Dreaming of the Big Time: Baseball Camp with the Durham Bulls

baseball camp

Photo by Ivan Weiss.

An army of kids stream into the Durham Bulls Athletic Park, their eyes wide. This is it, the big time, the world’s best minor league field, and they’re about to take it like the Visigoths took Rome.

They’ve made it to the show.

Okay, so maybe it’s just one of the baseball camps the Durham Bulls sponsor every summer, but it feels bigger than that. Not only are these kids going to play on a professional field, they’re going to be coached by professional players. Could be Jason Bourgeois, might be Vince Belnome or Kirby Yates. The line-up changes from day to day, but it’s guaranteed that each day of camp is going to put them in direct contact with guys who play ball for a living.

Which, coincidentally, is what these kids are pretty sure they’ll be doing one day, too.

The kids range from ages seven through fourteen. Most of them are boys, but there’s a sprinkling of girls as well. Hats pledge allegiance to the Braves, the Mets, the Phillies, the Rays, and most of all, to the Durham Bulls. At least four campers are dressed in full North Wake Little League regalia, and the South Granville and Wilkes County All-Stars are also represented. On day one of camp, some kids show up without caps or sports bags, but by day two, everybody’s got the gear down.

When they first arrive, the unflappable Mary Beth Warrford, the Bulls’ special events coordinator, directs the campers to the second-tier bleachers behind home plate and lays down the law: Stay outside of the infield at all times. No exceptions. Bags have to be on the dirt, not the grass. She calls out age groups and sends each one to a station — pitching, fielding, conditioning or batting.

The eleven-year-olds head off to right field do conditioning with Dan Rousseau, the Bulls’ strength and conditioning coach. Over in center field, Jason Bourgeois instructs nine- and ten-year-olds in the basics of fielding as he lobs balls at them. You’ve got to catch the ball before you can do anything with it, he tells them. You’ve gotta be ready for the ball. You’ve got to want the ball.

Pitchers Adam Liberatore and Kirby Yates are towering presences in left field. Next to them, the seven- and nine-year olds are barely visible, but they’re clearly committed to throwing strikes — or at least to getting the ball in the general vicinity of the catcher’s mitt. The older kids, the twelve-through-fourteens, are down in the batting cages with Vince Belnome and Craig Albernaz, hitting balls off tees and getting feedback from a caliber of athlete most of them have only seen on TV screens or from right field seats.

The afternoons are an ecstatic riot of scrimmages. You can stay with your age group or you can migrate over to the part of the field where your little brother is playing, and so things are a little more chaotic. Some of the seven- and eight-year olds, armed with plastic cups of water and handfuls of ice, abandon baseball entirely in favor of getting each other soaking wet.

Each day of the three-day camp ends with the coaches sitting behind a long table, autographing shirts, balls, gloves, hats and arms. These guys get paid to be here, but you can tell they’re having fun. After all, it hasn’t been that long since they were the tongue-tied kids getting baseball cards signed. Handing back the caps and the shirts, they look across the table at kids who are dreaming the same dreams they used to dream. They’re looking at the future of baseball. “Good luck,” they tell the kids, and the kids nod back, expressions serious. “You, too,” they say, and then run off, yelling to their moms and little brothers and sisters, waving their prizes in the air.

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