The Bulls are the core of Durham's spiritual identity, its heart and soul, its historical axis, its character. During a lull in the ballpark on a summer night, you'll hear a fan shout "Lollygaggers!" in fond echo of the movie Bull Durham, which celebrates its 25th birthday this year and made Durham almost-famous. You can buy North Carolina beers at the ballpark. After the game, you can wear your local pride on your sleeve in the form of a shirt bearing the iconic logo: the Bull charging right through the big D, off the fabric and into town.
So it's easy to forget that the most important presences at the ballpark ain't from around here, mostly. The ballplayers themselves are a motley and changing crew of disparate imports from all over the world, here only because they're employees of the Bulls' parent club, the Tampa Bay Rays. The players live in an anonymous complex of furnished, month-to-month apartments, so they can dash out of town if they're called up, sent down, traded or released—an almost daily roster occurrence. Even longtime manager Charlie Montoyo lives there, decamping for his home in Arizona as soon as the season ends.
The 2013 season is exciting, then, because it stands apart from the others—or rather, it stands closer to home. The Bulls' two most heralded prospects, pitcher Chris Archer and outfielder Wil Myers, are both local boys. Archer is from Raleigh, a 2006 graduate of Clayton High School; Myers hails from Thomasville, near High Point.
Since Archer's ascension to Triple-A Durham in 2011, he has been working to refine undeniably major-league material: a fastball that reaches 98 mph and a slider regarded as one of the best in baseball. He needs only improved control (walks have been an issue) and an extended big-league opportunity, which he is almost sure to get this year after showing well in a handful of major-league appearances in 2012. Archer is just about fully ripe fruit, and teams are always hungry for pitching. This local produce won't last long in Durham.
Myers' arrival has already had smart-bomb impact. One of the top prospects in all of baseball, he was the key acquisition in a big December trade that sent Rays starting pitcher James Shields, reliever Wade Davis and infielder Elliot Johnson—all former Bulls—to Kansas City. It took only days after the trade for the Bulls to launch a "Wil He, Won't He?" marketing campaign, offering a multi-game package that guaranteed free bonus tickets if Myers skipped Durham and made the Rays' opening day roster.
Instead, he's a Bull, and the most exciting power bat to swing into Durham since Evan Longoria five years ago. It's as if a long-awaited No. 1 draft pick has reached Triple-A, but with the added frissons of Myers' Tar Heel pedigree and the fresh air he brings with the trade winds, re-inflating the sagging upper levels of the Rays' farm system. (Although the Rays have long been admired for their superior player development, they are surprisingly the only franchise in baseball to have had none of its first-round draft picks reach the major leagues in the last five years.)
It's not just Myers arriving from the Royals. He is accompanied to Durham by a pair of intriguing pitching prospects, Mike Montgomery and Jake Odorizzi (the latter coolly shut out Gwinnett for 6 2/3 innings in his Bulls debut in Monday's home opener). They will join Archer in a promising Durham starting rotation, along with two returning Alexes: Colome and Torres. Like Archer, Colome and Torres have terrific raw stuff but are still seeking the strike zone consistently (and Colome dealt with injuries last year). Torres' 2012 was a disaster, as he wound up down in rookie ball trying to get his head and mechanics straight after flaming out in Durham.
The Bulls had the league's third-worst pitching last season, a major reason why their five-year run of playoff appearances ended with a 66-78, third-place whimper.. With better pitching, they should—along with a solid, Myers-led lineup—be in contention again. In a recent Tampa Tribune article headlined, "Rays feel better about depth than they did in 2012," the Rays acknowledged they did a poor job of stocking Durham with worthy talent. Five of 2012's minor-league free agents underperformed as Bulls and were released before season's end.
"[L]ast year, when we needed depth, we really didn't have it," Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon told the Tribune. "We had to go outside the organization midseason to find guys that we felt good about. We believe this year if anything were to happen, we have the guys in tow." For "tow," read "Durham."
Maddon's assertion was strongly reinforced by reliever Brandon Gomes, who will start the year in Durham but should see substantial time with Tampa Bay (indeed, he has already been called up). His estimation of the 2013 Bulls compares them to, well, Ray-guns: "We're going to be loaded."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Local produce, while it lasts."