DURHAM, N.C. — On a muggy summer day, three hours before gametime, the field echoes with the crack of bats hitting baseballs in the home of the Durham Bulls, the minor league team portrayed in the movie "Bull Durham."
Grady Little, 38, manager of this Class A Carolina League team, lounges against the batting cage.
"Just like the movie, the kids here all feel they can make it to the big leagues," he says. "All have a chance. But the odds are against them."
As portrayed in "Bull Durham," the fictional story of over-the-hill catcher Crash Davis and wacky rookie pitcher Ebby Calvin (Nuke)LaLoosh, life in the minors can be monotonous, exhilarating, rugged, uncertain and cruel.
It's underscored with long bus rides and adoring groupies, hitting slumps and hitting streaks, small crowds and $11-a-day meal money, love of the game and fear of failure.
Just one in 25 players who sign a pro contract--which in Class A pays $800 to $1,200 a month--ever sinks his cleats into a big league diamond.
"Sometimes you wonder whether it's worth it," says David Butts, a 24-year-old Bulls infielder. "But we're here because baseball is fun. There is no feeling in the world like making a great catch in the hole and hearing the crowd roar."
Butts is from Cadiz, Ky. He has a sure glove and strong arm. But so far this season, his third in pro ball, he's hitting .265.
"I feel I've got a shot at making it to the big leagues," he says. "But I realize I'm getting up in age. If I don't hit at least .270 this season and move up to Double-A, I may be gone."
Standing on the other side of the batting cage is hitting instructor Joe Pignatano, 58, a one-time catcher with several big-league teams, including the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Mets.
"Wait for the ball," Pignatano exhorts his players, many just a few years out of college, others a year or two out of high school. "Let the ball come to you."
Mike Bell, 20, a slim first baseman from Newton, N.J., listens, waits and then uncoils a swing that would make Ted Williams smile. The ball soars over the 340-foot right-field fence, landing on top of a warehouse.
"Atta boy," grunts the big-bellied Pignatano.
A few weeks ago, the Durham Bulls, an affiliate of the Atlanta Braves, gathered in the Carolina Theater for the premiere of "Bull Durham," filmed last fall in this tobacco town of 120,000 residents.
Players howled and shook their heads in disbelief when Nuke, a pitcher with a "million-dollar arm and a 5-cent brain," had sex with a groupie inside the locker room.
"There is no way that would happen in our locker room," Bell says. "To tell you the truth, I wished the movie showed more baseball."
In the theater, players cheered every time Crash Davis hit a home run over the wooden fences of their 50-year-old park. But they grew silent when the manager summoned a slumping player and an aging Crash to his office.
"We all sort of eyeballed each other, knowing that's reality," says Lee Upshaw, 21, a tobacco-chewing left-hander from Lawrenceville, Ga. "That's every player's fear--to be released."
Crash, played by actor Kevin Costner, was initially sent to Durham to teach Nuke, played by Tim Robbins, the game. Crash spoke from experience. He bounced around the minors for several years and had one glorious three-week stretch in the big leagues.
"They were the best 21 days of my life," Crash tells his teammates. "You hit white balls in batting practice . . . the women have long legs and brains . . . and the stadiums are like cathedrals."
Durham Athletic Park, done in orange and blue, is more country church than cathedral. It draws the biggest crowds in Class A, averaging 3,500 fans a night, about 4,500 on weekends. The players are all ex-high school or college stars.
"If I don't make it, I'll live," Butts says. "There's life after baseball. But it'll be rough for awhile."
"Bull Durham" is as much about Crash's and Nuke's baseball careers as it is about their relationships with Annie Savoy, an aging groupie played by actress Susan Sarandon.
In the real Durham, there are a legion of groupies, although players insist not as many or as wild as Hollywood implies.
"There are groupies here if you look for them," says Jeff Greene, 23, a pitcher from Tip City, Ohio.
"They're there if you want a date," grins second baseman Ted Holcomb, 22, of Los Angeles.
In a tip of his cap to Crash, Bell scrawled "Crash" on his bat.
"I did it because, well, he is the star of the movie," Bell said. "And because, well, we wear the same number, No. 8, and because, I like Crash. He respected the game. And he taught Nuke how to respect the game."
Haidee Mueller, Bell's girlfriend, laughed.
"Michael did it because he hopes the other players will call him 'Crash,"' she says.
If anyone on the Bulls deserves the nickname "Crash," it might be Ino Guerrero, 27, of the Dominican Republic. A minor leaguer since age 17, Guerrero has climbed as high as Triple-A, but has never made that one last leap to the big leagues.