the Explorer Post 50 crew.
The game broadcast is overseen by executive producer Chase McKinney, an Explorer Post 50 alumnus. McKinney spends the evening in front of a bank of monitors showing feeds from the team's six cameras, selecting each and every shot as well as determining whether and when to show instant replays. This on-the-spot decision-making is accompanied by an endless stream of running commentary as he directs his far-flung ballpark crew via wireless headset (sample chatter: "Okay, up on one ... take your graphic ... drop it ... three, three, up on three, great shot, three ... four, I need you to zoom in. OK, now focus ... up on four...")
After an all-too-brief tutorial from McKinney, my first task was to man a P2HD VTR (video tape recorder). My monitor displayed the feed from camera five, located on the first-base party deck, and it was my duty to cue up and roll any instant replays that might be needed from this feed. The various synchronized button-pushing maneuvers seemed intimidating at first but soon became second nature. Each pitch had to be "marked" upon delivery via a two-button combination, and if the action that ensued had any shot of being replay-worthy, then another two-button combination would bring back the footage to the point at which it had first been marked.
From there it was a matter of listening for McKinney's instructions via the headset. If he instructed that the broadcast was going to "instant replay B," then I had to turn a jog wheel on the console so that the footage would roll at half-speed (one-third speed if the instant replay needed was the pitch itself.)
It's less confusing than it sounds -- which, come to think of it, is the whole point of the Explorer Post 50 Program.
After two and a half innings in the replay booth, I was escorted by Bland to Camera 3 (located alongside the visitor's dugout). The HD cameras are hand-operated, with zoom on the right handle and focus on the left (the portion of the shot that is in focus is quite helpfully outlined in bright red). The viewfinder features a frame within the frame, with the smaller area displaying the shot as it can be seen in a non-HD broadcast. Furthermore, the shot must be framed so that the subject is not in the top left-hand corner. On the broadcast, this area is taken up by the "Fox Box" (the slang term for the now-universal permanent display of score, inning and game situation, an innovation that originated with the Fox network).
Shooting from the third-base side, my primary goal was to focus on the batters facing me -- left-handers, in other words. When a righty was at the plate, there was more room for improvisation, much of which had to do with the game situation. Were their runners on base? Was a dugout reaction shot needed after a controversial call? Was the third base coach blocking my shot of the pitcher? If so, would it be OK if I yelled at him to kindly get out of the way? (Answer: "no.")
Through it all, McKinney kept up his running commentary -- analyzing his current shot while planning the next (to the extent that anything happening live can be "planned"). This is hard enough to do with a professional crew, let alone a rotating cast of eager but inexperienced amateurs, but for him it was just another day on the job.
"Oh, great, five cameras now all have the same shot," he griped at one point, as most of his camera crew (including myself) focused in on what must have been a particularly riveting conversation on the mound. "Could someone please find something else? Anyone?"
But it all comes with the territory, of course, and the occasional miscues evident within the game broadcasts are far outweighed by the experience they provide. Later in the evening I came across two Explorer Post 50 participants in the stadium concourse, raising money for the program by selling rubber ducks (for a postseason rubber duck race, of course).
The younger of the two was 16-year-old Amanda, who has already parlayed her experience with the Bulls into part-time work with Durham-based USA Baseball. She gushed about the program, although her praise was perhaps just a wee bit over the top.
"Before I signed up to do this I was bored and didn't know what I was doing, but this has been so much fun," she said. "I actually have a future now."