It's been more than a dozen years since the Durham Bulls moved from historic Durham Athletic Park to sparkling new downtown digs at Durham Bulls Athletic Park.
With the old facility, originally built as El Toro Park in 1926, filled to overflow capacity on a regular basis since the 1988 release of the hit movie "Bull Durham," the cozy old park could no longer handle the crowds. So the team relocated to a state-of-the-art stadium in 1995, three years before it also upgraded from the Class A Carolina League to the Triple-A International League.
That move, however, didn't stop baseball fans all over the world from making year-round pilgrimages to the DAP, a true Minor League mecca.
But when they'd roll into the parking lot, they'd often find the rusted gate padlocked shut. If they could get in, they'd see an increasingly rundown facility that looked more like an abandoned movie set than a once-vibrant home for more than a half-century's worth of pro ball.
Inside, the field looked much like it had after the famous scene in "Bull Durham" when Crash Davis and company let loose the sprinkler system in hopes of getting a day off via "rain out."
But all that is about to change.
This past April 30 marked a big day in both Durham and Minor League Baseball history as well as their future.
On that morning, ground was officially broken on a $5 million renovation and restoration project at the DAP. Over the course of the next several months, the facility will be spruced up in some spots and completely made over in others, with big things planned once the work is complete.
The project was funded initially by a bond referendum through the city of Durham, and once the work is done, the keys to the stadium will be handed over to Minor League Baseball, which will operate the park in several capacities: a home field for North Carolina Central University, a site for city festivals, a place for several of the community's schools to play some ball.
But the biggest innovation at the DAP will be the establishment of a "Baseball Lab" run by MiLB that will oversee all manners of recruitment, education and training for pretty much every walk of Minor League employees, aside from players and active field staff.
Turf management specialists (once known as groundskeepers), umpires, merchandisers, concessionaires, public relations executives, box offices managers, promotions honchoes, even mascots.... You name it, there will likely be a place for them to learn hands-on once the Lab is established.
"Our agreement with the city is that they are the owner and we are the operator," explained MiLB's Jill Rusinko, who has relocated to Durham from St. Petersburg, Fla., to oversee the day-to-day operations.
But first they need the site upgrade, and that is where the DAP renovations come into play.
"'Restored' would be the more accurate word," said Rusinko. "The existing structure that you see will still stand, though some of it will be coming down because due to the oldness it would be just too much work to restore it."
From a cosmetic standpoint to the structure itself, the floor and seating bowl will be re-epoxied, everything will get a new paint job and most of the stadium and its surrounding ornamentation (fencing, gates, etc.) will be spruced up. Restroom areas, concession stands and seating will all be upgraded.
But the biggest overhaul will come on the field itself. MiLB has brought in the Brickman Group, the same turf management group that is working with the baseball fields for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and did the USA Baseball facility in nearby Cary, N.C., as the official sports turf managers for the DAP.
"The field will be taken out and re-leveled, and a state-of-the-art Minor League field will be put in," said Rusinko. Part of that renovation will include the installation of an irrigation system (which they did not have when the DAP was an active stadium) along with some new ideas.
Among those will be the use of reclaimed water that has irrigated the field, via a cistern, as well as reclaimed water from the roof and parking lot run-off to irrigate the rest of the area.
In fact, don't be surprised to see something along the lines of Turf Management 101, courtesy of the Brickman Group, be among the first orders of business when the Baseball Lab gets up and running.
"We're hoping this will be a new approach for other teams to come and see, along with being able to train potential sports turf managers," Rusinko said. "We'll actually do the sports turf manager training here, starting with one-day seminars and grow from there."
But the Lab will be so much more, starting with the field and working its way up.
"One other aspect is what we're calling 'intern academy,'" Rusinko said, explaining MiLB's plan to initially bring in its own cadre of interns to the Lab for several weeks at a time, rather than sending them off to various individual teams. The interns would then learn all facets of different jobs they might pursue with teams, and have specialized hands-on training at all of them at the DAP's events.
Those jobs would range from concessions to ticketing to merchandising to PR as well as stadium operations. The interns will be brought in and assigned through the Professional Baseball Employment Opportunities (PBEO) office -- though whether it will be up and running in time for this December's Winter Meetings Job Fair in Las Vegas is still undetermined.
What has been determined -- in a perfect world, at least -- is a December soft launch of the facility and the Baseball Lab with a subsequent grand opening in the spring of 2009, with the first event being an NCCU home baseball game.
Rusinko enumerated many possible baseball events that they hope to host at the newly refurbished DAP aside from NCCU games, ranging from the aforementioned community and local school games to possible All-Star or exhibition games.
But there will also be some non-baseball events that have traditionally taken place at the DAP and that have been grandfathered in via agreement with the city. Those include the Bimbe Festival, which highlights local regional music; the Bull Durham Blues Festival; and the World Beer Festival. Lab interns would get to make use of many of their duties with those events as well.
Among other future uses for the DAP and its Lab are fantasy camps and an educational speaker series that could attract participants from elementary schools, retirement groups and just about every age range in between.
Also on the possible horizon, though still in the formative stages, would be the much-anticipated Minor League Museum and Fan Experience that would, ideally, find its home in the three currently unoccupied former tobacco warehouses that stand behind the DAP outfield fence.
Conceived as an opportunity for fans to enjoy an interactive experience that is part museum, part learning center and very much hands-on, it would feature opportunities for fans of all ages, ranging from building their own Minor League mascot to calling some of the greatest plays in baseball history from a radio booth to trying to "be the ump" on a 97 mph fastball.
Though funding for the estimated $55 million project is still being negotiated, and an opening date isn't expected until 2011 at the earliest, two of the key elements of the project -- the world's biggest Minor League merchandise store and a state-of-the-art cafeteria -- would, of course, create even more opportunities for the Baseball Lab participants.
"Basically, you name it, we'll train someone how to do it," joked Rusinko. "The possibilities are endless. We look at the Lab as a way to train the future of Minor League Baseball and have people who are interested in working here ready when it comes time for them to go to work."