The Real Durham Bulls : ‘Crash’ Is Only Scrawled and There’s No ‘Nuke,’ but the Players Still Have That Dream of Reaching Big Leagues
On a muggy summer day, three hours before gametime, the field echoes with the crack of bats hitting baseballs in the home of the Durham Bulls, the minor league team portrayed in the movie “Bull Durham.”
Grady Little, 38, manager of this Class A Carolina League team, lounges against the batting cage.
“Just like the movie, the kids here all feel they can make it to the big leagues,” he says. “All have a chance. But the odds are against them.”
As portrayed in “Bull Durham,” the fictional story of over-the-hill catcher Crash Davis and wacky rookie pitcher Ebby Calvin (Nuke)LaLoosh, life in the minors can be monotonous, exhilarating, rugged, uncertain and cruel.
It’s underscored with long bus rides and adoring groupies, hitting slumps and hitting streaks, small crowds and $11-a-day meal money, love of the game and fear of failure.
Just one in 25 players who sign a pro contract--which in Class A pays $800 to $1,200 a month--ever sinks his cleats into a big league diamond.
“Sometimes you wonder whether it’s worth it,” says David Butts, a 24-year-old Bulls infielder. “But we’re here because baseball is fun. There is no feeling in the world like making a great catch in the hole and hearing the crowd roar.”
Butts is from Cadiz, Ky. He has a sure glove and strong arm. But so far this season, his third in pro ball, he’s hitting .265.
“I feel I’ve got a shot at making it to the big leagues,” he says. “But I realize I’m getting up in age. If I don’t hit at least .270 this season and move up to Double-A, I may be gone.”
Standing on the other side of the batting cage is hitting instructor Joe Pignatano, 58, a one-time catcher with several big-league teams, including the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Mets.
“Wait for the ball,” Pignatano exhorts his players, many just a few years out of college, others a year or two out of high school. “Let the ball come to you.”
Mike Bell, 20, a slim first baseman from Newton, N.J., listens, waits and then uncoils a swing that would make Ted Williams smile. The ball soars over the 340-foot right-field fence, landing on top of a warehouse.
“Atta boy,” grunts the big-bellied Pignatano.
A few weeks ago, the Durham Bulls, an affiliate of the Atlanta Braves, gathered in the Carolina Theater for the premiere of “Bull Durham,” filmed last fall in this tobacco town of 120,000 residents.
Players howled and shook their heads in disbelief when Nuke, a pitcher with a “million-dollar arm and a 5-cent brain,” had sex with a groupie inside the locker room.
“There is no way that would happen in our locker room,” Bell says. “To tell you the truth, I wished the movie showed more baseball.”
In the theater, players cheered every time Crash Davis hit a home run over the wooden fences of their 50-year-old park. But they grew silent when the manager summoned a slumping player and an aging Crash to his office.
“We all sort of eyeballed each other, knowing that’s reality,” says Lee Upshaw, 21, a tobacco-chewing left-hander from Lawrenceville, Ga. “That’s every player’s fear--to be released.”
Crash, played by actor Kevin Costner, was initially sent to Durham to teach Nuke, played by Tim Robbins, the game. Crash spoke from experience. He bounced around the minors for several years and had one glorious three-week stretch in the big leagues.
“They were the best 21 days of my life,” Crash tells his teammates. “You hit white balls in batting practice . . . the women have long legs and brains . . . and the stadiums are like cathedrals.”
Durham Athletic Park, done in orange and blue, is more country church than cathedral. It draws the biggest crowds in Class A, averaging 3,500 fans a night, about 4,500 on weekends. The players are all ex-high school or college stars.
“If I don’t make it, I’ll live,” Butts says. “There’s life after baseball. But it’ll be rough for awhile.”
“Bull Durham” is as much about Crash’s and Nuke’s baseball careers as it is about their relationships with Annie Savoy, an aging groupie played by actress Susan Sarandon.
In the real Durham, there are a legion of groupies, although players insist not as many or as wild as Hollywood implies.
“There are groupies here if you look for them,” says Jeff Greene, 23, a pitcher from Tip City, Ohio.
“They’re there if you want a date,” grins second baseman Ted Holcomb, 22, of Los Angeles.
