It's hard to root for the Durham Bulls. Not because they're bad: On the contrary, the team has made the playoffs for five straight seasons. It's because a minor-league roster changes almost daily. Players are called up, sent down, traded, released. The team you knew last year, or even last month, barely resembles the one playing today. The Bulls are in a state of permanent renovation.
Durham Bulls Athletic Park, on the other hand, isn't. Although it's a fairly new addition to the downtown architecture, the DBAP is actually one of the oldest parks in the International League.
The field itself is one of minor league baseball's best kept, the green reseeded, refreshed and maintained with the same frequency as the roster. But the ballpark was due for a renewal of its own, and so the Bulls were busy in the offseason.
Start with the most prominent thing in the DBAP. The 30-foot-high left field wall known as the Blue Monster has been completely rebuilt, its rise newly bright and vivid. The grandstand, too, has been treated to a fresh coat of green paint. There is an upgraded party section down the right-field line with comfortable swivel-chairs that allow you to focus on the game to your left or the funnel cake on your table, as the moment requires. The whole place feels more alive, as spruce and spry as ever.
The entertainment portion of the DBAP experience will also change this year. Scott Carter, the Bulls' new director of marketing—one of a few notable newcomers to the front office—came from the Fresno Grizzlies, a franchise in the Triple-A Pacific Coast League. He is swapping out some of the between-inning intermezzi and reshuffling the order of the holdovers. Carter is intriguingly tight-lipped about the novelties he has in store except to promise "more Wool E. Bull," the team's beloved mascot. (Anxious fans can take comfort that popular favorites such as fat-suit fan "sumo" and the kids' base race aren't going anywhere, however, and neither is emcee Jatovi McDuffie.)
The DBAP's upgrades impress the eye, but something fans will never see is even more impressive. At the end of last season, the Bulls began work on a thorough overhaul of the home clubhouse. They reclaimed a little storage space from Ballpark Corner Store, which the clubhouse abuts, and hired Durham-based Belk Architecture to rethink and redesign the players' most inhabited space.
The result provides an expanded player lounge and dining area; more room in the coaches' office, including extra lockers for roving instructors; a dedicated weight and fitness room (the exercise machines previously were crammed into a corner of the lounge); and, perhaps most importantly, a private office for the team trainer—at the request of the Tampa Bay Rays, the Bulls' parent club—so he can meet privately with players to discuss injuries and medical issues.
The clubhouse is now not only more commodious, it's also more useful. "We're becoming more efficient with the space we have," says Josh Nance, the Bulls' director of stadium operations. That is in the spirit of the low-budget but high-performing Rays, who have nearly mastered squeezing maximum results out of minimal assets. But it's also in the spirit of making the ballpark more attractive and comfortable for the players, who are the lifeblood of the DBAP. Even the lockers have been redone, including the addition of lockable drawers and discreet cubbies. The Bulls want the players as well as the fans to feel at home.
And who are those players in 2012? There are, as always, old faces and new. As has been the case for several years under Tampa Bay's auspices, the best prospects are once again starting pitchers. The two 24-year-old Alexes—Cobb and Torres—return for their second season. Cobb started 2011 in Durham, pitched superbly and was promoted to the majors. He pitched well there too, but he started experiencing physical discomfort and eventually had to have thoracic outlet surgery.
Now recovered, Cobb will anchor the Bulls' starting rotation along with Torres, a promising left-hander who needs to improve his control: Although Torres has led his league in strikeouts for two straight years, he also has allowed the most walks.
Raleigh-born Chris Archer, a product of Clayton High School, joins Cobb and Torres in the Bulls' rotation. Archer, like Torres, has control trouble to go with lots of strikeouts, but the power righty deals a mid-90s fastball and a slider rated the best in the Rays' organization last year. The 23-year-old will have to make good at home in order to earn his ticket out and reach the big-league stage.
One way to make a place homier is to stock it with locals. Joining Archer is Matt Mangini, 27, an Apex High graduate who played some college baseball at N.C. State. Mangini, a corner infielder, essentially replaces Russ Canzler, the 2011 International League MVP, who was traded, surprisingly, in the offseason. Like Canzler, Mangini is a big power hitter (6-foot-4, 230 pounds). He showed flashes of Canzlerian power while in the Seattle organization, which drafted in him in the first round in 2007, and is reported to have hit some booming home runs in spring training.
The top prospect among position players is shortstop Tim Beckham, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2008 draft. Initially considered a disappointment, Beckham may simply have been growing into his potential. Beckham earned a promotion from Double-A Montgomery to Durham late last season and hit well, with home run power. He also looked smooth and sure-handed in the field. Beckham is still only 22, and after a strong showing in the Arizona Fall League, he looks poised to make a run at the Rays' major-league shortstop job, which produced some of the worst hitting in baseball last season.
Longtime fans will notice some significant absences this year. Not only is Canzler gone, so are multi-year Bulls Dan Johnson and Ray Olmedo—they'll visit the DBAP next week with their new club, the Charlotte Knights—as well as five-year favorite Justin Ruggiano, who is now in the Houston organization. The bullpen, as always, will be full of new faces.
The more things change, the more they stay the same: No matter who puts on the uniform, the Bulls keep winning, winning, winning. That's largely because one guy in the clubhouse is a fixture: Manager Charlie Montoyo has led the Bulls to the playoffs all five years he's been in Durham. The Tampa Bay Rays have helped, keeping Durham stocked from one of baseball's deepest farm systems, but Montoyo's streak is truly remarkable—especially in the minor leagues, where change is usually swift and frequently radical.
Perhaps, then, it's appropriate that the lone part of the clubhouse virtually untouched by the renovation was Montoyo's office, which was in good shape. Why change what works so well?
This article appeared in print with the headline "Game changer."