An Evening of Nostalgia at Durham Athletic Park

In the summer of 1989, a couple on their second or third date had the following approximate conversation during a Durham Bulls baseball game at Durham Athletic Park:

Girl: So my mom went to high school with some guy who broke some kind of baseball record.

Guy: What was his name?

Girl: I don't remember.

Guy: What team did he play for?

Girl: I don't know.

Guy: Hmm. Where did your mom go to high school?

Girl: Fargo, North Dakota.

(A brief pause, while the guy searches his memory for hometowns of famous baseball players.)

Guy (astonished): Roger Maris? Your mom knew Roger Maris?

Girl: Did he break some kind of record?

Guy: Yes. In 1961 he broke Babe Ruth's record for home runs.

Girl: Maris. Yeah. Maris. That name sounds right.

The guy was me, and for almost 20 years I've been married to the girl whose mom occasionally saw Roger Maris in the halls of Fargo Central High School before he transferred to Shanley High.

Maris was five years old in 1939 when the Bulls played their first game at the then-new Durham Athletic Park. If 1939 seems like a simpler time, it was at least partly because simplicity was cheap and people couldn't afford extravagance during the Great Depression. Durham Athletic Park was a WPA project that was built for around $100,000.

Thousands of baseball games have been played at the DAP in the past 71 years, and there's no way to calculate the memories that are associated with the old ballpark. And when you sit in the DAP in the complicated and tiresome present and review your memories of long-ago games you saw there, the past always seems infinitely simpler and thus more appealing than the moment in which you're living.

That's what nostalgia is. And last night I was awash in nostalgia when I attended a special Bulls' game at the DAP. It was fun. And it was a bit strange.

I have no idea how many games I attended at the DAP from 1980 to 1993, when the Bulls were a Class A minor league team in the Carolina League. But it was the backdrop of my summers in those days. At one game, I heard a 12-year-old boy perfectly describe the visual appeal of Durham Athletic Park. "It's like everything is just the right size," he said.

Hollywood spotted that small-town charm, however, and the DAP became a co-star in the movie "Bull Durham" that starred Kevin Costner, Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins.

The movie made a national brand of the Durham Bulls. But it also profoundly changed the ambiance at the DAP. The usually large crowds at Bulls games were swelled to overflowing by tourists who came not to see baseball, but to be seen at the DAP. At one game, I heard a woman ask her friend, "Which one is first base?"

The Bulls moved into a glitzy new retro-chic ballpark on the other side of town and soon became a Class AAA team, one rung below the Major Leagues. The DAP fell into disrepair and was looking positively shabby by the late 1990s.

But it had become a major landmark for the city, which has spent about $5 million to renovate the ballpark and has an agreement with Minor League Baseball to use the park to train grounds-keeping crews. There's also plans to build a museum of minor league baseball at the DAP, and the ballpark is being used by area amateur teams.

So with irony that only an ancient Chinese philosopher could understand, the cause of the DAP's demise -- that damned movie -- has also become its salvation, because the movie made it too valuable to lose.

The Bulls played the Toledo Mud Hens in the DAP last night to celebrate the renovation of the old ballpark. My wife couldn't make the game, but I wasn't about to miss it. For the record, Toledo defeated Durham, 6-2, before 3,911 fans.

The playing field was immaculate, but the bleachers that used to be along the foul lines have been removed. So I sat on the grass behind the left-field fence with Ben Misenheimer, who is the son of a guy I grew up with back in Stanly County.

We had a few beers. We talked about baseball, and what a great coach Ben's late grandfather was, and I told Ben how much I enjoyed playing for his grandfather. I told the story about my mother-in-law and Roger Maris, and the guy sitting next to us on the grass overheard it and laughed. Ben plays for a semi-pro baseball team in nearby Raleigh that plays some of its games in the DAP, and he talked about what it's like playing in the old landmark.

So it was a typical night at the DAP, and 20 years from now in a time that is more complex and complicated than today, Ben and I will be talking about the good old days when we saw a game together at Durham Athletic Park.

Photo and film clip: The photo at the top of this post shows early arrivals going into Durham Athletic Park before the Bulls' game against the Toledo Mud Hens.

The film clip shows Durham Bulls first basemen Chris Richard flying out for the second out in the bottom of the ninth inning. If the film clip appears as a black rectangle, it should still play if you click the "Play" button.


SWFBUD said...

Wish I could have been there Willie. Sounds a lot better than the Tommie in PSL. I feel about Vero Beach's stadium -- little Holman Stadium at fornmer Dodgertown -- the way you do about the DAP. It's an ageless wonder.

Naomi said...

Which one is first base? Oh, come on! Great post; thanks for sharing the Park's history (and yours!).