The Bulls returned home on Monday, giving fans a unique chance at going back in time, if only for nine innings.
Durham hosted the Toledo Mud Hens at historic Durham Athletic Park, the beloved old ballpark that served as the home of the Bulls from 1926-1994. Both teams wore throwback jerseys from the 1980s, when the team and the stadium became widely popular following the 1988 film Bull Durham.
Although the park only seats about 1,800 fans, Durham general manager Mike Birling said around 4,000 had turned out Monday, squeezing into lawn and standing-room-only areas to witness the Mud Hens' 6-2 victory.
"It's been a very special night," Birling said during the game. "It's been pretty cool."
Durham's popularity grew tremendously in the late '80s and early '90s following the success of the movie, which starred Kevin Costner and was filmed at the ballpark, affectionately known as "the DAP." In fact, games were so crowded following the film that the club eventually was forced to move in 1995 to their larger current home, Durham Bulls Athletic Park.
About six years ago, Birling said, the team began talking about a potential return to their old home for a game.
"We came over to the the park, but it just wasn't safe enough to try," he said. "About a year-and-a-half ago, the city put in $4 million in renovations, so we said, 'Do we want to try this?' It got it back into our minds."
Birling said the game sold out immediately when it was announced, mostly to current season ticket holders. Demand for the contest was so high that the club offered lawn seats to fans. Special retro T-shirts, designed to look like the Bull Durham-era jerseys, sold out within 15 minutes of the gates opening.
"We had to run back to the other stadium and print up some more t-shirts," Birling said.
The Bulls, in a unique move, provided the Mud Hens with their own 1980s-era jerseys to wear for the game. Birling said the uniforms will be auctioned off to benefit the cancer center at Duke University.
"Last summer we announced we were going to have this game, and it worked out perfectly," Birling said. "We were trying to bring Toledo out here, arguably the two most famous Minor League teams in the Bulls and the Mud Hens. Everyone talks about new stadiums, but we wanted to remember the history of this great place and the significance of the movie."
Minor League Baseball president Pat O'Conner and International League president Randy Mobley were both in attendance for the game, which featured vintage World War II-era planes fly over the park during pregame festivities. Fans could also purchase game-used commemorative bullpen chairs from the game.
The DAP, iconic for its huge wooden "Hit Bull, Win Steak" sign in left field, fell into disrepair following the Bulls' exit in the mid-'90s. Since the renovation, it has served as a training facility for Minor League Baseball, mostly used for groundskeepers and umpires.
Bull Durham, which also starred Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins, remains a cherished baseball movie which brought increased attention to Minor League Baseball -- uniforms from that movie are currently on display at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown. Birling said the Bulls players had been looking forward to this night as much as the fans.
"The players have been very excited since they heard, all the players have watched the movie and to have the opportunity to play in the park where the movie was filmed, it's something they were looking forward to for awhile," he said.
The Double-A Birmingham Barons also hold a similar annual game at Rickwood Field, the oldest ballpark in America. The "Rickwood Classic" has been enormously popular as well, giving fans a chance to step back to a different era of the game.
Will the Bulls make this an annual event?
"Yeah, I've been asked that a bunch of times tonight," Birling laughed. "It's too early to tell. There's a lot of logistical things that have to happen. It's a very special night, and we'll reevaluate it after we're all done."
Judging by the turnout and charitable contributions, the night appears to have been an enormous success for the club and city of Durham.
"Pat O'Conner and Randy Mobley are here, so we'll all talk and see if this was good for the players as well as for the fans," Birling added. "We've probably got over 4,000 people here, they're packed in like sardines."