Back in Time, Part One: The Executive

Durham Athletic Park, 2013. Photo by Kate Joyce.

As the season draws to a close, and the run of days slows and grows autumnal, now seems like a good moment to look back at some early settlers of what we now take for granted as Bulls country. This is Part One of a four-part series of interviews and profiles. It’s also an unforeseen expansion of the Paris Review Daily piece I’ll be publishing on Wednesday, September 4, about the most exciting game I ever saw, which took place at the old Durham Athletic Park on September 4, 1984.

The modern-era Durham Bulls came into being in 1980. The franchise had been dormant since 1971; when it folded, it was actually called the Raleigh-Durham Triangles, and played games in both cities. With the encouragement of Carolina League President Jim Mills, a minor-league entrepreneur named Miles Wolff bought into the Class A league and reestablished a franchise in Durham. Wolff hired Pete Bock, a Durham native and Carolina League umpire at the time, as his General Manager. Bock stayed for three years, helping make the Bulls an instant sensation, before moving on to take a job as the general manager of a Triple-A team in Hawaii. Since then, he has successfully run numerous minor-league franchises, and with Miles Wolff brought the Raleigh Ice Caps minor-league hockey team to the Triangle.

Bock remained a minority owner of the Durham Bulls until the early nineties, when he and Wolff sold the franchise to Capitol Broadcasting Company. In 1997, he founded the Coastal Plain League. Based in Holly Springs, North Carolina, the CPL is summer collegiate baseball league with teams spread around the Carolinas and Virginia. Notable alums include major-league All-Stars Justin Verlander, Kevin Youkilis, and Ryan Zimmerman.

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“I’m a gifted salesman,” Pete Bock says as we sit down at Rue Cler, in downtown Durham, to talk about his career with the Durham Bulls, which began more than thirty years ago. “I hate it, but I am.”

Reticence toward one’s gifts is healthy. It imparts a certain incorruptibility. You don’t feel like Pete Bock is trying to put anything over on you, or even that he’s trying to sell you anything. He once talked an investor out of buying one of Bock’s sports franchises. When he interviewed in 1982 to take a job as the general manager of the Triple-A Hawaii Islanders, he promised the owner of the cash-hemorrhaging franchise only that “I’ll figure out a way to lose you less money every year.”

That kind of honesty only points up how good Bock is at selling: he can talk you out of buying something from him, or he can make a long-term money-losing plan sound appealing (the Islanders’ owner hired him). When he talks about Edenton, North Carolina, an out-of-the-way colonial town where his Coastal Plain League has a franchise, he coats the little place — which, after all, was home to a horrific child abuse case in the nineties — in such honeyed words that you want to go there, immediately. He tells you about the Edenton Steamers’ ballpark, which has the oldest grandstand in the state of North Carolina, and how he went to look at it when he was considering putting a franchise in Edenton. The grandstand had suffered the decay that afflicts many antiques, and city council folks told Bock not to worry, they’d tear it down and build a new one. But he talked them out of it.

“We found some old farm buildings that were from that era, and we were able to take boards off of those three huge barns and use those boards in the stadium. And also, we found enough to build bleachers on both sides. So that whole stadium now is made of old material from the 1930s. It holds about twelve hundred people. It’s the most unique thing in the world. Edenton’s the only town I’ve ever seen where Tuesday night, they have a city council meeting, and they leave a sign out front at City Hall: ‘We’re out early tonight because the Steamers are home.’ All those city council members are at the park. It’s the coolest thing in the world.”

Bock’s paradoxical quality as both a great salesman and a guy who hates being a great salesman may explain his success as the founding general manager of the Durham Bulls when the team was reborn in 1980: he had no prior experience as a baseball front office executive, and he wasn’t sure he was the right guy for the job. Yet Bock’s natural gifts were aided by two circumstances. First, when Wolff asked Bock to take the position — for just seven hundred dollars per month — Bock was a minor-league umpire on the rise, about to be offered a promotion to Double-A from the Class A Carolina League, where he’d been umpiring games for four years. He’d seen a lot of front office ideas in action, at field level, and as an umpire he had developed a skill that he might not have recognized as essential to running a ball club: making decisions and issuing them, with authority, on the fly. In other words, calling it like he saw it.

Second, Bock was a Durhamite; he had home-field advantage. “My aunt had a hot dog stand on Mangum Street,” he recalls. Growing up, he and other kids in the family would work there on weekends. (“We probably ate more than we should have,” he says — the salesman’s gift being exercised on the salesman himself, perhaps.) In his youth, he had played Legion ball at the old Durham Athletic Park. His grandfather played for the Bulls, and managed the team for a year in the mid-fifties. When he was trying to sell baseball in Durham in 1980, he wasn’t just peddling real estate. He was part of the territory he was working. Authenticity was built into his new job.

“My wife and I talk about downtown Durham all the time. In the early sixties, we used to ride the bus down here on Saturday. There were three or four movie theaters down here then. We’d go to two or three movies, eat lunch at the hot dog stand, get back on the bus. We didn’t worry about anything. My wife’s mother was the ticket manager at the Carolina Theater — the ticket person in the booth — forever.”

