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Friday, August 24, 2012

The Great Durhamerican Pastime 

Clarion Content feature writer, Ned Phillips, aka the Cozmik Gangsta, travels down that oh so American road, "Memory Lane," with a Durham institution, our beloved Bulls.

New memories made fresh here daily...

The Great Durhamerican Pastime
by Ned Phillips

The Durham Bulls season is winding down and for the first time in six years, there will be no division championship or playoff run. On September 1, at 7:05pm, the first pitch of the last game will be thrown at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park. So whether you’re on a first date or a last date, I advise that you get out to the ballpark, partake in tradition and enjoy one of the most exciting, affordable experiences our fair city has to offer.

Going to the Durham Bulls games are among my earliest childhood memories. Decked out in my Little League uniform, glove in hand, hoping to be recognized as an elite ball player (I stunk), I strutted about as if I was ready to be called in from the bullpen at any moment. My cool was shattered only by the occasional interaction with his hairiness, Wool E. Bull, who reduced me from big time athlete to giddy fan boy.

To make myself useful between fly ball scrambles, I’d mark every single pitch thrown on the scorecard included with the program. My statistical analysis gave me a sense of importance. I could understand the grunts and signals from the umpire while my accuracy and commitment to the scorecard made me believe that I was, in some small way, contributing to the victory. However, in time, I discovered the Bulls had an entire team of statisticians and it was, in fact, dorky to wear your uniform to the game. Being a mature nine years of age, decided I‘d rather be dead than caught attending the game in knee-high baseball socks.

By fourth grade, the Old Durham Athletic Park had become a stimulating social engagement. Suddenly I was more interested in making the rounds at the stadium, finding friends, meeting new ones and having as many adventures as possible became the focus of my evening. It was a schoolboy’s night on the town, the equivalent of, I don’t know, going to the club: there was excitement, danger and loud music. It was sensory overload, flavored with the intoxicating scent of the fairer sex and cinnamon glazed pretzels.

On top of providing me with situations to improve my interpersonal skills, baseball outings taught me simple economics. The old DAP was one of the first places I ever spent my own money. Coupled with a small loan from the Bank of Mom, I made my allowance go the distance at the Bulls game. I’d happily exchange a few crinkled, sweaty bills for some sweet drinks with varying degrees of slurpability. But the fact that over expenditure on slushies and funnel cake meant no cheese for a Flying Burrito made for a harsh realization that was never easy to swallow. The Bank of Mom’s refusal to re-finance was tough love at its finest, but as a result I developed a system of food rotation that Adam Smith would have appreciated.

The ballpark is a big place when you’re four feet tall and I began to see it as some sort of crazy American sociological experiment. It is after all one of the few places society has deemed it ok for wide-eyed, innocent children to mingle about with leathery old drunks. Who you are at school or work, takes a back seat to your status as a fan when you’re at the game. At this social crossroads, I watched the melting pot of people, absorbing as much I could about the complex mystery that is human race.

And what is baseball if not a metaphor for life? During our numbered innings on this earth we get a few at bats, a couple chances to do something great. Sometimes we strike out. But sometimes, with enough focus, skill and luck we get a hit. Maybe it’s just a base hit, one to get on and set the stage for later plays. Maybe it drives in a run for one of our teammates. Perhaps we even sacrificed a fly to get them there. And in the rare but beautiful instance that we really connect and send it out of the park, we take the slow trot; touch every bag at our leisure, reflecting at our own pace because we know who’s waiting at home to celebrate.

In baseball, as in life, remember that some things are out of your control. You can blame the weather, the crowd or the stock market, but they are only distractions. The details matter. A white lie, can blow up in your face, just as fast as a whopper of a tall tale. A tiny error or an inch can determine the outcome. But every day begins anew and new opportunities abound. Baseball internalizes the grand old saws, takes them as obvious re-affirmable truths, ‘this is the first day of the rest of your life’ … ‘a journey of a 1,000 miles begins with a single step.” When you come up to the plate your previous at-bats no longer matter. The mano y mano, confrontation, solitary pitcher, tiny, hard, white spherical object grasped in hand, batter, two-tenths of a second to decide, “Is that coming at my face, should I swing, is it outside?” Yet, there’s no time limit and until the final out is called anything is possible. Victory will be sweet and defeat crushing. Your team will be there to pick you up, win or lose. And something unpredictable happens every day.

Aside from the dazzling Ozzie Smithesque acrobatics that can happen at any moment a ball is put in play, for me the best part of baseball are those Ol’ West style gunslinger duels between pitcher and batter. Sixty feet, six inches. One on one, over and over again, for every Benny Rodriguez trying to crush homers and round the bases, there’s a Nuke Laloosh on the mound, breathing through his eyelids like a Galapagos Island lava lizard, straining with every ounce of their being to smite The Jet in the batter’s box. Like two samurai, this is a confrontation rooted tradition and precision. They have been playing the game for 150 years, and yet, today, a single swing can make all the difference.

There is a palpable mysticism that surrounds the game. How did the designer of the infield diamond know the average foot speed of the runners and throwing velocity of the fielders in order create the ideal distance between home plate and first base, resulting in so many close plays? How about second base, who foresaw that one-hundred and twenty feet was just far enough to create the drama of the stolen base? People in baseball always talk about “respecting the game”- the game is an institution, writ large into the American psyche and the narrative of our history and popular culture, bigger than any single player, team or individual.

Like me, the Durham Bulls outgrew their old digs and moved into a beautiful new facility a few blocks south in downtown. While the new, modern cathedral can hold a bigger crowd and has more places to park it lacks the romance of the old DAP (something I rediscovered there in 1998 when Clarence Carter performed “Strokin’ at the Blues festival.)

Now a full-grown man (by some measures) I still find that same excitement, the thrill and fascination at the Bulls games. This year, on opening night, I ran into the same crowd of friends I went to those fourth grade games with. They had on their crusty old Bulls’ hats that they’d had for God knows how long, the ones that only get worn out of the house on game days. We found some seats behind home plate where we could adequately taunt pitchers, belly-itchers and the visiting batters on deck. Close by a father was explaining the pitch count to his daughter and a on the other side of us a young couple nuzzled, oblivious to happenings on the diamond. I realized our slushies had turned to beer and we were now the beer swilling maniacs we had once been amused by as children. Feelings of nostalgic youth swirled with the realities of the present. And I smiled, because I knew for the rest of my life, whatever else is happening in the world, the Bulls will be playing baseball in the summertime.

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