The first mini road trip on the 2019 baseball season in the United States took place on the weekend of June 15th/16th 2019. My brother came down to Maryland the night before, and our trip began after 900 am Saturday morning. Google mapped out a 250 mile trip in a little more than four hours, placing us at the hotel outside Durham, NC in the early afternoon. Following lunch in VA about halfway through the trip, we stopped at Target store to purchase a clamp for my GoPro Hero 7 Black camera.
We found the clamp quickly, but waited for what seemed like an infinity on line to buy it. Lines simply weren’t moving, and nobody in the store appeared to know why. There were whispers of problems with the registers, and we were informed by management that Target’s online presence was also offline. Not wanting to waste any more time waiting, we left the store. Google informed us there was another Target nearby, so we headed there. Before we could get to the door, someone told us that the store was closed, due to register problems. We read later than Target’s entire system was down for nearly two hours, just as we tried to buy a part.
We found the part at an adjacent Best Buy, and we were on our way. The delay placed us nearly an hour behind, and we didn’t reach the hotel until nearly 400 pm. Luckily, the weather was wonderful, warm with relatively low humidity. Not being a fan of heat or humidity, my worst fears went unfounded.
The stadium was about 15 minutes from the hotel, ensconced in downtown Durham. Like most urban ballparks, there was parking offsite, and we found a garage that was reasonably priced. Typically, we are wary of parking in multiple level garages, which can result in a VERY long wait at the end of the game. Since we had some time before the gates opened, we explored the environs adjacent to the ball park. As is the case with urban parks, the area was filled with shops, bars and restaurants, and it seemed as though this location was in the process of renovation.
Before going into the park, we looked through the team store. On the wall next to the store were plaques of retired Bulls numbers. Of course, not being a Bulls fan, we did not recognize the numbers and the significance behind them. However, there WAS a number we did recognize. Any fan of the movie Bull Durham would know this number instantly.
Once inside the team store, there were MANY references to the movie (not surprisingly), with Crash Davis and Nuke Laloosh jerseys on display. To be sure, I expected some nod to the movie, but this was more than I anticipated. However, I’m sure that the merchandise with these names sell very well here, as fans take home a little piece of the movie.
We entered the ballpark at the home plate gate, and conducted our typical pre game tour of the stadium. While this is NOT the same stadium from the movie, Durham Bulls Athletic Park is a beautiful park nestled in an urban setting. Even though this wasn’t the park from the movie, there WAS a familiar site in left field.
In Durham Bulls Athletic Park, the snorting bull is located in left field; in Bull Durham, the bull was in right field. There were no other obvious nods to the past, but this park didn’t need them. It stands on its own as a great minor league experience.
Typically, we select seats for baseball games in a particular manner. The preferred location is in the lower level between home plate and third or first base. These seats are best for taking pictures, and depending on the stadium, the best view of the field. If these seats are not available, we prefer to be higher, as close to home plate as possible. This usually occurs at major league parks with strong fan bases.
For this park, we chose seats in the lower level, right behind home plate. Because of the netting, these seats are worse for taking pictures, but here, it offered an amazing view of a beautiful ballpark. Like many urban ballparks we have visited, there were condominiums in left center field. If I worked in the area, I’d certainly have to investigate the feasibility of living in one of these homes.
While we knew the Bulls’ opponent for this game would be the Scranton Wilkes-Barre RailRiders (the AAA affiliate of the New York Yankees), what we didn’t know is that there would be two major leaguers on rehab assignments tonight. Both Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton were in the lineup, batting first and second, respectively. Based on the buzz from the crowd, they were fully aware these players would be here. Of course, the two players were fully cognizant of the attention they would garner, and made sure they were in view of the crowd at every opportunity.
In fact, Judge signed autographs near the on deck circle before each at bat. Normally, even at the minor league level, this behavior is either strongly discouraged or outright forbidden. Given the situation, it seemed as though the Bulls’ management was content to look the other way, especially since it did not interfere with play. Each hitter had four at bats, with Judge DHing and Stanton in left field. Though neither player had a hit tonight, most fans didn’t seem to mind. Their mere presence was enough to make the fans’ night.
The RailRiders had a couple of other major leaguers in the lineup, as well as a few players that have been rising through the Yankees minor league system. My brother lives near Arm and Hammer Park, home of the Yankees AA team in Trenton, NJ, and he saw a few of these players there recently. We did not recognize many of the players in the Bulls lineup (the Durham Bulls are the AAA affiliate of the Tampa Bay Rays) . The game itself was a tight affair, with the RailRiders starter Raynel Espinal allowing one runs in six innings of work.
The Bulls starter, Jake Croneworth, pitched the first inning, followed by four reliever. The quintet blanked the RailRiders on just two hits. The Bulls tacked on a run in the 7th, winning the game 2-0.
After the game, we headed back to the hotel, ending a long day of travel and baseball.
