Durham Bulls

If you don’t like disc jockeys, dancing ‘eyeballs’ or Sumo wrestlers, Buies Creek is the baseball team for you

Several thousand school children from around the Triangle watched as members of the Durham Bulls promotion team perform the "Laser Eye Care Center Eyeball Race" on May 8, 2013 in Durham. Dancing eyeballs are not a feature of Buies Creek Astros games.
Several thousand school children from around the Triangle watched as members of the Durham Bulls promotion team perform the "Laser Eye Care Center Eyeball Race" on May 8, 2013 in Durham. Dancing eyeballs are not a feature of Buies Creek Astros games. cliddy@newsobserver.com

For the baseball purists among us, a minor-league baseball game in Buies Creek is a must-see, a throwback to an era when the selling of the game was restricted to the action on the field.

“This is the way baseball was in the 1960s,” says Omar Lopez, the Buies Creek manager who was not born that long ago but surely has heard tales of games played without disc jockeys in the stands, ear-splitting music on the public-address system, and Sumo wrestling contests between innings.

Lopez certainly knows games are staged much differently these days. He managed during the 2013 and 2014 seasons at Quad Cities of the Class A Midwest League. That ballpark in Davenport, Iowa, features a 105-foot Ferris wheel, a 30-foot tall rollercoaster and a 300-foot zip line for fans. The baseball game is a sideshow there.

Not so in Buies Creek. There are no promotional gimmick nights at Jim Perry Stadium on the campus of Campbell University. No Thirsty Thursdays. No Friday Fireworks. No Military Appreciation Mondays. Just baseball.

On top of that, the club is doing its all-out best to fight the high-level of noise pollution that has infiltrated just about every level of baseball. Batters are introduced in a manner that can only be described as low-key. Yes, walk-up music is allowed for the hometown Astros, but it hardly is an assault on one’s ears.

The home club also has managed to play four months of baseball without a round, fuzzy guy in a costume roaming the grounds as a mascot. Unless, according to one front office official, you count the large bearded fella who works on the grounds crew.

The beauty of this virtual theater setting is that the pleasant natural sounds of the game have returned. A fan is alerted to pending action by the crack of the bat that echoes off the bleachers behind home plate and across the expansive field. The popping of a fastball into the catcher’s mitt is clearly audible to all. For good measure, a late-inning disagreement during a recent game between the batter and home plate umpire played out for the curious ears of all 508 fans in the stands.

“I’ve gotten the impression a lot of people like it,” says Ricky Ray, as he puts on his cape to oversee all aspects of the Buies Creek organization – from tickets to concessions to merchandising – while also serving as Campbell’s associate athletic director for external affairs.

This all came about because the Houston Astros wanted to relocate their advanced Class A team from the California League to the Carolina League. Until a $33 million stadium is completed in downtown Fayetteville for the 2019 season, the Astros found a temporary home in Buies Creek.

At the initial meeting of front office officials from the Houston Astros and members of the Campbell athletic officials, Ray posed the most pertinent question up front.

“Are we running this as a full-blown operation?” Ray asked.

“No,” an Astros official responded, “it’s going to be baseball only.”

David Lane, the Houston-assigned general manager of the Buies Creek franchise, has said previously that the Astros are only concerned about developing their players in the best possible facility.

To make it easier on Campbell officials, the Astros installed an $800,000 artificial playing surface so a grounds crew is needed only for the pitcher’s mound. The Astros also renovated a building beyond the left field wall into a visitor’s clubhouse, and expanded both teams’ dugouts.

There is no budget for promotions, fireworks or any of the other extras so commonly associated with minor-league ball. Tickets are $7 for a reserved chairback seat and $5 for general admission in the bleachers. Concession items feature throwback prices with $3 for a hot dog, $2 for a soft drink and $2 for a pretzel.

T-shirts, which sell for $20, have been purchased online in some 20 states. Other souvenir items include hats, pennants and a shot glass with a Buies Creek logo. Ray refers to the latter as a “toothpick holder” since alcohol is not allowed on the Campbell campus and not sold at games.

Campbell students are admitted free, but their presence at early season games before school let out for the summer hardly affected attendance. Through 44 home dates, the Astros are dead last in attendance in the minor leagues with an average of 522 fans per game. The next lowest attendance figure in the Carolina League is the Lynchburg (Va.) Hillcats at nearly 2,000 a game and the league-leading Frederick (Va.) Keys are drawing nearly 5,000 per game.

Buddy Bailey, the manager of the visiting Myrtle Beach Pelicans, said the ballpark is reminiscent of the 1989 movie “Field of Dreams” which featured a baseball diamond in the middle of a cornfield.

“You’re going down the main road and thinking where am I at?” Bailey says of Buies Creek, “and then you come back through the woods and here’s a baseball field.”

Stan Cole is Campbell’s associate athletics director for communications and occasionally handles the Buies Creek public address announcing. He has called Buies Creek home for two years short of three decades.

“In the summertime, when the only thing you hear are crickets and bullfrogs, it’s a nice gathering place,” Cole says.

And a great place for a purist to watch baseball.