BULLISH ON THE BULLS
About 700 Durham Bulls fans turned out in 45-degree weather Saturday for a chance to walk around their team’s home ballpark, play catch in the outfield and even take a few swings in the batter’s box.
The turnout for Saturday’s Bulls Fan Fest built on the 250 or so who showed up on Friday for the event’s first day, Bulls General Manage Mike Birling said.
“Bulls fans are the best,” he said. “A little cold isn’t going to stop them.”
The definite highlight of the day for those in attendance was the chance to go down on the field. The stadium grounds crew cordoned off the infield, partly for safety reasons, but the outfield was open to all. It filled with parents and their children, some eager to toss a ball, others just to look around.
Longtime Bulls fan Rob Kissell made the trek to Durham on Saturday from north Raleigh, with three children in tow. He tried to teach them the fine art of fielding the bounce off the Blue Monster, a skill they don’t have much chance to practice on the smaller fields of youth baseball.
Kissell, a Cisco executive, said he and his family try to make it to about 10 Bulls games a year. They’ve been making the trek to the Durham Bulls Athletic Park for 15 years.
“When you know how classy this organization is and the run they’ve had, why go anywhere else?” he said, when asked if they’d considering switching allegiances to another Triangle minor-league team. “This has been home for us.”
Like many of the fans in attendance, Kissell tried his hand in the batting cage.
For adults and teens, Bulls staffers had set up a pitching machine that was serving up knee-high fastballs in the 55-to-60 mph range.
Most who stepped in to the batters box discovered, or rediscovered, that hitting a baseball truly is one of the hardest things to do in sports.
There were many dribblers; few batted balls found the outfield grass on the fly. In an hour and a half, only a couple of men were able to truly drive the ball. Kissell deposited a looper in the outfield on his last swing.
“Lucky,” he said, assessing the stroke. “Purely done to avoid embarrassment in front of the little guys. We all get to relive our youth in this way.”
For children, a Bulls staffer would take ball in hand, step close to the plate and pitch it to them underhanded. Skill levels again varied: Some kids were likely taking their first-ever swings; others looked like future prospects.
Fan Fest is also about fueling Bulls ticket sales, especially the 10-game “mini plan” packages that anchor the team’s pre-season sales. Birling said that, from the early returns, the organization is on track to record its customary half-million or so in season attendance.
He also voiced optimism about the team’s chances on the field.
The 2013 Bulls will likely have the services of high-profile prospect Wil Myers, who was traded over the winter from the Kansas City Royals to the Bulls’ parent club, the Tampa Bay Rays.
The Rays habitually call up their blue-chip prospects a few weeks into the season, but Birling said the Bulls will “probably have [Myers] to end of May or early June.” Birling’s also hoping to have the services of pitching prospect Chris Archer and veteran slugger Jack Cust, if they don’t make the big club.
“We usually win when we have that mix of veterans and prospects,” Birling said.
On the business front, Birling said the Bulls and Durham officials “hopefully in the next month or two” should come to an agreement on a lease extension for the Bulls at the DBAP.
The current lease runs through 2019. Officials on both sides confirmed last summer that they’d begun talks on an extension.
City Manager Tom Bonfield at the time said he was hoping to present a deal to the City Council by the end of 2012. That’s obviously come and gone, but Birling said the talks are “going good.”
“There are so many little dynamics that are part of this, we want to make sure from our standpoint and from their standpoint [the actual contract] makes sense for both of us,” he said. “We both have the same goal, for the Bulls to here a long, long time.”
He praised the city’s maintenance of the stadium and said the Bulls, though interested in better accommodations for groups, are happy with the amount of seating it has.
The stadium’s present capacity “is perfect for us,” Birling said, adding that fans love sightlines at the DBAP where “if you’re in the top row you still feel like you’re right on top of the game.”