OLE, BULLS : Durham Loves Team, Its Intimate Ballpark

Times Staff Writer

The real star of "Bull Durham," this summer's hit movie about a hapless minor league baseball club, is not Kevin Costner or Susan Sarandon. It's a 50-year-old, 5,000-seat, downtown ballpark--with green grass and no dome--that almost died of decrepitude and neglect.

And although critics have dubbed the movie a "sex comedy," the real story here is a romance between a team and a town.

"This is a special town," says the Bulls' owner, Miles Wolff, with a special stadium.

"It's very personal," said Wolff, one of the chief beneficiaries, looking over the field on a recent afternoon. "You can touch the players. . . . It's one of the great minor league ballparks."

Thom Mount, the producer, providing an intimate, "emotional form" in which to tell the story, said, "There's no doubt that the ballpark is one of the leads of the movie."

Wolff acknowledges that he is a lucky man, selling out the municipally owned Durham Athletic Park, with its towers and turrets, nearly every home game since the Orion release opened in mid-June. But the 43-year-old novelist points out that his luck began well before "Bull Durham" put his ballpark on the national map, when Durham--home of Duke University and known primarily for its devotion to Atlantic Coast Conference basketball--was the only franchise he could find on the market.

A decade ago, Wolff paid $2,500 to revive the historic franchise that began in 1902 and over the years produced such stars as Johnny Vander Meer, Rusty Staub, Joe Morgan, Doug Rader and Greg Luzinski. At the time, however, the stadium was a down-at-the-heels facility in the middle of a slum, with a team that in its final years couldn't draw flies, even when it seemed to change its name and major league affiliation every other season.

The first season the club got 12 straight victories and sent 10 players from the Carolina League to "the Show" with the Atlanta Braves. Only two home games were rained out, which was fortunate, he said, because he didn't have enough tarp to cover the field.

Wolff also came up with a colorful, foul-mouthed, tobacco-spitting manager named Alan (Dirty Al) Gallagher, who helped capture the city's imagination.

In baseball, as in life, timing can be crucial.

"Durham was looking for something," Wolff said. "It needed an identity. A lot of people who lived here really liked Durham and they were looking for something to latch onto, someplace where everyone could get together."

There was also beer. The year before the Bulls returned, the state legislature finally approved the sale of alcoholic beverages by the drink, and a local weekly newspaper dubbed the field "the best bar in town."

Wolff spent the previous 10 years learning how to run minor league clubs around the South before he came to Durham, and he put that promotional expertise to work. His novel "Season of the Owl," is set in the context of a minor league season in Greensboro, N.C.

With the help of Mount, 40, a minority stock holder and Durham native who was then riding high in the Hollywood film community, Wolff had new uniforms and a new logo--a bull bursting through a muscular "D"--designed by entertainment industry professionals. Along with an extremely favorable rental agreement, the city council kicked in $25,000 to make desperately needed repairs at the ballpark.

Whatever the combination of luck, timing and good management, Durham and the Bulls clicked.

College students and yuppies mingled easily in the stands with factory workers, who no longer had to sit in racially segregated bleachers, although many blacks still favored the old first-base line seats from the pre-civil rights era. Because of Durham's summer climate--sometimes it seems the same as the jungles of the Yucatan Peninsula--all but a few early games were played at dusk, and increasingly, adults brought their children.

The phenomenon, according to Tom Campbell, a member of city council, "is a reflection of the kind of community that Durham is--very divergent groups of people who all have a strong sense of belonging to a community, from Duke professors to assembly line workers."

"Bull Durham"--the title refers to a famous local brand of smoking tobacco--is about a slightly ditsy woman (played by Sarandon) who teaches English part-time at a local community college, but whose real passion is baseball. Each season she chooses a promising member of the Durham Bulls to make love with and coach in baseball's subtleties.

This particular season, the woman has to choose between an undisciplined young talent with "a million-dollar arm and a five-cent brain" (Tim Robbins) and a wise but nearly-over-the-hill catcher (Costner), who is also called on to tutor the bonus boy, including a hilarious sequence on the parceling of cliches to sports writers. The Bulls are a collection of fun-loving rowdies who can't manage to win very often.

"When somebody leaves Durham," Sarandon tells Robbins near the movie's conclusion, as he is about to go to major leagues, "they never come back."

In the case of Mount, the movie's

co-producer and guiding light, the line is especially ironic. Mount was a childhood Bulls fan and graduate of Durham High, a long peg from the park, who even returned several years ago to be married in Duke Chapel.

