Team has new digs, but old ballpark holds its memories
An easy way to measure the distance between the minors before and after “Bull Durham” can be traced by traveling one mile through downtown Durham, N.C., and visiting the real-life team’s old and new stadiums.
“The movie came out and all of a sudden our ballpark wasn’t big enough,” said former team owner Miles Wolff. “It sat, uncomfortably, 5,000 people. It was an old WPA structure. You could go underneath and pull concrete off with your bare hands.”
A countywide referendum for a new ballpark failed in 1990, but a few years later Durham’s city council approved a new publicly financed stadium. The $18.5 million, 10,000-seat Durham Bulls Athletic Park opened in 1995, located on Blackwell Street.
Less than a 10-minute drive away is the original Durham Athletic Park. A turret in front of the 79-year-old building features the Bulls’ familiar logo. The seats have been replaced since the movie’s filming, but the grandstands instantly summon memories of the numerous game sequences featuring Kevin Costner’s aging catcher trying to impart wisdom to Tim Robbins’ youthful pitcher with the million-dollar arm and the five-cent head.
Now home to the North Carolina Central University baseball team, the old park, known as the DAP, features a slightly more modern scoreboard and a few other tweaks incorporated as part of a $5 million renovation in 2008, but it looks much as it did when writer-director Ron Shelton and his cast shot there in the fall of 1987, just after the Bulls wrapped their season.
The vintage dugouts are too small for NCCU and their opponents; benches along the first- and third-base lines accommodate spillover. You won’t find Nuke LaLoosh’s fungus-covered shower shoes on the premises, though. For the movie, Shelton built stage sets in an abandoned tobacco building to shoot locker-room scenes.
The DBAP, as locals call it, is far more modern. In 1998, the Bulls moved to Class AAA as a Tampa Bay Rays affiliate, ending an 18-year run as the Atlanta Braves’ Class A team, prompting a $4.5 million stadium expansion. New seats, upgrades to the playing field and stadium lighting, and an enclosed 5,000-square-foot club area followed in 2014. Those renovations cost $22 million, split between the city and the team.
Each anniversary of the movie brings tributes and reunions. Costner’s band played a concert at the new ballpark in 2008 as part of the 20th anniversary. This Friday, Shelton will be at the DBAP for a 30th anniversary celebration when the Bulls play the Gwinnett Stripers, the Braves’ Class AAA affiliate. The Bulls will wear throwback uniforms from 1988 and various movie props will be on display, including the 1959 Volvo driven by Susan Sarandon.
A paver in front of the stadium salutes Costner’s namesake, Crash Davis: “Led The (sic) league in doubles in 1948. Name inspired the movie Bull Durham.” Among the team’s retired numbers outside the DBAP is 8, with only the word “Crash” written above it, an homage to Costner’s character.
The team store includes T-shirts bearing the names and numbers of Davis and LaLoosh. Along the concourse, a sign reads, “Sometimes you win. Sometimes you lose. Sometimes it rains.” The nightly mascot race is between characters named — you guessed it — Nuke, Crash and Annie.
Erik Spanberg writes for the Charlotte Business Journal, an affiliated publication.