Saturation: Durham Bulls beat Charlotte Knights, win division title

I was sitting next to our videographer, Ivan Weiss, for most of last night’s game. Once, a few weeks ago, Ivan miked me up and recorded me while we watched, asking me questions. He didn’t do it last night because he wanted a break from documenting everything, which I can appreciate.

It turned out he didn’t need to, because I inadvertently recorded the whole thing myself. You’ve heard of butt-dialing? This was like that, only with a voice recorder. It started shortly before game time and I didn’t notice it until three and a half hours later, after the game ended, when I pulled the thing out of my pocket in the clubhouse where the Bulls were celebrating winning the International League South Division title for the sixth time in seven years. Only two of the current Bulls, Leslie Anderson and Tim Beckham, have been on hand for more than one of these division championships, so this was essentially a fresh post-game revelry. One of the reasons that it’s appropriate (in spirit, anyway) for Bull City Summer to be documenting a single season, rather than to have attempted multiple years, is that there is very little history where it matters most, on the team itself. The players here are just passing through. This is all ephemera for them.

Yet I accidentally captured it all. At about the ten-minute mark, there’s a loud clack, then a muffled gasp from the crowd, then the sound of my voice saying: “Whoops … Gone.” I’m referring to the poorly-located first-pitch fastball Durham starter Merrill Kelly threw to Knights first baseman Brent Morel, and to what became of that fastball: a home run. (“Home run number six for Morel,” the voice of the Official Scorer can be heard explaining over the press box PA.)

A pause, and then I add: “Get-me-over fastball, I guess.” That’s what it looked like, anyway. The DBAP stadium radar gun wasn’t working last night, so I’m not a hundred percent sure. I forgot to ask Kelly later, for two reasons: Morel’s homer wound up entirely forgotten in what would turn out to be an easy 9-2 Bulls victory, and by then the clubhouse and all of us in it were entirely drenched in … water. Yes, that’s what it was: water.

The audio is curiously hard to stop listening to. An entire experience is captured. You can hear the crowd (their reactions tell you most of what you need to know about the game, without seeing any action). You can hear the little beeps every time the Official Scorer makes an entry on the keypad that controls the scoreboard lights. You can hear PA Announcer Tony Riggsbee calling out the names of hitters and doing between-inning spiels. There’s some press box talk during the inning or so I’m up there, including a disquisition on the Atlanta Braves’ youth (one of the press box denizens is a Braves fan).

Then there’s the audio from down in the stands after the first inning, which is when I went to sit there in scouts’ row (or Wheelers‘ row, depending on how you look at it). Most of it is just the sounds of the game. Mainly it’s just the warmly ambient wash of the DBAP. A fan’s voice pops up: “I forgot my baseball hat,” she says, regretfully, as she passes by me, because it has started to drizzle in the bottom of the second inning.  A few minutes later: “Sweet! Duh-licious funnel caaakes!” That’s the instantly recognizable call of the pony-tailed vendor, long a fixture at the ballpark, who looks like the love child of Fabio and Iggy Pop, and who drew notice almost as soon as I started covering the Bulls back in 2009. (He dropped a whole tray of funnel cakes that night.)

Soon after, another crack of the bat. Is there a more energizing, more hopeful sound in the world than this? Especially when it is followed by the sustained roar of the crowd (well, last night’s crowd was small: the squawk of the crowd, let’s say). It’s the sound of Kevin Kiermaier’s double down the right-field line knocking in two runs, and it’s the last moment that will be truly pivotal in the game. After Kiermaier’s hit, the Bulls lead here in the second inning, 3-1. They’ll go up 5-1 in the third. Charlotte gets a run back in the top of the fourth inning; but in the bottom of the fourth, at the 1:32:30 mark on the recording — just as I’m telling Weiss, who joined me in the third, that “I don’t think the Bulls are going to be that badly hurt by the September first roster expansion” (see this for an explanation) — Shelley Duncan (Shelley Duncan, I tell you!) blasts a monster homer in the bottom of the inning to make it 7-2, and no longer anything like a stiff competition.

Exactly right: the International League South Division has not been stiffly competitive since the midway point, just as last night’s game was not competitive. The Bulls have been confidently strutting toward last night’s celebratory formality since mid-June. The forty-eight hours spanning June 17-19 were the season’s most decisive pivot point. First, Wil Myers was called up to Tampa Bay. Two days later, the Bulls beat Louisville, fittingly the first career Triple-A victory for Merrill Kelly, who had just been called up days before. The Norfolk Tides, meanwhile, were swept in a doubleheader, extending the Bulls’ division lead to eight games. It was as if Kelly and company were delivering proof that they’d not only be fine without Myers, they might — strangely, inexplicably — be better off. Their division lead has never been smaller than seven games since then, and has been in double digits since July 10.