The early sixties were good days in Durham. By the late sixties, though, industry had been crippled. The economy collapsed, the Hayti neighborhood was torn down, and the Durham Bulls folded. It wouldn’t be until the 2000s that the city was reborn, well after Bock and Wolff planted their flag at Durham Athletic Park. They were new pioneers.

As an umpire, in the seventies, Bock was away from his family for much of the summer. He had a young son. In 1979, the President of the Carolina League, Jim Mills, approached Bock, whom he knew as one of his umpires.

“Jim came to me early in the season and said, ‘Do you know a lot of people in Durham?'” Bock says. “‘Do you know the city manager and the mayor?’ I said, ‘I do.’ He said, ‘Would you be willing to go talk to them about getting a team back in the DAP?’

“I visited with the mayor and with city council people, and the ball started rolling. I remember Mills calling me in July or August. He said, ‘We have someone interested in ownership. Can you meet them Thursday morning at the Mayor’s Office?’ I said sure. So I went down to the Mayor’s Office, met them.”

The prospective owners were both successful minor-league owners from other cities, one a man, the other a woman.

“I took them to the ballpark, and the ballpark was horrible. I took the woman down a back alley. A rat ran in front of us the size of a small dog. She screamed. We weren’t there five minutes.”

The other interested party, Lary Schmittou, who owned the minor-league ball club in Nashville, had this advice for Bock: “I think the best thing to do is take about ten sticks of dynamite and blow the thing up.”

So that was the end of that. But Miles Wolff, a former sports broadcaster who owned a baseball team down in Savannah, Georgia, had gotten wind of things happening in Durham. As Bock tells it:

“Miles, as he always  has, had his ear to the ground, and he must have heard the rumors about Durham. Jim Mills must have said to him, ‘Hey, come take a look.’ So Miles came in and I met him and we had a look at the park. Miles was totally different [from the previous potential owners]. The DAP was still an armpit, but Miles looked around at it and said, ‘We could do this; we might could do that.’ So it really got me thinking, from an operational standpoint, on how we could fix it up, and how little we could do at a time: phase it, phase it, phase it. I remember meeting Miles in the City Hall lobby later on, and him saying ‘Would you be interested in coming to the park for me and the Bulls?’ And I said, ‘Doing what?’ And he said, ‘As GM.’ And I said, ‘Golly, I don’t know, I’m gonna have to think about it.'”

So he sat with his wife, his young son nearby, in the house in Durham he would soon have to leave again in order to go on the road and umpire games in Alexandria, Lynchburg, Hampton Roads. He had just gotten a call from the league office that he’d be promoted to Double-A for 1980 (yes, umpires, like players, are trying to make it to the Show, too).

“My wife said, ‘You need to come home.'”

He took the job, not without some trepidation. “I had more people tell me in 1979 that the Bulls were a bad project than I did with hockey in the nineties, when there was absolutely no hockey here,” he says. “I always found that funny.”

Bock and Wolff needed about eighty-five thousand dollars to get the franchise up and running. The City had agreed to put up quite a bit of that, but required that the new owners invest twenty thousand dollars of their own, “as a good-faith gesture,” Bock says. They borrowed and begged it all. They opened their office, in the ballpark, the day after Labor Day, that is, essentially thirty-four years ago today. It was the day after the Carolina League season ended, and Bock’s umpiring duties with it. So much for vacation.

They got right to work. They needed capital, and bad. “An outfield fence [advertising] sign was fifteen hundred dollars, but [we told advertisers], ‘If you’ll pay half up front, we’ll make it fourteen hundred’—so we could get some money in the bank. That didn’t work so well. People weren’t sure we’d still be around come springtime. We struggled through the first part of that. It was miraculous that we got through. There was a local guy who furnished us uniforms and gave us baseballs on a handshake.”

They didn’t have enough money to pay the franchise fee to the Carolina League. Jim Mills, the Carolina League President, waived it for them. He wanted baseball in Durham. It’s important to remember that the Bulls were not reborn ex nihilo. People dreamed of this, worked for it, then worked harder for it. Baseball belonged here, but it had to have help in order to succeed. All great ideas do.

Still, in January, Bock and Wolff weren’t sure they’d make it to April. But they did. Opening Day, 1980 was the first professional baseball game in Durham in a decade. And that’s when the help they really needed came to Durham Athletic Park. Did it ever come to Durham Athletic Park.

“The people were lined up around the parking lot up toward Nu-Tread Tire [now Accent Hardwood Flooring, at the corner of Corporation and Rigsbee]. We started letting people in, and the line kept there — people just kept getting in line. We were packed but people were still lined up to Nu-Tread Tire. I remember the fire marshal grabbing me and saying, ‘That’s it, you can’t let anyone else in.’ We said, look at all these people. The fire marshal said, ‘Sorry, you can’t let anybody else in.’ And Miles and I had to go through that line and tell them, ‘I’m sorry, we’re full, please come back tomorrow’ — almost with tears in our eyes.”

