DURHAM, N.C. — Saturday was special, as North Carolina Triangle fans (and a handful from Tampa Bay on Southwest's morning flight) packed the festive Durham Bulls Athletic Park for the Rays' first visit since 2002.
But it's not that different during the regular season, as the Rays and Bulls mutually enjoy a relationship that ties two well-run organizations together and will through at least 2014.
The Rays benefit from the positive atmosphere and historical setting of having their top farm team in Durham, and the Bulls benefit from getting to field some of the game's top young players as well as the Rays' dedication to player development.
Just ask the players who came through, such as B.J. Upton, who spent the better part of three years in Durham. "It's hot, it's humid, it's sweaty in the middle of the summer," Upton said. "And it's a great place. There's a great crowd, and they support you as well as anywhere. They made it fun."
Or ask Bulls GM Mike Birling: "All these fans here watched these guys grow up, and now they're seeing such a huge part of that AL championship roster come through here. Even though the Orioles are right there (300 miles away), they're really becoming Rays fans, which is great to see the transformation over the last 10 years. It's been a great ride.
"We all have the same common goal, we understand what they're trying to accomplish, they understand stuff like this, how important it is to us. That's why the relationship is so strong."
Or ask Rays manager Joe Maddon: "The people of Durham absolutely treated us great, first class. I can understand why our guys like coming up here; it's a great atmosphere, a great facility."
UNION MIKE: Principal owner Stuart Sternberg's announced plans to cut the payroll after this season certainly caught the attention of some Rays players. Also the players union. "Do we like hearing somebody on a competitive team say they are going to cut major-league payroll? No," union chief Michael Wiener said. "We're going to wait and see what actually happens."
RAYS RUMBLINGS: There has been talk, though no official announcement, of showing up to 30 games on TV in Spanish, with word that Orestes Destrade will be one of the announcers. … Somehow, Tuesday's home opener is still not sold out. … Evan Longoria's New Era cap TV commercial, which is about to start airing, is pretty good. … Longoria shot another national spot last week at the Trop for Pepsi's Refresh Project, which encourages fans to vote for different charitable causes to get grants; his was tied in with Moffitt cancer center. … In Sports Illustrated's prediction, the Rays win 95 games and the wild card, then beat the Angels and Yankees in the playoffs before losing to the Phillies. … Peter Gammons, now of mlb.com, picks B.J. Upton to win the AL MVP award and Sean Rodriguez to be AL rookie of the year, though he's actually not eligible. … The Cuban Ball Players blog says LHP Sergio Espinosa, who reportedly signed with the Rays, was a closer who throws over 90 mph with a sharp breaking ball and averaged seven-plus strikeouts per nine innings.