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It's our game 

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In 1996, one sweltering evening at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park, the home team's pitcher was stinking it up.

"You don't have an arm! You don't have an arm!" an agitated fan bellowed from a few rows behind us.

Scanning the crowd intently, my then-4-year-old stepson failed to spot any amputees. He turned to his father and me and said, "Who? Who's missing their arm?"

Minor league baseball: Training in the sport for big-league players; training in metaphors for the Little League-sized fans.

I was a child of the MLB-free D.C. suburbs (pre-Nationals) who'd never been to North Carolina except the beach, so both baseball and Durham were mostly a mystery to me when the movie Bull Durham hit theaters 20 years ago. For a few years, the cinematic versions of both defined my ideas of the sport and the city.

Maybe you hated the movie. (You're not alone: See G.D. Gearino's rant in this week's cover package, "Bull Durham turns 20.")

But me, well, let's just say I had the Crash Davis "I believe . . ." poster plastered on my dorm-room wall, where Kevin Costner could gaze out over my bed wearing that sexy bomber jacket and even sexier half-smile.

"I believe in the 'sweet spot,' voting every election, soft core pornography, chocolate chip cookies, opening your presents on Christmas morning rather than Christmas Eve, and I believe in long, slow, deep, soft, wet kisses that last for seven days."

Oh, my.

I learned to love the real-life version of minor league baseball in my post-college years working at a daily newspaper in the scratchy little blue-collar town of Hagerstown, Md. It was the home of the Hagerstown Suns, then a farm team for the Baltimore Orioles. Since the Suns were pretty much the only local pastime that didn't involve Harleys or killing small furry animals with guns, my friends from work and I made it a regular hangout. We'd shell peanuts and swig beers with the unhurried enthusiasm of young single people with not much else to do after deadline.

One night, a left-handed batter slugged a foul ball right at our seats. One of my buddies stood over me, hands cupped in the air, shouting, "I got it, I got it!" so confidently that I didn't even bother to watch the ball screaming toward my lap.

For a long time afterward, I looked like I'd been kicked by a very large, powerful horse.

Minor league baseball: Training young journalists in the mantra "Trust, but check."

My first real-life taste of Durham came when I moved to the Triangle in May 1994, just in time to catch the Bulls' last season at the old Durham Athletic Park. My Crash Davis poster was long gone by then, but it was still pretty cool to sit in the stands picturing Tim Robbins on the mound, pitching in the role of Nuke LaLoosh.

Now, that guy, he had an arm.

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