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On the Road: Riggsbee a Bulls mainstay

PA announcer reflects on more than 50 years of Durham baseball
May 27, 2016

Durham Bulls Athletic Park is less than a half mile from the team's previous home of Durham Athletic Park. But outside of similar names and close proximity, the two stadiums have precious little in common.

Durham Athletic Park -- known as "the DAP" -- hosted the Bulls from 1926 through 1994. It was featured prominently in director Ron Shelton's classic 1988 film Bull Durham, and as such holds the distinction of being the world's most well-recognized Minor League park. Today the iconic but decidedly no-frills facility serves as the home of the North Carolina Central University baseball team.

With twice the capacity, a 360-degree concourse, luxury suites, a massive videoboard and other such hallmarks of the modern-day fan experience, Durham Bulls Athletic Park -- the DBAP -- is in many ways the anti-DAP. But one thing they have in common is the day-to-day presence of Tony Riggsbee. Between the DAP and the DBAP, he bridges the gap.

Riggsbee, a well-known local radio personality, is now in his 11th season as the Bulls' PA announcer. But the lifelong Durhamite has a history with the team that goes back more than 50 years.

"My first Durham Bulls memory was as a kid, in 1962," said Riggsbee, speaking in the DBAP press box prior to a ballgame earlier this month. "The Bulls were a farm club of the Houston Colt 45s and Rusty Staub was the first baseman. Then in '63 Joe Morgan was playing for the Bulls at second base. He's the only Bulls' Hall of Famer. I cut my teeth at those Bulls games as a kid, learning to keep score. They were [affiliated with] the Colt 45s, Houston Astros and then the Mets [the Bulls' parent team in 1967 and '68] came in during my high school years."

In 1980, Durham Bulls baseball returned to the DAP after an eight-year absence. It was then that Riggsbee began to attend games in a professional capacity, serving as a radio reporter and, later, doing television play-by-play.

The press box is one of the DAP's most unique -- and baffling -- features. A third dugout of sorts, it is located directly behind home plate and situated lower than the first row of seats.

The entrance to the DAP's highly unorthodox press box as it looks today.

"Why they put the press box there, I have no idea. But first of all, you didn't know any better because that's the only press box you'd been in," said Riggsbee. "But it was dirty, it was hot and it was cold. Hot days there was no air conditioning and cold days there was no heat down there. There was a little window fan at the far end, and visiting radio was behind a little partition but there was no door.... In some respects it was really good because you could hear everything, but you couldn't really see fly balls a lot of the time because you were so low."

He continued, "I remember specifically there was an umpire in the Carolina League named Spook Jacobs, and he would come over. For instance, if today Luke Maile was coming into the game to catch, he would say to us, 'Now catching, Maile. M-A-I-L-E.' He'd spell it out for you like that. There was no pointing, he'd just come and tell you."

Such lo-fi details fit into the ramshackle Minor League aesthetic immortalized by Bull Durham, but Riggsbee said the real-life comparisons only go so far.

"[They got it right] to a certain extent, but the movie hucksterized it more than it ever was," he said. "For instance, the guy they had doing the radio in the movie [Teddy, portrayed by Garland Bunting], the guy with the straw hat, we never had a guy with a Southern accent like that. They made it sound a lot more hick-y than it really was."

Durham Bulls Athletic Park, which opened in 1995, is a far cry from the ballpark environment immortalized in Bull Durham.

Any rustic associations with the day-to-day Durham Bulls baseball experience, real or imagined, disappeared once the Bulls moved to the DBAP.

"It's really, really nice," Riggsbee said of the (comparatively) new ballpark. "I do Major League Spring Training [PA announcing] with the Royals and the Rangers, and this is as nice as what we have in Spring Training. The fact that Minor League Baseball has come as far as it has is amazing. It was a blue-collar, working man's sport, and now you have luxury suites and corporate entities that buy the season tickets. It's almost apples and oranges now from when I started."

Benjamin Hill is a reporter for and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz.