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Traveling the Bambino Road: Day Two

Day Two: March 7, 2003

I woke to steel gray skies and 39 degree air temperature today. Brrr. My first stop of the day was the Baseball America offices in Durham. There I met up with fellow SABRite Cliff Gardner who accompanied me to see the Durham ballparks.

The two parks are a study in contrasts. The older facility, “Durham Athletic Park,” (DAP) is the one that was featured in the movie Bull Durham. The newer park–designed by HOK, the same folks who designed Camden Yards and dozens of other new ballyards in both the majors and minors in the past ten years–has the confusingly unoriginal name of “Durham Bulls Athletic Park” (DBAP). In local lingo, that makes them the “Dap” and the “Dee-bap.”

We started at DBAP, which is walking distance from Baseball America‘s offices. The walk was cold and chilly and I was wishing for a pair of earmuffs, but it was fun to talk baseball with Cliff. Our topics of conversation ranged from Trot Nixon (a native North Carolinian) to Joe Morgan (the only Durham Bull in the Hall of Fame). We were shown in by Bulls media relations dude Matt DeMargel, whose exact words were: “Mi ballpark es su ballpark, except don’t go on the grass.”

DBAP is exactly as you’d expect if you have visited any other HOK stadium. Clean, spacious, and beautiful, with lots and lots of red brick. At this point that is no longer novel, it is comfortable. The grass was green, unlike in the rest of North Carolina where a tough winter and an overabundance of soaking rain has turned it brown everywhere else. We walked on the warning track instead, made of the same grade of ground-up bricks you find in places like Fenway Park. The dugouts are big and deep, so deep that the benches are well chewed by players’ spikes who are constantly climbing up to sit on the bench’s shelf back. That was the only sign of wear in DBAP.

So you want to know about the bull, right? The bull that snorted smoke in the movie? That bull was actually made for the movie, but the players loved it and they kept it. When the Bulls moved to the new park, they brought the bull along, and it hangs on a wall of the concourse with a commemorative plaque. There is a new, bigger bull now, inside the left field foul pole, on whose body it reads “Hit the Bull, Win Steak.” On the grass the bull stands on it reads, “Hit Grass, Win Salad.” How ignominious.

Hit grass, win salad

The newer, bigger bull

One nice feature of the park is some large wall sculptures–actually, is sculpture the right word? They are large images of players, made all of bricks inlaid into the wall. There was one of Joe Morgan. A little further along we came to one of… guess who? Babe Ruth. As far as I know Ruth has no explicit connection to the Bulls, but he does seem to show up everywhere.

Then it was over to DAP, Cliff driving behind some folks from the Durham Parks and Recreation department, who had the keys to let us in.

DAP is rather run down. The grass was brown and the basepaths soggy and filled with shoe-sized puddles. Paint was peeling everywhere we looked, and we kept discovering storage sheds and closets piled with odd old garbage dating back to 1998, when the Durham Dragons women’s professional fastpitch team played there. I took some of their newsletters with me. We climbed the turret that houses the ticket windows, and discovered the shed known as “Baseball Corner,” a souvenir stand where Baseball America‘s “office” was housed in its infancy. Cliff told me they still tell stories in the office today about editing copy using boxes of caps for desks. The floor was rotted through in Baseball Corner.

But there were parts of the park that were locked up tight that we can only assume the Durham Americans actually use. We could see through a locked gate into a shower room where a bottle of shampoo, bar of soap, and washcloth sat. The Americans are an amateur baseball league team in the wooden-bat Coastal Plain league, which will start up after the college semester ends. The grass will be green again in a few months. Perhaps the broken lightbulbs will be replaced. (But I assume the refuse in the second floor of the turret will stay there, since it has been there for years already…) There was even one completely new feature–a brand new water fountain near the main entrance. But that was not enough to keep me from feeling like DAP is a place that has been forgotten by time, left behind.

Durham Athletic Park

I also felt like if I had to choose between seeing a game at DBAP or DAP, I might choose DAP. Of course, right now there is no baseball in either place, especially not on a chilly March morning. If I come back to Durham some summer, I hope I get to see games in BOTH places. Durham has both the old and the new, and that is a unique thing.

Cliff treated me to an excellent lunch and then it was time to hit the road west. I got on Interstate 85 and headed for Burlington, NC. My goal was Alamance Memorial Park, where “Tom” Zachary is buried. Zachary was a pitcher with several teams in his career and happens to be the man who gave up home run #60 to Ruth in 1927. I had discovered his grave was literally right along my route a few weeks ago and added it to the itinerary. After a quick stop in the cemetery’s offices, where a man named Stan Champion looked up all the Zachary “interment cards” for me. “Tom” wasn’t Zachary’s real name, but I did not have his first name jotted down. Fortunately, I did have the date of his death, so we were able to narrow down which Zachary plot I should visit.

Is it a southern thing to have cemeteries without headstones? Instead of grave stones that stick up above the ground, the standard here seems to be flat stones set into the ground, many with special holders for bouquets of flowers. I’ve driven past several of these on the highways, and to a northerner, it is an odd sight to see what looks like a flat field sprouting with bouquets sticking straight up out of the ground. And, as I discovered when I walked out to Mr. Zachary’s grave marker, the bouquets are fake! I’m sure this is just a bit of north versus south culture shock on my part. The Yankee in me couldn’t help but think, my god, how tacky and horrible. Please, when I’m buried, no plastic flowers. (And no sticking my head or body into a tank of cryogenic freeze, either. If I’m going to live on, let it be in my writing.)

J. “Tom” Zachary did NOT have a marker equipped for flowers. He and a woman I assume was his wife, who outlived him by twenty years, share a marker. I stood and looked at it for a while, took some photos and then thanked him. “Mr. Zachary,” I said, “Thank you for being a part of history.”

Next stop was Greensboro’s War Memorial Stadium. War Memorial has gone through many changes since it was built after World War I. It was originally a larger structure, shaped more like the Polo Grounds than like a baseball field, but it was converted to baseball a long time ago. One feature of the place that is no longer there were a hundred seats from the old Yankee Stadium. In the 1990s they were tossed out when the place underwent another facelift. WMS is home to the Greensboro Bats, who were a Yankees affiliate until this offseason, when they were shuffled. (The Yankees picked up the Michigan Battle Cats, I think.)

I walked up to the park wondering about the fact that the parking lot had quite a lot of cars–twenty or thirty–in it. I saw people walking in through an opening in the gate and followed them. Some of the cars belonged to workmen, who were giving the place a complete coat of paint on the inside, and I was reminded of Yankee Stadium where the repainting of the concourses and walls is an annual task.

Two teams were shaking their feet and hopping up and down frigidly in front of their dugouts. College teams? They were too big to be high school. I ignored them at first as all they were doing was milling around. I took photos of the park, including two odd murals that flank the luxury box, one of an aged Mickey Mantle, and one of Michael Jordan in a White Sox baseball jersey and holding a Bats cap in his hand. There was no one from the Bats organization around, so far as I could tell, so I did not find out what the story is behind the paintings.

In the inside hallways of War Memorial there are reproductions of newspaper stories and framed photos of famous players in stadium history, including a few of the All American Girls Professional Base Ball League, who played exhibition games there one year.

Banner painting of Michael Jordan

Also in that hallway–the restrooms, which were mercifully heated! It felt colder in Greensboro than in Durham and the sky was no brighter. I emerged from the bathroom to hear a telltale PING! It appeared the game was on.

