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OLE, BULLS : Durham Loves Team, Its Intimate Ballpark

July 24, 1988|MARK I. PINSKY, | Times Staff Writer

DURHAM, N.C. — The real star of "Bull Durham," this summer's hit movie about a hapless minor league baseball club, is not Kevin Costner or Susan Sarandon. It's a 50-year-old, 5,000-seat, downtown ballpark--with green grass and no dome--that almost died of decrepitude and neglect.

And although critics have dubbed the movie a "sex comedy," the real story here is a romance between a team and a town.

"This is a special town," says the Bulls' owner, Miles Wolff, with a special stadium.

"It's very personal," said Wolff, one of the chief beneficiaries, looking over the field on a recent afternoon. "You can touch the players. . . . It's one of the great minor league ballparks."

Thom Mount, the producer, providing an intimate, "emotional form" in which to tell the story, said, "There's no doubt that the ballpark is one of the leads of the movie."

Wolff acknowledges that he is a lucky man, selling out the municipally owned Durham Athletic Park, with its towers and turrets, nearly every home game since the Orion release opened in mid-June. But the 43-year-old novelist points out that his luck began well before "Bull Durham" put his ballpark on the national map, when Durham--home of Duke University and known primarily for its devotion to Atlantic Coast Conference basketball--was the only franchise he could find on the market.

A decade ago, Wolff paid $2,500 to revive the historic franchise that began in 1902 and over the years produced such stars as Johnny Vander Meer, Rusty Staub, Joe Morgan, Doug Rader and Greg Luzinski. At the time, however, the stadium was a down-at-the-heels facility in the middle of a slum, with a team that in its final years couldn't draw flies, even when it seemed to change its name and major league affiliation every other season.

The first season the club got 12 straight victories and sent 10 players from the Carolina League to "the Show" with the Atlanta Braves. Only two home games were rained out, which was fortunate, he said, because he didn't have enough tarp to cover the field.

Wolff also came up with a colorful, foul-mouthed, tobacco-spitting manager named Alan (Dirty Al) Gallagher, who helped capture the city's imagination.

In baseball, as in life, timing can be crucial.

"Durham was looking for something," Wolff said. "It needed an identity. A lot of people who lived here really liked Durham and they were looking for something to latch onto, someplace where everyone could get together."

There was also beer. The year before the Bulls returned, the state legislature finally approved the sale of alcoholic beverages by the drink, and a local weekly newspaper dubbed the field "the best bar in town."

Wolff spent the previous 10 years learning how to run minor league clubs around the South before he came to Durham, and he put that promotional expertise to work. His novel "Season of the Owl," is set in the context of a minor league season in Greensboro, N.C.

With the help of Mount, 40, a minority stock holder and Durham native who was then riding high in the Hollywood film community, Wolff had new uniforms and a new logo--a bull bursting through a muscular "D"--designed by entertainment industry professionals. Along with an extremely favorable rental agreement, the city council kicked in $25,000 to make desperately needed repairs at the ballpark.

Whatever the combination of luck, timing and good management, Durham and the Bulls clicked.

College students and yuppies mingled easily in the stands with factory workers, who no longer had to sit in racially segregated bleachers, although many blacks still favored the old first-base line seats from the pre-civil rights era. Because of Durham's summer climate--sometimes it seems the same as the jungles of the Yucatan Peninsula--all but a few early games were played at dusk, and increasingly, adults brought their children.

The phenomenon, according to Tom Campbell, a member of city council, "is a reflection of the kind of community that Durham is--very divergent groups of people who all have a strong sense of belonging to a community, from Duke professors to assembly line workers."

"Bull Durham"--the title refers to a famous local brand of smoking tobacco--is about a slightly ditsy woman (played by Sarandon) who teaches English part-time at a local community college, but whose real passion is baseball. Each season she chooses a promising member of the Durham Bulls to make love with and coach in baseball's subtleties.

This particular season, the woman has to choose between an undisciplined young talent with "a million-dollar arm and a five-cent brain" (Tim Robbins) and a wise but nearly-over-the-hill catcher (Costner), who is also called on to tutor the bonus boy, including a hilarious sequence on the parceling of cliches to sports writers. The Bulls are a collection of fun-loving rowdies who can't manage to win very often.

"When somebody leaves Durham," Sarandon tells Robbins near the movie's conclusion, as he is about to go to major leagues, "they never come back."

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