Durham Athletic Park, or “The DAP,” as it was affectionately called by Bulls fans for decades, is a cultural touchstone. The Bulls were among the first teams to spark the re-birth of minor league baseball when they began play in 1980. But, most people know the place from its role as the primary filming location for the classic baseball movie Bull Durham. That movie, after all, made the minors cool to a whole new generation of fans, and made the Durham Bulls the nation’s most famous minor league franchise. This is the park most people think of first when you mention the words “minor league baseball in North Carolina.”
Opened: 1926, current grandstand constructed 1939
Formerly Known As: El Toro Park (1926-1939)
Previous Teams: Durham Braves/Americans, Coastal Plain League, 1997-2002; Durham Bulls, Carolina League, 1980-1994; Raleigh-Durham Triangles, Carolina League, 1968-71; Durham Bulls, Carolina League, 1945-67; Durham Bulls, Piedmont League, 1920-33, 1936-43
Current Team: North Carolina Central University Eagles, NCAA Division I.
Address: 428 Morris Street, Durham, NC.
The DAP is back. If you’re a baseball history buff, a baseball fan, or heck, just a red-blooded American, this is good news!
Until very recently, if you had wanted to enjoy this stadium for what it was and what it meant to people, you would have had to rent Bull Durham, or catch Kevin Costner and Susan Sarandon on cable. When the Bulls left for their new downtown ballpark after the 1994 season, the DAP, which was already 55 years old, began to deteriorate. The Coastal Plain League fielded a team at the DAP from 1997 to 2002, and during that time, the team made what limited efforts at upkeep that they could afford. The CPL team was also were forced to share the park, with a dirt infield, with a professional women’s softball team for two of those years. Meanwhile, the City of Durham, the park’s owner, turned their back on this historic treasure.
By 2006, the playing surface was worse than a cow pasture, the steelwork was badly rusted, and the wood home-run fence had been replaced with chain link, giving the place the look of an abandoned high-school field. At that point, the facility was hosting a handful of high school baseball games, recreation league softball games and a pair of annual festivals that ultimately rendered the field unplayable.
But, it’s a new day in Durham. With new city leadership, a partnership with Minor League Baseball, and local tenant in the NCCU baseball team, the old girl has gotten a long overdue facelift.
In some ways, the ballpark is better than it was when the Bulls were playing there. During the Bulls’ heyday, the front entrance was a simple chain link gate; today, wrought-iron fencing greats you as you approach. The burnt orange of the Bulls logo is still the dominant color, but much of what used to blue, like railings in the seating area, are now a complementary cream color. The steelwork and the roof are still blue, and the iconic Bulls logo on the round ticket office tower is a pleasant reminder of the ballpark’s pedigree.
Inside, there is new concrete in many places, new dark blue box seats in the lower rows, and the playing surface is better than it has ever been. But there are still some comforting elements of familiarity, like the faded yellow seat backs on the well-worn aluminum benches in the upper rows of the grandstand.
One item that jumps out is a metal tank sitting at the end of the third-base side of the grandstand. At first glance, I thought that a microbrewery had set up shop in the stadium, but it turns out to be a rainwater collection tank. The runoff from the roof will be re-used to water the playing surface.
The bathrooms are modern, with new fixtures, handicapped accessible stalls, and fresh paint, although I confess that I miss the rusty urinal troughs in the men’s rooms.
One of the most striking elements of this renovation is the clean-up that took place under the grandstand (shown above). Where there were dusty, spider web-covered catacombs full of decades of Bulls operational history and debris, complete with old vending trays, hot dog cookers, fielders screens, and spare parts for seats, there is now a well-lit, clean concrete walkway that runs from one end of the grandstand to another.
The locker rooms, which were cramped and claustrophobic, have had the old drop ceilings removed, and between the new light wood lockers, the cream colored paint, and natural light coming in from previously covered frosted glass windows high above, now feel spacious and comfortable.
For fans who have only seen this park in the movie, it will seem smaller than it looks on screen. This is largely due to the removal of the metal bleachers that flanked the grandstand. These were removed almost immediately upon the Bulls departure. The main grandstand itself only seats a few thousand people, and it was these large bleachers that brought capacity up around 6,000-plus back when the Bulls played at the DAP.
FLIES IN THE OINTMENT
Of course, this being Durham, nothing happens without some problems. During the course of the renovations, which were supposed to completed years earlier, Minor League Baseball president Pat O’Conner expressed concerns with the pace and quality of the work. Without knowing how much of the reported $4.7 million budget was required to repair the mechanical systems and the structures themselves, it’s hard to judge how cost-effective these renovations were.
The result is certainly encouraging to the naked eye, although there are obviously a few kinks still to iron out. There are steel support posts above the left-field wall, but there is not yet a scoreboard there. The new cement sidewalks out front have replaced a section of commemorative bricks that the donors likely thought would be in place for many years. And while nearly all the structures that were part of the ballpark, including ticket offices, souvenir counters, concessions stands and the like, appear to be in good condition, and the small gravel parking lot is now paved, it doesn’t appear anything new was added. This is nice from a historical standpoint, but with the size of the project budget, I expected some additions like new office space or an indoor hitting facility. And, strictly from an aesthetic standpoint, the outfield wall will certainly look better once some windscreen or advertisements cover up the chain link.
THE BRIGHT SIDE
But why nit-pick? For a fan of baseball history, the bottom line is that this jewel of a ballpark is back in usable condition and there will be a team to see play here next spring when the NCCU Eagles take the field (disclaimer; I have a degree from NCCU, so I’m particularly pleased to know they are the main tenant).
Minor League Baseball’s involvement is also a reassuring element, as their expertise and voice as an operating tenant will help safeguard the facility. I chatted with MiLB head man Pat O’Conner on Saturday, and he was clearly excited and enthusiastic about the state of the ballpark and the opportunities is presents. They will also have quality staff on-site, as Jill Rusinko, who has been a part of the marketing staff at MiLB’s headquarters in St. Petersburg for a number of years, will be in Durham full time supervising events and programs at the facility, including a turf management training program and a sort of intern academy.
Another excellent development is the new leadership of Durham’s city government. City Manager Tom Bonfield, who has been on the job in Durham for a little over a year, is a former minor-league baseball player. In a conversation with him on Saturday, he showed an understanding of the challenges of mixing college and high-school baseball with music and beer festivals that certain previous city management clearly did not possess.
The Grand Opening itself, complete with speeches by MiLB and Durham officials, celebrity softball, free hot dogs and drinks, music and perfect weather, provided lots of reasons for optimistism. Time will tell how this new partnership will work, but at this moment, all is right with the DAP. Alongside the new Bulls park, the magnificent USA Baseball complex in Cary, the Carolina Mudcats’ Five County Stadium, and the new college facilities at UNC and NC State, the DAP is once again the crown jewel in the baseball capital of the nation. Come see it for yourself, you’ll be glad you did.