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Thursday, August 18, 2011

Durham Bulls Road Roundup, Vol. 6: Excelsior!

Posted by on Thu, Aug 18, 2011 at 11:00 AM

buffalo---city-of-no-illusions-pioster.jpg
  • Image by Michael Morgulis
The Durham Bulls lost the first two games of their current 10-day road trip to. Up in Buffalo, the bullpen blew late leads in consecutive games. Durham's lead over Gwinnett in the IL South Division shrank to just one game.

The day after the second loss up in the City of No Illusions, it rained, washing out yet another Bulls game—I don't have the numbers in front of me, but I bet that something like one in every five games this season has been delayed, postponed or canceled by rain.

Usually, rain is unwelcome, of course—what little momentum baseball generates owes not to its fitful in-game action but to its nearly unbroken run of days and innings over the long spring and summer.

Yet this rain-out was a welcome one, or at least the subsequent results suggest as much. The Bulls swept a doubleheader from the Bisons the following night, Monday, and then went down to Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, Penna., where they took the first two games of that series from the Yankees—whose third baseman was a major-league rehabber by the name of Alex Rodriguez. Sometimes, perhaps, you need the threat of the drought of a potential losing streak doused by a forced day off.

A sprinkling of details of how the North has been won (so far), prefaced by some thoughts about developments closer to home—right in downtown Durham, in fact—that could very well be relevant.

There's a barbershop in downtown Durham, right near my house, called Excelsior. That's kind of a funny name for a place where you get yourself sheared a little lower; I suppose it's more in the spirit of what a good style does for your mood rather than for your height. The narrow little shopfront has a handmade drawing of a barber pole in the window, a real old-fashioned barber's chair inside, and an old-fashioned barber, too. Excelsior has been in its snug space for about 30 years.

Last time I needed a trim I went to Choice Cutts, the place on Foster directly opposite the Marriott, just a few blocks from Excelsior. The cutman there, Abdulhaleem IbnBoyd (he also answers to Mr. Boyd), is a really nice guy, and on Wednesdays his rate is $9—a cut-rate cut. He told me that he often cuts visiting ballplayers' hair (they stay at the Marriott when they play the Bulls) and that previous clients have included former Bulls Carl Crawford and David Price, now big-league stars.

I often think of going to Excelsior instead, but the proprietor keeps odd hours. I'm the sort of haircuttee who likes to veer unplanned off the sidewalk into a barbershop of a weekday afternoon—like a businessman (which I'm not) on a Cheeverish whim after a long lunch (which I don't take)—as though spun in by the revolving pole. But Excelsior, old-school as it appears, doesn't seem to swing to the old music. Even on the sporadic occasions when I have found it open, it looks a little lonely in there.

I passed Excelsior yesterday in the late morning, fully prepared to give it a try, and once again the place was closed. This time, though, it seemed more than closed. One of those ominous big bright green stickers was affixed to the window, with the box next to UNSAFE checked off by a city inspector. Peering in through the dingy glass, I saw a ceiling in serious disrepair. The acoustic tiles weren't so much broken as grotesquely peeling, like they had melted. Wires were exposed.

Who knows what else was wrong inside? The building in which Excelsior is housed has apparently been purchased by Scott Harmon, the local impresario and architect whose firm, Center Studio Architecture, is responsible for some resounding successes around Durham. Center Studio Architecture is going to move into the building itself, laying claim to a permanent home after years of renting nearby. It's a move onward and upward.

Still, I worry for Durham sometimes. Its urban boom of the last few years has been wonderful to witness and support—it beats by a mile the decades of decrepitude that preceded it—but I sometimes wonder if it won't be long before the old guard has been forcibly relieved of its watch over the Bull City. The octogenarian seamstress I used to like had to move out a few years ago (and then passed away). The venerable and musty old Book Exchange finally looked up from the writing in its pages and saw the writing on the wall, and vacated in favor of an upcoming tapas bar courtesy of Vin Rouge chef Matthew Kelly. How long can Spee-Dee-Que, the long-established independent printing shop, hang on?