Sunday, June 16th
Our next stop on the abbreviated road trip was High Point, NC, home of the High Point Rockers. The Rockers are the newest franchise in the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball. High Point is about an hour from Durham, and since the game didn’t start until 205 pm, we had time in the morning to explore the area. Our target was Eno River State Park, located in Durham. Walking paths located adjacent to the parking lot made for easy access to the park. The portion of the park we visited contained the remains of the Cole Mills, along the banks of the river.
We walked along the river, reaching a waterfall. Beyond the waterfall, the river continued upstream into a field ringed by pine trees. While we didn’t see much in the way of wildlife on our journey, we did find some turtles sunning themselves on fallen tree trunks. These particular turtles were very skittish, plopping into the water whenever we made sounds, or wandered too close to the riverbank. Following several attempts to get better looks at the turtles (during which time all of the remaining turtles jumped into the water), we headed back up the trail, leaving the turtles in peace.
Wandering down the path, we enjoyed the warm but dry morning, splashed by wall to wall sunshine. Despite the beautiful weather, there were few others in the park. Before we knew it, we’d spent more than an hour there. After crossing a bridge spanning the river, we headed back toward the parking lot. Before leaving, we made one last visit to the waterfall. The serenity of the waterfall was inviting, and we spent some time there before getting back on the road. If there was more time, we could have spent the morning there. If you are in the area, I highly recommend a visit.
Driving along Interstate 40 toward High Point, we realized we would be passing fairly close to Greensboro. Originally, we attempted to fit Greensboro into the schedule for this weekend, but the Grasshoppers were out of town. Since we were nearby, we decided to make a quick stop to see the stadium. Located in downtown Greensboro, First National Bank Field is the home of the Grasshoppers, the South Atlantic League single A affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates.
When we arrived, that portion of Greensboro was very quiet at noon. Even though the Grasshoppers were away, the ballpark was in use, and apparently open to the public. Assuming that to be true, we entered the park to see a game in progress. There were no outward signs of the names of the teams playing, nor what league they were in. Like any other park we’ve visited, we wandered around the ballpark, taking pictures along the way.
After spending about 30 minutes at First National Bank Field, we continued on our way to High Point, reaching the stadium about an hour before the scheduled start time. BB&T Point is the home of the High Point Rockers, the newest addition to the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball. The ballpark is located on the edge of downtown High Point, surrounded by commercial property .
Parking was a bit confusing, as there did not seem to be a dedicated parking lot at the park. We arrived early enough to park on the street, but even that option came with some question marks. We opted to park in a private lot across the street, and parking was reasonable ($5.00). We walked over to the nearest gate to enter the ballpark not long after arriving, as gates open about an hour before game time.
However, the gates did NOT open on time. With an increasingly restless crowd waiting at the gate, fans were finally allowed to enter less than 30 minutes before first pitch. The late entrance left us little time for our pre-game ballpark tour, but we managed to take pictures before heading to the seats. The obligatory stop at the third base concession stand provided standard ballpark fare. My hot dogs were fried, but ultimately tasty, without the aftertaste common to ballpark dogs.
One of the aspects of the ballpark that caught our attention was the playing surface. Many newer ballparks have some version of turf, but BB&T Point had something we’ve never seen before. Not only was the “grass” made of AstroTurf, so was the “dirt” portion of the field (including the mound and batters boxes). Presumably an attempt to mitigate maintenance costs, the unique field was as attractive as it was interesting. The weather was pleasantly warm for the 205 pm start, as we took our seats in the lower level on the third base side. Much like we’ve seen elsewhere, the Sunday afternoon game was lightly attended, which is odd considering this is the inaugural season for the Rockers.
The Rockers’ opponent this afternoon was the Long Island Ducks. The Ducks have a strong connection to the New York Mets (our favorite squadron). The connection starts with manager Wally Backman, the 2nd baseman for the 1986 world championships, and Ed Lynch, a starter for the Mets in the 1980s. The starting lineup for the Ducks featured former Met outfielder Kirk Nieuwenhuis, and former Met farmhand LJ Mazzilli (son of perennial fan favorite Lee Mazzilli).
The game was tied 2-2 entering the bottom of the 10th. The Atlantic League, like Minor League Baseball, starts every extra half-inning with the batter who made the last out in the previous inning placed at 2nd base. This rule change was implemented to spur scoring in extra innings, in hopes of shortening games. In this case, the rule change worked, as the runner placed at 2nd base scored on a single, giving the Rockers 3-2 win.
With a long drive back to Maryland ahead of us, we did not linger at the ballpark long. Overall, the experience was enjoyable; a very good game at an interesting ballpark. If you find yourself in the area, the ballpark is worth the visit, if for no other reason than to see the unique playing surface. However, the sustainability of Atlantic League baseball in High Point may be difficult, even with a brand new ballpark. There are other baseball options within driving distance, and from just one visit, it was tough to determine the level of baseball interest in the area.