I’m trying here to saturate the regular season a little, now that it’s over, and not least because I happened to make last night a replete audio document to accompany the graphic one I construct every time I go to a game, also in real time: my score sheet. The question at this moment, the one when the regular season essentially ends, when we have no photographers at the ballpark, when the videographer isn’t videoing anything, during the game or after — the question becomes: what is the document for this documentary? Is it my hieroglyphic score sheet? Photos? An accidental sound recording? Essays, profiles, Paris Review blog posts, trips to Buffalo?

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It’s all of it. The idea is to saturate the season with documents of all kinds. This is what my unplanned audio recording seems to suggest. Don’t worry, I’m not going to make you accompany me through the entire two hundred minutes of the thing. After Duncan’s home run, I fast-forwarded to the clubhouse scene after the game ended. This was all set up by a curious ending to the game itself. After the Knights’ Michael Earley flied out to make it official, it seemed probable that the Bulls would make a little pile of players on the pitcher’s mound to celebrate, or at least engage in some extra-thick high-fives and fist bumps, or wave to the crowd — something like that. I was poised near the field and planned to get out there for an up-close look at whatever ensued.

Instead, the instant Kevin Kiermaier caught Earley’s fly for the final out of the game, the entire team sprinted off the field and made a lightning-fast beeline for the dugout, and presumably the clubhouse. It became suddenly clear that there was going to be no public viewing of the celebration; this was not going to be for the fans. This was going to be for the players, who had toiled all year, to let loose in a comfortable, safe, out-of-sight place. Din in the den.

I followed them. What ensues on my recording, from precisely the 3:08:00 mark, is total sonic saturation: audio bedlam: the screams and shouts and chants and riotous laughter of ballplayers. The clubhouse had been totally plastic-wrapped for the occasion, which turned out not to be such a great idea. The plastic on the floor had the effect of pooling the water, which enabled something like snow angels but in liquid form, and body surfing, and so on, so maybe it was a great idea. It was a great idea that the voice recorder was running. This is what joy sounds like, the kind of joy that’s hard, hard earned.

Does it go overboard, or rather, get over-saturated? Yes, of course it does. It runs to excess. These are championship professional athletes. They don’t do things to their moderate, comfortable conclusion, which would make them, what? Third-place finishers? Guys who never even made it to Triple-A in the first place? People who sit at desks and work, like me? No, athletes at this level go well beyond this. They practice harder, swing harder, throw harder than everyone else. Yes, they’re more gifted, probably, and maybe a little lucky, too, lucky in the way that accidentally leaving a voice recorder running is lucky. But mostly they just go beyond, at work and at play (which for them, of course, are the same thing). They cover every base.

And so it is that, at the 3:20:09 mark, Leslie Anderson looks around to see if anyone has not been thoroughly drenched, sees that there is one dry I in the clubhouse — “¿no estás mojado?” he says, incredulous — and with the help of some teammates pours several … bottles of water … over my head. There, then.

I missed the post-game interview with Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo, who after his dousing had bolted right back out the door and quietly slipped into his office via an alternate entrance, along with other reporters. There he shared his surely glad but almost certainly very sober thoughts. Yet these did not need to be recorded last night, as I recorded them on all other nights. What I absorbed on my recorder (and on my head, and all into my clothes) is the right kind of interview: saturated happiness, saturated documentation. More, longer, deeper, truer.

Yet sobriety does reassert itself, and quickly. One of the players shouted, “Hey, we got a game to play tomorrow!” He was completely unserious about this and proceeded to spray more liquid fun around the room. But he’s right; they do have another game, and by the time you read this, that game is not tomorrow but today. The evidence of that game was unavoidable last night, even as the clubhouse roister continued. Right outside the door in the corridor, on my way out, I nearly tripped over the bags of gear packed and ready for a trip to Norfolk, where tonight the Bulls will face the Tides, whose fading division title hopes they just doused and try, mightily, to keep their focus on the playing of a game of baseball even when winning it no longer matters at all.

But really, the sobering up commenced very shortly after the party ended. My editor I and went out for a snack and a beer at a local grubbery, joined by some colleagues from the very different other job I hold down when I’m not writing about the Durham Bulls. Well into these extra innings of our night, three of the Bulls came into the place, sat at the bar, and ordered some food of their own. You’ve probably guessed that what I called water before, during the clubhouse celebration, wasn’t really water. But water really is what the players drank as they fed their bodies.

One Comment on “Saturation: Durham Bulls beat Charlotte Knights, win division title

  1. Pingback: How to Watch Baseball, Pt. 1: Wag the Dog | Plate Discipline

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