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Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Durham Bulls: Things you don't see every day

Posted by on Wed, Sep 10, 2008 at 2:03 PM

Playoffs. Had you been dropped into the DBAP by helicopter this weekend from, say, Saskatchewan, you would have had a hard time recognizing that you were watching a playoff series.  The crowds were sparse, and the energy -- on the field and in the stands -- was sluggish and somnolent. Unbeknownst, apparently, to most of the Triangle, the Durham Bulls are now just a handful of wins away from claiming the Governor's Cup, which goes each year to the champion of the AAA International League (the Bulls won it in 2002 and 2003).  Entire sections of the DBAP were unoccupied on Saturday and Sunday, and I counted just sixteen people in the entire Diamond View section on both nights combined. 

Yet driving by Duke's West Campus on Saturday night, after the Bulls beat Louisville, 3-2, I got snarled in postgame traffic from the Blue Devils' football game against Northwestern, which they lost (as they usually do, because Duke's football team is famously terrible). Are Durham's sports priorities out of whack, or is the lack of interest in the Bulls' postseason run appropriate?  After all, at the level that it matters -- in Tampa, where the parent club watches, emotionlessly -- it's irrelevant who wins these games. The Rays just want to see how their farmhands are doing, whether they're winning playoff games or heading to the fall Arizona Instructional League or pulling groin muscles. So perhaps Durham's failure to care whether the Bulls win the Governor's Cup (Governor of what?) is understandable.  Some of our best players -- Perez, Riggans, Ruggiano, Zobrist, et al -- are already in Tampa, trying to help the Rays maintain their shrinking edge over Boston in the American League Eastern Division; others could get called up to the majors any day, in total disregard of the Bulls' championship drive. Still others, like fan favorite Seth McClung, have been traded away and toil now in Milwaukee. One of the biggest cheers during Saturday night's game rose when the N.C. State football score was flashed on the Diamond Vision screen.

Tropical Storms.  The airlifted Saskatchewanian could also not have told you that Saturday's game was played just a few hours after Hanna lashed the Triangle with rain and wind. The field was dry and supple, and every ball bounced firm and true on the outfield grass. In both design and maintenance, the DBAP is a wonder, and its grounds crew is to be lauded and congratulated. Who knows what pains were taken to protect the field from Hanna? We take it for granted, but surely heavy labor was involved.

Blackouts. I've seen hundreds of live baseball games and probably thousands more on television, but Saturday night brought something new to me: with one out in the top of the fifth, every bank of field lights went out at once, save one (the one atop the Fox 50 building beyond right field). The umps called the players off the field, which was bathed in an eerie half-light.  For twenty minutes we sat waiting (and of course the Diamond Vision screen, which had power, anesthetized us with videos). What a rare thing to see a ballpark in this penumbral state. I doubt I'll ever see it again.

No-hitters. That blackout jeopardized Durham righthander Jeff Niemann's no-hit bid. It's not uncommon, after even a short rain delay, for a starting pitcher to be relieved: The muscles tighten, and serious damage can occur if they're asked to pitch again. But after the twenty-minute pause, Niemann returned and polished off two more hitters to preserve his hitless outing through five innings.

Niemann is a prized Tampa prospect. He was a first-round pick in the 2005 draft and signed for a huge $3.2 million bonus, plus a $2 million contract. He stands 6'9", and although on Saturday night he used his formidable height to drive the ball downward on the opposing Louisville hitters (also, he threw first-pitch strikes to nearly every batter), there's a reason that so few very tall pitchers succeed at the major league level. Pitching mechanics are extremely complex; the longer the limbs, and the more body there is to keep under control, the harder those mechanics are to harness. The shoulder flies out, the release point can't be duplicated, or the leg kick is too high or too slow; later, cartilage wears away and knees collapse (ask Randy Johnson, the 6'10" Big Unit, still shuddering along on the mound in his 45th year).

As for Niemann, his windup has a deliberateness about it that suggests that almost every movement has been rehearsed thousands of times and then carefully calibrated to limit extraneous movement and prevent injury. When he pitches, it looks like a series of levers being thoughtfully pulled: wrists, knees, elbows, ankles, neck, all in a technological ballet of kinetics. On Saturday night, Niemann had it all working -- he struck out eleven Louisville hitters -- but in the inning after the blackout, the sixth, he hit a wild stretch in which his fastball kept sailing high out of the strike zone: a sure sign that a pitcher is tiring. Yet even though he walked two hitters in the frame, Louisville failed to get a hit, so Niemann returned to pursue his no-hitter in the seventh inning -- and he struck out the side in order. His final pitch of the inning, swung on and missed, registered 94 mph on the scoreboard radar gun: the fastest pitch I'd seen him throw all night. The crowd roared (well, it was too small to produce a roar; let's say it squawked), and Niemann pumped his fist and stalked off the mound in celebration of a job well done.

But the job wasn't done, of course: that was just the seventh inning. No surprise, then, that the first batter of the Louisville eighth, a light-hitting catcher named Craig Tatum, ripped a double to deep center field to end Niemann's pursuit of glory. We all applauded, Niemann gave a tip of the cap so modest it was almost imperceptible, and the Bulls held on to win. No doubt, somewhere in a control room in Tampa, club statisticians and accountants and coaches and scouts and computers, unmoved by the playoff series that still hung in the balance, duly noted their bonus baby's progress.

For those rest of us who care, the Bulls won their series against Louisville and will face the Scranton-Wilkes Barre Yankees for the Governor's Cup.  Games 3-5 (the latter two only if necessary) will be played at the DBAP, this Thursday-Saturday. 

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