Plenty has been written lately about Greenfire, the feckless local developer which may soon come to be known as Underfire if it doesn't start to put fuel to its low flame and actually do something with the numerous buildings it owns downtown, some of which are in bad shape. Most of the press about Greenfire has been negative, as you might expect, but Greenfire's apparent dereliction of duty has actually helped curb the often reckless development that sometimes bowls over renascent city centers whose progress needs to move slowly and thoughtfully in order to go well. (To be fair about Greenfire, see this recent article.)

Obviously it would be better if Greenfire either moved its properties or milked 'em, but part of me is sort of glad for the slowdown they've unintentionally helped cause. I recently saw a "Coming Soon" sign for The Pit, Raleigh's frighteningly gigantic upscale barbeque purveyor. They're opening a location in downtown Durham. This little bit of free press for it, courtesy of the Durham Herald-Sun, is somehow rather terrifying. Keep Empire Properties out of here! I want to shout. Don't Raleighfy Durham! Let the old barbers cut old and new hair, let the young and idiosyncratic restaurateurs feed us, and someone, please, some Mom and Pop, open a little 800-square-foot grocery where you can buy enough fixings for dinner, aspirin and toilet paper. If we don't assign the territory ourselves—deliberately, smartly, subtly—the big chain stores will be glad to do it for us, with all the grace and tact of a bull in a barbershop.

I worry about Durham, a little. But I do not worry about its avatars, the Durham Bulls.

The night after the rain-out, Andy Sonnanstine pitched the Bulls to a tight 2-1 win to open the doubleheader, holding Buffalo to one run over 6 1/3 innings in the seven-inning contest. Rob Delaney, who had come into the Bulls' previous game, given up a game-losing three-run double, and blown a save, closed this one out. Tim Beckham, the former No. 1 draft pick recently promoted to Durham from Class AA Montgomery, drove in one of Durham's runs with his first Triple-A triple.

The second game was also close, and went "extra" innings. It looked for a moment like an early home run by none other than former Bull Fernando Perez was going to stand up for the Bisons, but the Bulls tied the score in the zero-hour top of the seventh inning against another former Bull, Dale Thayer, now Buffalo's closer.

Again it was Beckham sparking the team, leading off the seventh with a double and scoring the tying run on Stephen Vogt's sacrifice fly. In the top of the eighth, Russ Canzler broke the tie with a solo home run; five batters later, Beckham jumped on a hanging curve ball and ripped it over the left-center field wall for a grand slam. The Bulls won, 8-3, and got out of Buffalo with a split that had looked unlikely just two days earlier.

The hype surrounding A-Rod in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre was understandably major. According to an in-house story by the Minor League Baseball folks, the Press Box hadn't been so full since Roger Clemens's appearance there in 2007.

Rodriguez's bid for an extra-base hit early in the first game of the series was foiled by a fine running catch by Bulls center fielder Brandon Guyer, and Rodriguez made a point of congratulating the kid immediately afterward as the headed back to their respective dugouts. That sounds like a nice gesture but is in my eyes total horsebleep—a big-leaguing move. The next night, Rodriguez's second and last with Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, he opened his press conference by complimenting Bulls starter Matt Moore. Kind of him to recognize the kid and praise his abilities, but the fact is that Moore faced A-Rod twice and walked him both times.

In the first game, the surging Matt Torra held Rodriguez mostly in check—in addition to the drive Guyer caught, there was a single and a pop-out—and in fact kept all the Yankees in check. The Bulls won, 2-0, and Rob Delaney notched another save, his team-high seventh. Matt Carson, recently off the disabled list, homered against his former organization—Carson was drafted by the Yankees and played for Scranton/Wilkes-Barre in 2008.

The next night, Matt Moore struggled a bit. He allowed a leadoff homer in the first inning to Greg Golson, halving a 2-0 lead Durham had built in the top of the inning thanks to an error by—you guessed it—Alex Rodriguez, who I'm sure felt really, really bad about it later on. Moore allowed no other hits and struck out eight batters, but he ran deep counts against the patient, veteran Yankee lineup (he walked three batters, as many as he'd allowed in his previous three starts combined), and needed 84 pitches to get through a short, four-inning start.

