35 Years After Bull Durham, the Durham Bulls Are Still the Biggest Team in Little Baseball


This is a baseball story, but it starts in December at a greasy spoon at the edge of Durham, North Carolina. I overhear two older men talking about off-season moves. There’s mention of a few big bats, a knuckleballer whose pitch moves like a butterfly, and a new ace who, within a few short seasons, would go on to fulfill most of his promise in the majors. 

I’d moved to Chapel Hill from New York City a few months before, and as I listened to these men, it took me a minute to figure out what they were discussing. Eventually I realized they weren’t talking about the Braves or the Nationals—Durham’s nearest big league ballclubs. Nor were they talking about the programs at Duke, UNC, or North Carolina State.

Rather, they were talking about the team from the movie—the team my wife and I went to see play a few times earlier that summer, the team whose hats and shirts and bumper stickers I saw all throughout our first summer, fall, and early winter living here.

They’re talking about the Durham Bulls, arguably the most well-known minor league club in America. The Biggest Team in Little Baseball. And they’re talking about them in a way that I’ve never heard people talk about minor league teams before: the way fans talk about their big-league teams.

I grew up a stone’s throw from a handful of farm-team stadiums in New Jersey and for many years lived short subway rides from the Coney Island Cyclones and the Newark Bears. I was never far from a good night at Single-, Double-, or Triple-A ballpark. But I never heard anyone talk about the Cyclones or the Bears in December, and rarely saw anyone wearing a Trenton Thunder or Jersey Shore BlueClaws hat or jersey anywhere outside the Trenton Thunder or Jersey Shore BlueClaws’ stadiums.

But after moving to Chapel Hill, just twenty minutes from downtown Durham, after listening to those older men at the greasy spoon talk about this team in a talk that’s usually reserved for the Mets or the Yankees, I realized that the Bulls serve a much more important role to the city of Durham than just a means for a cheap summer’s night out.

Baseball is a regional sport and our region is a four-hour drive away from the nearest major league team, which has only been the case since 2005, when the Expos left Montreal to become the Nationals. Before that, it was six hours to Atlanta.

And so the Bulls are not just Durham’s baseball team. The Bulls are Central North Carolina’s baseball team, too.

Sure, the Carolina Mudcats are just on the other side of Raleigh and the Charlotte Knights have been doing better attendance numbers over the last few seasons, not to mention the myriad other North Carolina-based clubs with only-in-the-minors nicknames like the Grasshoppers, Woodpeckers, Honey Hunters, Sock Puppets, Wood Ducks, and Cannon Ballers. But none of them have the history, the cache, or the name recognition of the Bulls.

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35 Years After Bull Durham, the Durham Bulls Are Still the Biggest Team in Little Baseball

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