Thursday, February 22, 2018

Durham still bullish on 'Bull Durham'

Before game time at Durham's ballpark, clips of Annie Savoy, Nuke LaLoosh and Crash Davis appear on the video board as Savoy makes public service announcements.

Sometimes the three local legends serve as racing mascots in another takeoff on the Milwaukee Brewers' popular sausage race.

And even when they're not seen, the aura of Nuke, Crash and Annie permeates this North Carolina ballpark and the city of Durham itself.

If you don't recognize the names, you've probably never used the word "lollygag" in a sentence or seen the movie Bull Durham, a classic romantic comedy that resonates in Durham 26 years after its release.

Major League may be more beloved by ballplayers. Field of Dreams probably is a better valentine to the game.

But no baseball film has made as much of an impact as Bull Durham, which taught a generation of players how to speak in cliches and gave us a glimpse of baseball life at the lowest rung.

Yankees second baseman Brian Roberts, who grew up in nearby Chapel Hill and went to games in the old ballpark used in the film, said Bull Durham accurately portrays the minor-league experience — up to a point.

"It's as realistic as any movie," Roberts said. "It's got some parts that depict minor-league baseball in a way that's probably a little far-fetched, but at the same time, there are some parts that are realistic — broken-down buses and all that sort of stuff.

"But it was an enjoyable baseball movie, and certainly one of my favorites. It's one of those things that will probably stick around Durham for a long time."

When the movie came out in 1988 with Kevin Costner, Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon as the three parts of a crazy love triangle, the Durham Bulls were an actual Class A team in the Carolina League. The Bulls left the old ballpark for a modern 10,000-seat venue in 1995 and became the Tampa Bay Rays' Triple-A affiliate in the International League in 1998.

The new park brought over the sign of a bull that promises a steak dinner to anyone who hits it, and a just-completed $20 million renovation includes the giant board embedded into the leftfield wall known as the "Blue Monster." On July 16 the team will host the Triple A All-Star Game, an event that should bring even more focus to the film.

The old park used in Bull Durham remains about a mile away and still is used by a local college and for American Legion games. The stands and dugouts haven't changed, though the outfield ads are long gone.

The movie, written by former minor-league player Ron Shelton, was an immediate hit, and many scenes became instant classics, including the mound meeting where players discuss wedding presents, the bus ride during which Crash teaches Nuke the proper baseball cliches, and the night the players intentionally flood the field.

Less than two months after its debut, 13 fans were ejected from Wrigley Field during the first night game after running out on the field during a rain delay and performing belly flops on the tarp, imitating the movie. Cubs players Jody Davis, Les Lancaster, Al Nipper and Greg Maddux later did the same thing, though they escaped with small fines from the team instead of ejections.

White Sox centerfielder Adam Eaton, on a minor-league rehab stint recently in Durham, said the movie was as timeless as ever. Eaton was born six months after the movie was released and played in the minors from 2010 to 2013.

"It's one of the top three baseball movies of all time, for sure," he said. "I think it really does depict what the minor leagues are like. It's very, very, very close to what real life is there. It hasn't changed. The minor leagues are still fighting for more pay and better conditions. It hasn't changed at all, which is the beauty of the game. It doesn't change for anybody.

"Ballparks get a little nicer, and buses do tend to be nicer in Triple-A, but in rookie ball? That's basically Bull Durham at its finest."

The monologues in the movie were memorable, particularly Crash explaining to Nuke what it's like in "The Show" — where "you hit white balls for batting practice, the ballparks are like cathedrals, the hotels all have room service, and the women all have long legs and brains."

Shelton is now adapting his script into a musical, working with folk singer-songwriter Susan Werner. They're planning on a run this summer at the Alliance Theater in Atlanta, with hopes of bringing it to Broadway next spring.

Shelton told the Raleigh News & Observer the musical version will maintain its steamy scenes and its R-rated material.

"Like the movie, the sex is not prurient — it's earthy and funny," he said. "We get to see what happens when Annie ties up Nuke in the bedroom, and it turns into a musical number. We get to see Crash and Annie fight, and that's a musical number. We get to see Annie try to seduce Nuke when he's on a winning streak and Crash won't let him sleep with her. We get to stage these things."

Shelton said all the supporting characters in the movie will be in it, and they're introducing a new character who is "very active and full of himself."

Will Bull Durham play on Broadway?

Roberts said he definitely would go see it if it comes to New York.

But whether the musical succeeds or not, the movie will always endure, and its message about the game remains as true as ever: "It's a simple game. You throw the ball. You hit the ball. You catch the ball."

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