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Turbulence in the cockpit otherwise known as a baseball press box 

Pitch and roll

Click for larger image • The dugout of the Durham Bulls

Photo by D.L. Anderson

Click for larger image • The dugout of the Durham Bulls

It's just before 11 p.m. on Friday, May 15 and it's bedlam at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park, or DBAP. Chris Richard is circling the bases after hitting a game-winning, 11th-inning grand slam, and the crowd is going nuts—not least because it was Richard's second grand slam of the game.

Minor mayhem also breaks out in the press box. Journalists leap up in both astonishment and deadline anxiety. The official scorer, Brent Belvin, who has been to every single Bulls home game since DBAP opened in 1995, does a quick scan of his memory and announces that no player has ever hit two grand slams in a game here. (It turns out that no player in the league has done it since 1957.)

One of the press box statisticians, Dave Levine, can't believe what's just happened, partially because the reporter sitting to his right turned to him just before Richard's at-bat and prophesied, "And Chris Richard hits his second grand slam of the game to give the Bulls a 13-9 win." Levine, whose job title is Total Cast Operator, is also proofing his digital pitch-by-pitch record of the game and preparing to print copies of the box score—the essential record, the baseball version of the black box on a commercial flight.

Ken Tanner, the Bulls' TV broadcaster, is making haste down to the field in order to do his nightly player-of-the-game interview with Richard. He's followed to the elevator by a reporter on his way to the clubhouse down in the bowels of the DBAP, where he wants to talk to Richard, too.

The Bulls' PA announcer, Tony Riggsbee, is awaiting instructions for what to announce next from the Bulls' publicist, Matt DeMargel. DeMargel is standing poised, alert—even prepared for disaster, it seems—as he surveys the frenzy. He reaches for his walkie-talkie.

"Let's not lose focus here, guys."

DeMargel is like the pilot of a jet that has been tossed around in the air, re-routed, delayed in flight and finally cleared for landing on an airstrip far from the intended destination. The landing gear is down, but the on-field weather, the passengers and the cockpit are still roiling. Richard's second grand slam of the game was a tornado that both hastened touchdown and fouled the landing path.

But our destination tonight was never the game to begin with. It was what would come after.

The press box hasn't been so busy since April 11, when phenom pitcher David Price made his season debut at the DBAP. The space was crammed with sports paparazzi, and the phone kept ringing: The national media wanted to speak with Price as soon as he finished his outing. The video board operators made mistakes. Levine was just two days on the job. The buckets for the between-inning toss-game were out of alignment. ("Straighten out the buckets!" DeMargel barked into his walkie-talkie.) The stands were overloaded with 10,000 fans. The evening at the DBAP seemed like it might pitch and roll.

But up in the press box during Price's outing, there was efficient, industrious calm. Everyone did his job: Data got entered, the scoreboard was kept current, video goofs were quickly corrected, media reports were filed, and phones were answered and interview requests were granted. Buckets were straightened. The overcrowded, closely scrutinized, celebrity-hijacked flight landed safely, even though hundreds of signature-seekers clogged the area near the Bulls' dugout on Autograph Night and Price, who would depart Durham for the big leagues six weeks later, on May 25, had to be ushered away in order to take a call from the esteemed ESPN baseball analyst Buster Olney.

The press box is a kind of cockpit, and all in it are playing some role in keeping the DBAP airship aloft and on course. From data managers like Belvin and Levine recording and processing radar activity to reporters who constantly update and alter their game stories to Riggsbee making informative announcements to video and sound guys endlessly adjusting ambient details, everyone's operating a crucial control under DeMargel's stewardship.

The fans, of course, are the passengers, and much is done to keep them suspended in an artificial state somewhere between opiation and enthrallment, largely by encouraging them to focus on anything but the ballgame itself. Just as travelers are distracted from the anxieties and boredom of flying by food, video, in-flight shopping, magazines and other blandishments, fans at the DBAP are bombarded with fatty, starchy foods (sometimes literally hurled at them, along with T-shirts) and cartoonishly gigantic containers of beer; by between-inning apache races and Big Brother-ish telescreen hypnoses; by the mascot Wool E. Bull and his bubbly flight attendants; by shiny things and loud, happy noises. This onslaught helps conceal the alternating sequences of crises and longueurs peculiar to the game of baseball. (Surely the Bulls' marketing people are quite aware that a large portion of its clientele isn't really there for the baseball at all, but rather for the fun and funnel cakes.)

The air-travel analogy extends to the game itself, which is essentially just the weather to which the flight crew must constantly react. In this sense, the action on the field is something close to a nuisance, a disruptive meteorological flux that forces the flight deck personnel to change course and estimated arrival time every few minutes. They've had to do this a lot this season, because the Bulls have a knack for late-inning rallies.

Example: In the bottom of the eighth inning of Price's April start, the Bulls scored three runs to put the game more or less out of reach. A sudden swell of that's-a-wrap energy rose in the press box. The bases were still loaded, however, with only one out, and some employees started grumbling: They wanted to finish up and go home, not (as you might expect) watch their team pile on triumphant but extraneous runs in the rapidly chilling night. "Ground into a double play," someone muttered. Compliantly, Michel Hernandez did exactly that, and happiness prevailed. The ninth-inning descent and landing went quickly and smoothly, and we all disembarked and headed home.

Now it's now a little after 11 p.m. and Ken Tanner is on the field interviewing a dazed Chris Richard when left fielder Jon Weber runs over and ceremoniously douses Richard with a cooler full of water. The crowd roars. A few minutes later, Richard descends into the tiny, sweaty clubhouse to face a reporter's interrogation. Neither he, his teammates, nor the flight crew—journalists, interns, data managers, announcers—are still on the field when the flatbed rolls onto the grass. They're all under the stadium or already out of it, deplaned before the final destination. They aren't there when the fireworks start exploding, the bombs bursting in air and clouding up the night.

The Durham Bulls return to the DBAP May 29 to begin a series against the Buffalo Bisons.

Adam Sobsey writes about the Bulls on the Indy's Triangle Offense sports blog, where much of the reporting in this story originally appeared.

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