Baseball, primarily, is a sport of rebirth. Few sports have its sheer quantity of opportunities–three strikes an at-bat, four or five at-bats per game, an ungodly number of games each summer–to succeed at such an unlikely task. The setup for the batter is cruel and, when extrapolated, hilarious: it’s the story of the hero marching, weapon in hand, to the battleground, hoping to protect his territory a scant three out of ten times.
As a result, the sport is one of hope, the hope of if not this pitch then the next, if not this at-bat then the next, until the summer activity yields to winter dormancy and–with dormancy–festering hope. Baseball’s inherent wishfulness best comes across in its minor leagues, the meandering yellow brick road through second-tier America that thinly-compensated players take to–hopefully, of course–arrive at “The Show” that is Major League Baseball. The minors are populated by lifers, whose talents are just about tapped out, blue chippers, whose talents bubble over and generate promotion after promotion, and what we’ll call transients–those who are originally from The Show and deserve to be in The Show but, whether due to injury or old age, aren’t. Although, on any given day, the labels are easily flipped: a struggling blue chipper looks like a lifer, a transient on a nice streak looks like a hot young prospect.
One of these transients, today, is Nick Swisher. He’s the DH, hitting fourth for the Scranton Wilkes-Barre Railriders, the Triple-A affiliate of the New York Yankees. Swisher is of The Show–a highly-touted prospect who gained notoriety in the book Moneyball, he played for 12 years in the majors, even made an All-Star team once. He isn’t hurt: he’s 35, and hitting .250 in the minors. During his last year in the majors, in Atlanta, he hit .195 in 46 games. A neat summation is that the Braves are paying him $15 million this year (partly covered by his former team, the Cleveland Indians), even though they waived him in March. Swisher’s release is a harsh but fair referendum on the disparity between his play today and what his play used to be.
And yet he’s hopeful, and he lashes a double in the first inning.
One of the most famous depictions of minor-league baseball is Bull Durham, the 1988 Kevin Costner film in which Crash Davis (Costner), a minor-league lifer, has to take “Nuke” LaLoosh (Tim Robbins), a blue chipper, under his wing. The team they play for is the Durham Bulls, then a Single-A of the Atlanta Braves; the stadium is rickety and kitschy, featuring a wooden bull sign in left field, with the words “Hit Bull, Win Steak” painted on.
The movie feels outdated, though, both because it features Susan Sarandon and because Durham has been reborn. “Bull City,” a tobacco-dependent, crime-ridden punchline for the latter part of the twentieth century, is called “the South’s tastiest town” and finds itself, increasingly, a tech and industry hub. The Bulls are now a Triple-A affiliate (of the Tampa Bay Rays), playing in a glitzy park in the heart of downtown–the Durham Bulls Athletic Park.
Look out from the right-field bleachers and you’ll see both the previous and modern iterations of the city. To the west is the American Tobacco Historic District, a campus encrusted in the brick husks of–you guessed it–the American Tobacco Company buildings that, after being abandoned by the company in 1987, now house startups, radio stations, and restaurants. Behind some restaurants and office space to the north is the Durham Performing Arts Center (est. 2008), the state-of-the-art facility which has hosted The Book of Mormon and Aretha Franklin. The stadium’s interior is fully, aggressively modern (the Bulls host a brewery located entirely within the stadium), and yet, the shadow of the past is still felt.
My assignment today is to cover the Bulls game, a Memorial Day, late-afternoon bout between the home team and the Railriders, two squads that I have essentially no connection to. (I haven’t played fantasy baseball in a decade, let alone a keeper league that’d require knowledge of prospects.) Before the game, I had no idea what to write; during the game, I jot down details just to fill the page. Nothing stands out besides the obvious–minor-league baseball teams rely heavily on advertising–and the inconsequential–mid-inning sumo wrestling bouts, especially of the father-son variety, are never not entertaining. My friends and I pass the time with barbecue, Italian ices, and bullshitting. We watch the Bulls rotund first baseman leg out a stand-up triple and promptly get picked off at third. It’s the perfect ballgame viewing experience; save for a few dingers that get socked, the game has quickly become secondary, but the laughs are constant and inexplicable.
In a career sense, I’m also being reborn. I moved to Durham about a month ago for a new, completely different job, one that I hope is a better job. This is my first Bulls game since the move, and the atmosphere has a hint of false rosiness to it, like I’m happier than the surroundings dictate I should be. It’s a pretty standard, low-stakes ballgame, but it feels like an unfair, unique experience, like a secret I’ve stumbled upon. I notice this glow, this delight, in other fans as well. The difference from major-league games I’ve attended in Washington and Boston is striking–more families, maybe. A dad carries his kid, cradling him on a shoulder to pick up a dropped shoe. Another squats for a high-five, and his son totters past blindly, happily. It’s 7:30 PM and the Bulls are losing and work beckons tomorrow, and it’s nothing but smiles all around.
Maybe this aura comes from being a Durham lifer. Here’s a city, changing and rising by the day. Perhaps the game’s meaning grows as the city does.
Ultimately, the Bulls win, hitting two homers in the bottom of the eighth to steal a 5-3 win. The now animated “Hit Bull, Win Steak” sign on the left field wall blows off steam–literally–and its eyes a startling red as the hero rounds the bases. Before the ninth, Wool-E Bull, the mascot, does a go-kart lap around the stadium, and the good vibes are locked in for the evening.
When I first sat down to write this piece, it ended with Swisher flying out to left field to end the game, signifying something about the young growing old, and the bittersweet nostalgia baseball evokes in fans. There’s a vague melancholy to the sport, generally, and it’s heightened in the minors–for players who never make The Show or never will return, and for fans spending their years in minor hubs, outside of cities of excitement like New York, Chicago, LA, or even Pittsburgh.
But that’s a narrow viewpoint of the whole enterprise. The minors are American, meritocratic. They’re the veritable land of opportunity, where players are one seeing-eye single from the start of a hitting streak that will earn them promotions. Where cities put a new foot forward daily, rebranding and burnishing their reputations. Where fans chase dreams, like players, and find themselves, hopefully, on the cusp of their own personal Show. Any game (and day) can spark a great outcome. Each is a wellspring of hope.
And Swisher? He finishes the game 2 for 5. It’s not great, but it’s a start.
Lucas Hubbard is a writer based in Durham, NC. You’ll probably find him at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park a lot this summer, and also on Twitter.