The Durham bullpen, apparently recovered from its early stumble in Buffalo, continued to walk tall, allowing just one run in five innings of relief. It was plated in the eighth inning on a single by A-Rod, who promptly left the game to noises that may have been cheers or boos—you can just never quite tell with that guy. Dane De La Rosa got his fifth save, although he was a little less than perfect in getting it.

Beckham had another triple in last night's 3-2 Bulls win, but mention should be made of his fielding. Beckham prevented the tying run from scoring after Rodriguez's single in the eighth inning, making a diving knockdown of Jesus Montero's well-hit grounder up the middle with the fleet Chris Dickerson on second base. Had the ball gone through the infield, Dickerson certainly would have scored. Instead, he had to hold up at third, and De La Rosa got slugger Jorge Vazquez to ground out to Beckham to end the game.

An inning later, the ninth, with a man on first and two outs, pinch hitter Mike Lamb—once upon a time the Yankees' next third baseman, right before they traded for A-Rod—hit a little flare into shallow center field. Had it dropped, the dangerous Golson would have been up with the tying run again in scoring position and De La Rosa up to 30 pitches. But Beckham got a good jump on the ball and made a fine over-the-shoulder catch to end the game. That not only extended the Bulls' winning streak to four games, it also prolonged a Scranton/Wilkes-Barre skid: the Yankees have lost seven straight, a team high since the franchise became a New York affiliate in 2007.

***

"Excelsior!" is, as you may know, the motto of the Empire State. Scranton/Wilkes-Barre is in Pennsylvania, of course, but it's a Yankees affiliate (and a lot closer to the Big Apple than Buffalo). The Bisons, for their part, are property of the New York Mets—and, as it happens, the team we now know as the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees began its long life as... the Buffalo Bisons, back in 1886. Not 1986. 1886.

So the road trip so far has had the feel of a taking of New York by the Durham Bulls, a sort of reverse carpetbagging with the loot being wins. Plenty can change over the next few nights, to be sure. Alexander Torres starts for Durham at 7:05 p.m. this evening in Moosic, Penna., versus Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. His opponent will be Dellin Betances, the highly touted Yankees pitching prospect who is making his Class AAA debut. and then the rotation turns over, with Andy Sonnanstine closing out the four-game series in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.

From there, the Bulls make a two-day pit stop in Norfolk, Va. The Baltimore Orioles keep shuttling starters Brian Matusz and Chris Tillman between the majors and the minors, and they've also sent down Zach Britton, whom the Bulls saw three times last season and never managed to hit much. So it's hard to know what sort of pitching Durham will see. I'll have a first-hand report for you, though, as I'll be going up to Norfolk to catch the Bulls on their way back down.

Back down geographically, but perhaps upward in the standings. The Bulls are 18 games over .500, a season high for them, as is their four-game lead over Gwinnett. The Bulls play the G-Braves just twice more this year, in the season's final regular-season home games at the DBAP on August 29-30. The remaining 17 games, except these last two tonight and tomorrow at 62-61 Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, are versus Charlotte and Norfolk, who are a combined 37 games under .500. Things are looking up for the Bulls.

***

And maybe there's no need to worry too much about the changing face of Durham. Late the other night, feeling restless, I went for a longish walk. On my way home, around midnight, I was passing the sparkling new Durham bus station. I had a good view of it from my prospect on the elevated railroad tracks. (Please don't tell anyone I was up there; it's off-limits to pedestrians).

Not only was the view fine, so was the earshot. I passed by just in time to hear the unmistakable sound of gunfire. Then there were a few shouts, followed by a lot of running and general commotion. The station is just a couple of blocks from Durham's police headquarters, and within seconds sirens could be heard. Police cars arrived immediately after that, and five minutes later there were perhaps 20 of them on the scene, plus an ambulance and a fire truck.

The late-night excitement notwithstanding, it turned out to be a fairly minor incident, in the grand scheme of things: A guy shot a 13-year-girl he knew—a leg wound, and she is apparently okay. Not to trivialize an assault, but this is the sort of crime that has always given Durham its little edge.

I walked home feeling, somehow, a little better.

More from Norfolk this weekend, and I'll see you at the DBAP on Tuesday night.

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