Similarly ironic is the offer to the character played by Costner to manage a minor league club in Visalia, Calif., where in real life the actor played high school baseball.

Mount, who later received a master's degree from Cal Arts in Valencia, knew Durham, and he knew baseball, having overseen "The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings," a movie about black ball players in the 1940s, while a rising star and "baby mogul" at Universal Studios in 1976.

Three years later, Ron Shelton brought him a script called "The Player to Be Named Later," about life in the minor leagues and based in part on Shelton's own experiences in the Baltimore Orioles' minor-league system. Mount, then head of production at Universal, liked the concept and the pair met every six months or so discuss it, but before the movie could be made, Mount lost his job at Universal and became an independent producer.

Ultimately, as the script was evolving, Mount suggested that Shelton, 45, spend some time with the Bulls in Durham and on the road in the Carolina League. After three months with the club, Shelton, who was also to direct, called to say that he liked the the red brick, 1930s, industrial look of Durham and that he loved Durham Athletic Park.

Shot in the off-season of 1987 at a cost of $9 million, plus another $15 million in marketing and promotion, "Bull Durham" earned extremely favorable reviews and has grossed about $25 million so far, Mount said in an interview.

A month after "Bull Durham" had its "world premiere" at the Carolina Theater, three blocks from the stadium, the movie is doing steady but not spectacular business in Durham, with audiences laughing at local references. It is also still Topic A in conversation--everything from the image it projected of Durham to behind the scenes gossip about the eight weeks of location shooting.

"The city got a great deal of visibility as a result of the movie," Mayor Wib Gulley said. "It not only put Durham on the map for folks around the country, it was an even bigger boost for the people who live here. It says we're a big-time community with a major-league motion picture."

"It's been phenomenal, the impact of that film on this town," said John Valentine, co-owner of the Regulator Book Shop, where Sarandon bought $70 worth of books. The company hired thousands of extras and bought everything from food to therapeutic massage at group rates.

Though Valentine said he enjoyed the film, he added that "a lot of people weren't pleased with the movie."

A letter to the editor of the Durham Morning Herald criticized the mayor's support for the film and echoed criticism of the R-rated film's rough language and steamy love scenes.

"I hope the Durham city fathers (and mothers) will think twice next time before allowing such trash to be filmed in this wonderful Southern city," wrote Joan Long. "Let's just hope that people in other places in the United States won't recognize it as Durham, North Carolina. I cannot think of one scene in the whole movie that anyone in Durham could be proud of."

Said Anne Bushyhead: "It really showed the back side of Durham."

In fact, there was a symbolic dispute--quickly settled--over the way the film was to be marketed. Early advertising featured the subtitle, "A major league romance in a minor league town." After protests to Mount from Gulley and others, the line was changed to "A romantic comedy about America's other favorite pastime."

There were a number of minor miscues locals were quick to point out in reviews and conversation. Durham's oppressive summer heat and humidity make it as unlikely that a character such as Robbins' would hesitate to take off his sox before bed as it would be for the Sarandon character to wear stockings.

Then there is the matter of Sarandon's Southern accent, which had a tendency to come and go. A dead giveaway was the way the actress, who did not use a dialogue coach, pronounced "Durham." There are two acceptable pronunciations: "DERM," for working-class residents; DUH-rum, for the middle class. Sarandon's "DOOR-um" was a genuine clinker.

Those who liked "Bull Durham" felt that it was dead-on in all other respects--except for the time frame.

"It's a lot of fun but it's really a movie set in the '50s," said longtime Bulls fan Bob Mirandon.

The sensibility--much of the music, Sarandon's wardrobe, the dope smoking, the radio announcer recreating the action of road games--do seem taken from an earlier era. If not the '50s, at least the '60s or early '70s, reflecting Shelton's experiences 15 years ago.

"I think they did a good job on the baseball," said local sportswriter Barry Jacobs, "but it certainly wasn't the Durham of today."

As quirky as the film "Bull Durham" is, real life at "the Greatest Show on Dirt" on game days has an ambiance all its own. Until about 6 p.m., the park is open and the gates unguarded. A sign on the souvenir stand across the street from the park advises people to walk into the stadium for help if the door is locked during the day. Call the club during business hours and the general manager is likely to answer the phone.

Players and coaches at a recent afternoon batting practice were quite willing to let Mayor Gulley, who was to read a proclamation at the game that night, take a few cuts in the cage. One coach asked the mayor, a serious intramural athlete while a student at Duke, if he could handle "heat" of the nonpolitical variety. He said he couldn't, but got in a few decent licks anyway.