In a tip of his cap to Crash, Bell scrawled “Crash” on his bat.
“I did it because, well, he is the star of the movie,” Bell said. “And because, well, we wear the same number, No. 8, and because, I like Crash. He respected the game. And he taught Nuke how to respect the game.”
Haidee Mueller, Bell’s girlfriend, laughed.
“Michael did it because he hopes the other players will call him ‘Crash,”’ she says.
If anyone on the Bulls deserves the nickname “Crash,” it might be Ino Guerrero, 27, of the Dominican Republic. A minor leaguer since age 17, Guerrero has climbed as high as Triple-A, but has never made that one last leap to the big leagues.
In late June, Guerrero was sent down to Durham from the Double-A Greenville Braves.
“I’m happy to be here,” Guerrero says in halting English. “I’m happy to be anyplace where I can play baseball. I still feel, maybe, I can get to big leagues. In baseball, you never know what’s going to happen.”
The Bulls ended the first half of the season in second place in the Carolina League but first in souvenir sales, thanks, in part, to the movie.
This is all good news for owner Miles Wolff, who bought the Bulls in 1980 for $2,500. Today he figures it’s worth at least $1 million.
“We turned it into a very profitable business by providing good family entertainment,” says Wolfe, 43, who comes to nearly all the Bulls’ 70 home games. “Baseball is fun--to play or to watch.”
Outfield fences are plastered with dozens of ads. Near the right-field foul pole is a wooden bull whose eyes light up and whose nose exhales smoke when a Bulls player hits a home run. The bull was a gift from the movie company.
“Bull Durham” was written and directed by Ron Shelton, a former minor league player in the Baltimore Orioles organization, and produced by Thom Mount, a former resident of Durham.
The episode in the movie where the slumping Bulls flood a ballfield with sprinklers to cause a “rainout” mirrored a long-time prank that has been pulled in several minor-league towns, from Knoxville, Tenn., to Wausaw, Wis.
Greene was one of three real Bull players who had bit parts in the movie. He portrayed a cocky pitcher who strikes out a brash-talking Crash.
“That’s not the real me,” Greene says. “In a game, I don’t react to anything the batter says.”
Greene is spending this season recovering from arm surgery and basking in some glory from the movie.
“Doing the movie was fun,” he says. “But I’d rather be in the big leagues than in Hollywood.”
Little, the Bulls manager, served as a technical adviser in the film and says, just like the manager in the movie:"The toughest thing about being a manager is releasing a player.” Then he smiled and said:"The best thing is telling a boy he’s going to the big leagues.”
In the past eight years, about 20 Bulls have made it to the majors, the most prominent being Brett Butler of the San Francisco Giants and Ron Gant of the Atlanta Braves.
Bulls pitcher Kent Mercker, 20, of Dublin, Ohio, is Durham’s top prospect. He signed a six-figure bonus as a No. 1 draft choice in 1986 and now draws a relatively hefty salary.
Consequently, while other Bulls work at odd jobs during the off-season, Mercker spends the winter relaxing.
“I worked out, though, you know, to stay in shape,” he says.
His teammates initially were cool to him. But Mercker won them over with his dugout cheers and tough work ethic.
“I don’t feel I’ve got it made,” he says a day before taking his fourth loss against nine wins. “I know I’ve got to work hard to make it.”
Says Bell:"Kent Mercker has a Nuke arm and a Crash Davis head. He’s rooting for us to make it and we’re rooting for him to make it.”
The movie’s “Crash Davis” is a fictitious character, but there is real Crash as well:Lawrence (Crash)Davis, 68, who played second base with the Bulls in the 1940s after a short stint in the majors. He now lives in Greensboro.
Shelton found the name while flipping through old Carolina League record books.
“It’s a great name,” he says. “I didn’t even realize that he (the real Crash)was alive. Last fall, while we were filming, Mr. Davis, he’s a real gentleman, showed up. I went over to him and said, ‘Mr. Davis, we might have a problem if you don’t want us to use your name.”’
“He said, ‘I have just one question. In the end, do I get the girl?’ ”
“I said, “You sure do.’ ”
“He said, ‘Well then, fine.’ ”