Durham Bulls in the AL East?

waiting in line

Waiting in line at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park box office, June 2013. Photo by Alex Harris.

Last night I tuned my transistor radio to 620 AM and listened to the Durham Bulls play the Buffalo Bisons in Buffalo. Simultaneously, I tuned my iPhone to the MLB radio stream, put it in my iHome, and listened to the Tampa Bay Rays play the Toronto Blue Jays in Tampa Bay. It was a good night to listen to two games at once: The Bulls won 7-1 and the Rays 4-1.

Then this morning I made my rounds through the pertinent websites and read stories on both games, including BCS writer Adam Sobsey’s report from Buffalo. Something caught my eye:

The Associated Press story on the Rays win made note of Wil Myers getting a “curtain call” from 11,407 fans in Tropicana Field after hitting a home run in his debut there.

Ten days ago, on June 15, Myers hit a home run in front of 10,113 fans at Durham Bulls Athletic Park (DBAP).

Myers’ per diem has risen to almost $100 per day during his first week in the big leagues, but he’s playing in front of the same number of fans.

Granted, minor league tickets are cheaper and June 15 was a Saturday night in surging downtown Durham, which is certainly a better, easier night out than a Monday night at the mega-junction of I-175 and I-275 in St. Petersburg, FL. A better comparison might be last night’s/Monday’s game in Buffalo, which drew 7,444 fans. Not too shabby for a city that has lost about fifty percent of its population since 1950.

Another good comparison would be last night’s other three MLB games. 18,544 fans showed up in Baltimore (a city that’s lost thirty-five percent of its population since 1950), 26,265 in San Diego, and 40,994 in Los Angeles (to see the hapless, bloated Dodgers).

It’s not news that the Rays need a new stadium or a new city. Since 2008 they’ve won as many games as any team in MLB and yet their attendance has been second-worst. The latter reality forces their budget down to among the lowest in MLB, which means the Rays have to work their farm system better and more efficiently than other teams in order to stay competitive, which means the Durham Bulls are arguably the most interesting AAA team in baseball, a consistent winner whose players move on to the big league club at a higher rate than any of the good teams. The last time the Rays made the playoffs two years ago, twenty-one of their twenty-five players progressed through Durham (on non-rehab assignments), most of any team in the playoffs that year (the Phillies were second with sixteen).

Myers’ home run last night was the first of many for him (knock on wood) in Tropicana Field. His home run in Durham on June 15 was probably his last one there, unless he comes back on a rehab assignment in the future.

Or unless the Durham Bulls become the organization’s MLB team and the Port Charlotte Rays become the AAA team.

boy waiting in line

Photo by Alex Harris.

I’m dreaming, but I’m allowed to do that. Last night’s attendance numbers ask for it. Also the demographics of Raleigh-Durham ask for it.

The population of Raleigh-Durham grew by forty percent between 2000 and 2010. The demographics in Durham, in particular, have kicked into overdrive since 2010. There are several major new hotels being developed in downtown Durham, and the RDU Airport, which is only fourteen minutes away door-to-door, is expanding with beautiful new terminals. The Durham Performing Arts Center, which opened in 2008 in the same American Tobacco campus as the DBAP, leads the nation in attendance for venues of comparable capacity (2,700).

Sigh a dreamy sigh. There are tremendous obstacles to this happening. And AAA baseball is more interesting in a sense, a literary one, than MLB — and way more accessible. I’ll take it. And love it.

2 Comments on “Durham Bulls in the AL East?

  1. I enjoy this particular daydream, but since I’m certain it would be done poorly if it was done with urgency and politics, I wouldn’t advocate it in spite of the obvious-ness of moving MLB out of St. Pete and into the Triangle.

    You’ll need a stadium. Your major options are: build something new out in Cary or by the airport or someplace similar (and end up calling the team something awful like the “RDU Triangles”), or take some ambitious architecture and expand the DBAP. Maybe close Jackie Robinson or Blackwell, turn that into Durham’s answer to Eutaw St in Baltimore? Knock the top off the stadium and build better suites and another deck or two, get a bandbox going? Find a way to get more outfield seating with another deck blocking one of the Diamond View buildings? (Sorry about your new view.) Rename the Blue Monster (which we should take up anyway)? It’s probably possible.

    But you’ll have to pay for it, and I don’t see it happening the usual way, which is a hilarious political deal funneling public funds for private profits. I think we’re done with those for awhile after Miami, and to my knowledge there aren’t any major construction projects going on for a major league team. There’s serious funding fatigue. Wilmington just very rightfully told the Atlanta Braves to go screw off, because they couldn’t build a real case for ROI in an already-developed downtown. In Durham, I think it’ll come down to satisfaction with being a “AAA city” and not wanting 2-3x the people you see for Bulls games 81 nights a year.

    So do we expect the Rays ownership to pay for it? Probably not. Do we expect the Rays to be sold to a group that is willing to cash out the current ownership and then immediately pour eight-or-nine figures into construction and rebranding? I’d like to meet those guys.

    Also, Florida isn’t a great candidate for the IL – there was much rending of garments over moving it as far south as Gwinnett. It’s a bus league with three relatively tight divisions and little inter-division play; travel is what drove the transactions that moved the Mudcats out of the Southern League. We’ll need another AAA option.

    I had tickets in the front row and the second row behind home plate for less than $600 each the past two seasons. I have friends trying to talk me into Hurricanes season tickets, and it ain’t nothing like that. There’s a certain anarchy to the notable indifference of the DBAP ushers towards choosing whatever seat suits you on a given day – it helps me relax. I’d hate to lose any of it, as you acknowledged.

    But I sure do think about this a lot.

  2. Pingback: Krzyzewski Indoor Stadium in Downtown Durham? | Bull City Summer Bull City Summer

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