Now I was really cursing the weather. The final stop on my tour that day would be the last building standing from the Salisbury Civil War prison camp, where the northern soldiers played baseball in 1861. I could get there any time since I didn’t plan to go inside (in fact, I’m not sure visitors are allowed inside it). So if it had been warm, or if I had been slightly less than freezing, I would have stayed. When was the last time I sat and watched a baseball game? Game Two of the American League Division Series, which the Yankees lost. It seems forever ago.

I stayed for the top of the first inning, chatting with one of the baseball dads (his son due to pitch tomorrow) from Ball State in Muncie, Indiana. Ball State is a small school but with a good baseball program, and they have had several guys picked in the first rounds of the draft the past couple of years. They were here on their spring break to play baseball every day.

Their opponents were the A&T Aggies, who play their home games at War Memorial. The Aggies pitcher was having trouble finding the strike zone. He threw two pitches in the dirt, then one eye-high. The Ball Staters (I didn’t catch the team name) were patient. PING! A hit. Time went by. I chatted with the dad about the Yankees, college baseball, free agency, the weather. Another hit, and the man on first went to third. Then another one hit hard, but deep into the outfield, a sac fly, and the run scored. Then a hitter walked. The man on second tried to steal third a while later, and was thrown out. The guy at the plate fouled one back out of the stadium (not near where my car was parked, thankfully). Then he hit a tapper off the end of the bat that rolled toward short where nobody could scoop it up in time. It was a hit. Now I can’t remember how the runner went to third–i think there was a grounder and the runner at second was forced out, but that left two out and men on first and third. Then they executed a nice double steal, where the man on first broke for second, the catcher threw and the runner stayed in a rundown long enough for the man on third to come home. I shook the hand of the dad and said I would leave while they were ahead, for luck.

I wanted to stay. But my ears were cold and my throat was starting to hurt. And I knew my car was warm!

I pulled into Salisbury only a half hour behind schedule–4:30pm. It would not have mattered, except as I was making my way toward the address of the prison camp building, I stopped at an intersection and noticed the building on the corner. The sign read “Sports Broadcasters and Sports Writers Hall of Fame.” Whoa! I didn’t know we had our own hall of fame, but apparently we do, and it’s in Salisbury. It’s $3 admission. Unfortunately, they close at 4pm, so I was unable to go inside and check out the exhibits. It is not a large place: maybe two rooms. Through the glass doors I could get a glimpse of framed portrait photos on the wall. I took pictures of the doors and the sign, so at least I can say I was there. Maybe someday my picture will hang inside. Probably not, but we all need our major league dreams.

I found the civil war building, and took some photos. Where there was once a prison camp that was made to hold 2000 men–and which held 10,000 by war’s end–there was now a lower-middle class neighborhood.

The only reason I know that Union soldiers played baseball in Salisbury is because there is a famous painting/lithograph by Otto Boetticher that depicts it. I think I first saw it featured in Ken Burns’ Baseball documentary. The houses depicted in the image are still standing, and so I went to look at them. The buildings are surrounded by modest houses dating from the 1890s to the 1980s.

While walking back to my car I decided to take a walk up and down Main Street just to see what there was to be seen. An office building erected in 1890. And I came to City Hall, and decided to go in to see if I could find any paintings of the way Salisbury used to look. On the building was a plaque with a bit of town history. At one time, pre-war, Salisbury was the largest city in North Carolina. Inside the building I found a small, hushed lobby, hung with very old photos of nineteenth century mayors of the town. Up a set of stairs were the twentieth century mayors. And upstairs, the offices of land planning and management, who had many architectural drawings in their hallways of what various parks and things would look like when built. it being 5pm on a Friday afternoon, the place was mostly deserted, and after looking around, I left without speaking to anyone.

Halfway to Greenville, South Carolina, hometown of Joe Jackson, where I am spending the night, the clouds cleared, but it remained cold. They are calling for close to freezing temperatures in the Carolinas tonight. But tomorrow the forecast is for 65 degrees. That is good news for Ball State.

(Did you enjoy reading this blog entry? Please consider buying me a hot dog.)

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