By the time the gates formally opened, there were children everywhere, in the stands and underfoot, including the ticket windows. There is a promotion every home game, and in this case, it was "Recycling Night," sponsored by the Sierra Club, with free, $3 general admission with every donation of 50 cans.

First-time visitors are warned against parking just outside the entrance, where the thunk of foul balls landing on sheet metal are a common sound. There are enough grassy areas for picnics and room for increasingly common SRO crowds. Wolff, the owner, has even replaced the corrugated metal fence with chain link, enabling anyone who wants to to watch from the street.

Although there is only one cigarette factory left functioning in Durham, the summer air was still heavy with the aroma of leaf drying in nearby warehouses. In the outfield during pre-game batting practice, a player for the Prince William Yankees shouted to a teammate, "Smell that tobacco? Smells like mine when it sits on the dash for three days."

Added Valentine, the bookstore owner: "There's something about being at a Bulls' game. The moon rising over the right-field fence. It's magical. Your friends are all around you."

Allen Mason, an assistant district attorney, claims to be the last person in Durham who hasn't seen "Bull Durham," even though he worked as an extra during the filming. He calls the ballpark his "second home," to which his wife and two small children agreed.

"It's a super family thing to do," he said.

"What the Bulls sell, obviously, is not guaranteed winning baseball," Gulley said. "They sell an experience that is inseparable from this old park. When you yell at the umpire, he can hear you."

Of course, not everyone was caught up in the experience. Elsewhere in the stands, a woman read a paperback, "Presumed Innocent," during a lull in the action.

The wooden bleachers have been replaced by aluminum and the rest rooms, though relatively clean, are no match for the antiseptic facilities at Anaheim Stadium.

On the previous night, lightning knocked out the scoreboard, but the plywood bull constructed for "Bull Durham" and left by the production company as a gift was still functioning under the sure hand of Bob Burtman.

Burtman, 32, who said he "grew up in Fenway Park" before coming to Durham to attend Duke, operates the decidedly low-tech animal, which uses a hand-operated pulley to flick its tail, a battery to light its eyes and propane to snort on command.

In the movie, the sign was in fair territory and offered a free steak dinner to anyone who hit it. According to "Morris' Dictionary of Word and Prose Origin," in the early days of baseball, relief pitchers warmed up under similar "Bull Durham" tobacco signs on the left-field fence, and the area ultimately became known as the "bullpen."

Now moved into foul territory, the movie bull in Durham smokes whenever an important run is scored. To smoke or not to smoke is Burtman's decision.

"I have total artistic freedom," said Burtman, who writes, hosts a public radio show of eclectic music and organizes music festivals when not using a pulley to wag the bull's tail. For his efforts, he said, he receives a small wage and "all the liquid refreshment I can consume."

The Bulls won, 10-4, with left-hander Kent Merker getting the victory and a ticket to the Braves' double-A club in Greenville, N.C. With a knack for come from behind victories, they kept a strong hold on first place, sending six players to the Carolina League's All-Star game next Saturday.

Wolff admits to mixed feelings about the way "Bull Durham" has affected attendance--sometimes shutting out regular fans--which is projected to top 250,000 for the record-breaking season.

"The crowds are almost too much," he said. "This thing has gone almost too far."

The estimated value of the franchise is now $1 million, with annual operating costs of $250,000-$300,000, according to Wolff. The club pays rent of $30,000-$35,000, plus a percentage of the concessions. Mail orders for Bulls souvenirs, advertised in Wolff's magazine, "Baseball America," can't be filled fast enough.

Today, Durham is a bona fide boom town, and the old ballpark is surrounded by new construction and renovation, including a hotel and convention center, an arts center and multiplex theater and an office tower. But the downtown area's success may prove to be as much of a threat as its earlier failure, because parking and access to the park are bound to become more difficult.

In order to keep the capital city of Raleigh, 12 miles away, from encroaching on his market, and to upgrade the franchise to triple-A, Wolff is asking the city to help build a larger, $8-million, 10,000-seat stadium, and he has the backing of Mayor Gulley and Councilman Campbell.

"The park just isn't big enough any more," Wolff said. Plans for the new stadium, which he says is still "a long shot," call for a red-brick facade and six towers like the one used as a ticket booth and refreshment stand at Durham Athletic Park.

He has told the architects to try to recreate the intimacy and atmosphere of the old stadium and "keep the fans very close to the action," but he admitted that "we may not be able to duplicate it." Even if the new stadium is built, Wolff said, he'd like to bring the Bulls back to the old park--which would be used for recreational purposes--several times during the season, if the league allows it.

"I'd love to play some games there," he said.

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