On Wednesday, with the Durham Bulls first pitch less than 36 hours away, hard hats were more plentiful than batting helmets as the Durham Bulls Athletic Park’s renovations continued.
By tonight, when the Bulls season begins around 6:20 p.m., the vast majority of the $20 million in improvements and upgrades to the 19-year-old downtown stadium are scheduled to be completed.
At least, that’s what Bulls general manager Mike Birling hoped as he talked Wednesday with bright sunshine hitting his face and the picture-perfect new field behind him.
“It’s all going to be done by tomorrow,” Birling said. “There’s going to be some little things that won’t be done, but that front entrance will be done. I’m confident we’ll have 90 percent of our areas.”
The unusually nasty winter weather over the last few months created hurdles to getting the project done. That means crews have been working around the clock as tonight’s home opener approached. Last minute inspections are part of the process.
The renovations are the largest since the DBAP opened in 1995 and are designed to give people who attend games or any other event there a big-league feel.
The most noticeable thing is the expanded video board that dominates the 32-foot Blue Monster wall in left field. At 28 feet high and 62 feet wide, it is three times larger than the board the Bulls used last season.
The sound system has also been dramatically improved with speakers all over the ballpark. A total of 145 speakers have been installed.
“There’s nothing left of the old system,” Birling said. “There’s pretty much no place where we don’t have speakers.”
The Bulls players are excited about the new playing surface and improved lighting system. At the end of last season, some players complained about dark spots, including near home plate.
But the team took batting practice under the lights for the first time Tuesday night and the players reported a dramatic improvement.
“The lights were a big deal,” Birling said. “They are so focused and so high quality.”
Vince Belnome, who made the International League all-star team last summer while helping the Bulls win the league championship, raved about the new system.
“The lights were awesome,” Belnome said. “They are better than last year. They are double what they were last year with the brightness of it.”
Birling sought to use local companies when he could for the ballpark improvements. Cree provided 3.2 million of its LED bulbs for all the new video boards. But Cree’s technology isn’t yet applicable for baseball stadium lights, Birling said.
“Soccer and football, yes,” Birling said. “But not baseball yet.”
The DBAP’s playing surface and drainage system were completely removed and replaced over the winter. The drainage system will be able to handle seven inches of water an hour.
The playing surface, covered with Tifway 419 Bermuda Grass, sits atop gravel and sand sub-layers and is considered Major League quality.
“Yesterday walking on that,” Bulls centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier said, “it felt great. That’s a big deal for me. You’ve got to have a good surface that you can stay fast on.”
In the seating area, all the seats were removed in the offseason and replaced with seats featuring higher backs and longer seat planes.
Spectators will have a larger array of concession options with new stands featuring all-digital menu boards.
“We needed more concession stands,” Birling said. “We needed more diversity in our food items. We just kept hearing that over and over again. Too many lines. So we expanded concessions in the lower level.”
In the main concourse, Birling said, the Bulls clustered stadium staples like hot dogs, popcorn, beer and soda together. The goal is get to lines moving faster.
Specialty food items, like fish, BBQ or Mexican, are down the first and third base lines. Those landing areas feature 10,000 square feet of concession areas and allow fans to keep an eye on the game while making their food and beverage choices.
“When you walk around, you’ll see it so much more spacious,” Birling said.
The Bulls consider the crown jewel of their improvements the new PNC Triangle Club seating area directly behind home plate. Patrons will have a full glass view of the field and a private bar along with easy outdoor access into the stands.
The Triangle Club is more than 5,000 square feet of space which will allow its ticketholders the option of watching in air-conditioned comfort or sitting outside.
The Bulls plan on utilizing the space to increase the number of non-baseball activities in the ballpark.
“In the past we’ve done, maybe, 20 (a year),” Birling said. “I’m looking within a year that we are going to be pushing 150 or maybe 200 events.”
But, mostly, the DBAP will be about baseball, specifically Durham Bulls baseball.
The club and the city agreed to a new lease agreement last year that keeps the team in downtown Durham for at least 20 more years. The renovations were part of that agreement.
“It’s really nice,” Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo said. “It’s almost like coming to a new stadium, even though it’s my eighth year here.”