A lesson sunk in for Bock and Wolff. Years later, the Raleigh Ice Caps hockey team became so popular, tickets so scarce, that professional scalpers came to a game one Thursday night. “People come running in, grabbed me and said, ‘We need you to send the sheriff outside.’ I went back to Miles and said, ‘We aren’t touching that.'” They called the local media instead. As the saying goes, you can’t buy that kind of publicity.

At the ballpark in 1980, people came back tomorrow. They came back tomorrow, and the next day, and the next day. The Bulls were an immediate success. Miles Wolff once said that he treated the games like he was throwing a party for three thousand people. He understood, as major-league maverick owner Bill Veeck, Jr. had understood decades before, that you were there to entertain people as much as show them a baseball game. (It was Veeck who pinch-hit little person Eddie Gaedel.)

There were promotions. There was the San Diego Chicken. There was lots and lots of food. People still remember the Bull Durham Burrito from El Toro Grill on the concourse. They remember the chili dogs, which had surprisingly good chili on them. It was surprisingly good because Pete Bock’s wife made it. Pete Bock’s wife and her friends would get together and make the chili for the chili dogs. They’d staff the food stands, too. (They, or someone, would sometimes give the reporters free beer late at night, after the reporters finished their game stories.) Concessions — that was where you made your money. And you could make more if you were smart. Bock recalls:

“We know in concessions we gotta have ice cream,” Bock says. “But Miles and I said, ‘We need to do the mini-helmets.’ Instead of selling ice cream for a dollar in a cup, you put it in the mini-helmet; it’s less ice cream, and you sell it for two dollars.”

A natural salesman. Even before he was the Bulls’ general manager, when he was still an umpire, he was learning to how to be a salesman, only he didn’t realize it.

“As an umpire, I’m in a different ballpark every night, and I’m standing in the middle of it. I’m seeing the bat giveaway, the mascot race, seeing Max Patkin [the ‘Clown Prince of Baseball’] a hundred times. I didn’t realize at the time that I was getting an education in what was a good promotion: what the fans liked, what they didn’t. I was at Kingsport [Tennessee] one night, and the fans came in, all three of four hundred of them, and they all got a little bag of little green apples from a local farmer. You can imagine from an umpiring standpoint how horrible that was. They tossed apples on the field all night. Got to the point where we started flipping them back up into the stands. I filed that away: Don’t give them anything to throw!”

Not everything worked.

“Trust me, we didn’t do it all right. For our Back-to-School night, we had some three-ring notebook binders. That didn’t work too well. I think we still have some of those somewhere. ‘Back-to-school notebook? No thanks.'”

But mostly, it worked. Mostly, everything worked. Baseball worked in Durham. But how? Was it just the bat giveaway and the ice cream in mini-helmets and the homemade chili on the chili dogs? It couldn’t have been simply that the Bulls were the best team in the Carolina League that inaugural year, 1980, which they were. People kept coming to the DAP in the years that followed, too, even when the Bulls were bad. So how did the Bulls draw thousands every night when the rest of the league drew just hundreds?

“Durham didn’t have anything else,” Bock says. “And people just loved it so much. The park needed a lot of work, a lot of care, but there were no complaints. We get more complaints in some of our new ballparks now than we did back then. Everybody understood the uniqueness of it, the history there. There were so many people that came that played there as a kid: in Durham High School [now Durham School of the Arts, two blocks from the DAP], or in the American Legion. Or their father played there.” Or their grandfather, like Bock’s.

And there were new-timers, too. “The people that came were two breeds. There were new young families looking for something family-oriented, and then there was the old regime of baseball people and fans who remembered back-when, and they were bringing their grandsons and their daughters. And word of mouth absolutely exploded.”

By the time the Bull Durham crew came to shoot the movie, in 1987, the Bulls were a thriving franchise. Bock was brought onto the shoot as a baseball consultant. Kevin Costner was a great natural athlete, Bock remembers, and needed little help. Tim Robbins was not a natural athlete (watch his windup as Nuke LaLoosh closely), and did need help, lots of it. Robbins had to be shown everything, and he didn’t take to it quickly. He couldn’t even chew tobacco. He saw one of his teammates doing it — those are real ballplayers in the movie, as Durham Bulls — and said, “Hey, I want to try that!” He tried it, and spent much of the evening throwing up.

When Jimmy and Millie get married in Bull Durham, the man of the cloth performing the ceremony is Pete Bock. How did that come about? It came about in much the same way the Durham Bulls came about, in a sense.

“The actor who was supposed to play the minister didn’t show up. Hours went by. Finally, at about two o’clock in the morning, they said to me, ‘Can you do it?’ I figured, well, it was only one line. They sent me into the trailer for costuming, and none of the clothes fit me. They were all way too small. They said, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll make it fit.’ The hat didn’t fit, the shoes didn’t fit, the shirt didn’t fit. ‘Don’t worry, we’ll make it fit.’ They cut everything up and sewed it back together, and it fit.”

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