A major-league overhaul

Apr. 02, 2014 @ 06:16 PM

The Durham Bulls Athletic Park, home to our beloved baseball team known worldwide from a certain motion picture, has long been considered one of the best minor-league parks in the country.

Thursday, as the 2014 season gets underway with the first pitch at 6:05 p.m., fans will see that it is better than ever.

It probably will be impossible not to note that the $20 million makeover that has been underway since last fall is still a little rough around the edges. The unusually persistent winter that we just endured slowed stadium work and has meant practically round-the-clock efforts to be ready for tonight’s game.

But most work is complete. Fans – and players – should revel in the results Thursday night.

For players, a completely overhauled and rebuilt drainage system and playing surface have raised the field to major league quality. “Yesterday walking on that, it felt great” Bulls centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier told The Herald-Sun’s Steve Wiseman Wednesday. “That’s a big deal for me. You’ve got to have a good surface that you can stay fast on.”

Also upgraded is the lighting, something players found fault with last year. After their first batting practice under the lights Tuesday night, first baseman and International League All-Star Vince Belnome termed the new ones “awesome.”

For the fans, there will be new, more comfortable seats. More concession stands and more spacious concourses will make food and beverage runs quicker and more comfortable – with more views of the action on the field.

Perhaps the change most noticeable from anywhere in the stands is the new video board dominating the “Blue Monster” left-field wall. It is three times larger than the board it replaced.

The renovations, the most extensive since the park opened in 1995, were part of a new lease agreement with the city that will keep the Bulls in downtown Durham for at least another two decades.

Charlie Montoya, the Bulls’ veteran manager, told Wiseman that even though this is his eighth year here, ““It’s almost like coming to a new stadium.”

For all its exciting actual impact, the park overhaul is in some ways richly symbolic.

The construction of the park in the 1990s, after bruising fights to keep the Bulls in Durham and to finance the replacement of the iconic but timeworn Durham Athletic Park, was a major spark to a downtown renaissance that to many still looked like an impossible dream.

The park’s makeover, taking it to an even higher level, comes as that renaissance is an undisputed reality, and gaining momentum almost by the month. Rehabbing of historic buildings and construction of new ones are constantly underway. Businesses clamor for downtown space and developers are scrambling to meet burgeoning demand to live in the central city.

Regardless of how powerfully the Bulls swing their bats against the Gwinnett Braves tonight, the park itself is clearly a home run.