To be a fan of a minor league baseball team to be a fan of change. The best thing that can happen to your team’s best players is that they leave, promoted to a higher level. Those who return year after year are those whose careers have stalled out, veteran insurance stashed away in case better players get hurt. Even team names and affiliations change with painful regularity, leaving fans only the experience of going to the same ballpark year after year – assuming the team doesn’t move – to serve as essential continuity.
Of course, some minor league franchises offer more for the fan to cling to than others. The Durham Bulls, buoyed by movie-born name recognition and a steady stream of on-field talent provided by parent club Tampa Bay, are about as good as it gets in this regard. No name changes, no affiliation changes in ages, and the team’s not going anywhere. A Bulls game is a summer ritual, one that’s endured even as the B.J. Uptons and David Prices and Wil Myers’s of the world have come and starred and gone. The Durham Bulls Athletic Park anchors one end of the city’s developing downtown, tying the team into the fabric of the community in more ways than one.
Which is one reason among many that Bull City Summer: A Season At the Ballpark and Beyond is such a remarkable work. A gorgeously crafted coffee table book, it’s a collaborative effort between a series of photographers and writers, many of them with ties to the Durham area. Together, they document a single Bulls season – 2013, the 25th anniversary of the film that made the franchise famous – from multiple angles. There are photographs of players, of fans, of behind the scenes at the ballpark and of the park itself. From Frank Hunter’s magnificent shot of boiling thunderheads looming over the ballpark to Leah Sobsey’s sepia-toned portraits of team staff and grounds crew to Hank Willis Thomas’ seemingly endless run of fan portraits, the imagery captures every aspect at a season at the ballpark. Intimate still lives of baseballs and bats tossed casually on a tarp are juxtaposed with crisp shots of ballpark fireworks; the image of a lemonade vendor’s hand thrust skyward with the last of his wares balances the portraits of Bulls outfielders standing alone amidst vast swaths of green. And yes, the temptation to go looking for one’s self in the dozens of crowd shots and fan casuals and portraits is irresistible if you were at the ballpark that year (as I was), but that urge quickly dissipates in the face of so many fascinating images to explore.
The writing is equally diverse in its subjects. The skeleton of the piece, such as it is, is done by Baseball Prospectus author Adam Sobsey, who chronicles the season’s progression from a baseball perspective – players called up, players sent down or traded away, games won and games lost and slowly the numbers in the win-loss columns creeping higher and higher. 2013 was a particularly interesting season, as the Bulls won their division and ultimately the Governor’s Cup, the championship of the AAA International League while undergoing an incredible amount of roster flux due to seeming innumerable injuries suffered by their parent club in Tampa Bay. Sobsey does an excellent job of putting the team’s seemingly unstoppable rush towards a title into context with all the human drama that went into it as players saw their dreams realized or crushed.
But the focus isn’t only on the games. Emma D. Miller paints an affectionate portrait of an elderly couple of die-hard fans. Michael Croley writes of conversations with aging, fading slugger Shelley Duncan as goes through the worst season of his career. Project coordinator Sam Stephenson highlights Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo, who until this season had never seen his spectacular minor league success rewarded with a major league coaching or managing gig. There’s more: more on the season, on the players, on the fans.
The 2013 season ended in disappointment, more or less. Stripped of most of their best players, ravaged by injuries, the Bulls lost the AAA Championship Game to the Omaha Storm Chasers of the Pacific Coast League. To fans of the team, as disappointing as the loss was, it didn’t really matter. As Bull City Summer, the real reward was in the journey, and the end of one season just meant it was time to start counting down to the next.
(Daylight Books, 2014)