I pitched the idea to my wife, Sara, and son, Jack, at the end of March: How about a quick overnight trip to North Carolina in early May, to watch minor league and college baseball and revisit some of our favorite food experiences from a similar excursion in 2015?
It took no convincing, so we were driving south early on May 7. That night, we’d see the Triple-A Durham Bulls play — I had bought the tickets weeks earlier and had to look when Sara asked who the opponent was.
It was the Norfolk Tides, the top farm team of the Baltimore Orioles. Joe Gunkel, who graduated from Hershey High School, had only days earlier been called up to Norfolk. Maybe, we hoped, he’d be pitching that night.
In a wonderful coincidence, he was. And we enjoyed the best of both worlds:
We got to see Gunkel, whom we took a particular interest in because he originally played in the Boston Red Sox organization. (Boston traded him to the Orioles last season). He looked great, pitching seven innings and leaving with the game tied at 1.
But we also got to revel in the Bulls winning the game on a walk-off single in the 11th inning.
I’ve been fascinated with the Durham Bulls since 1988, when “Bull Durham” came out.
Starring Kevin Costner, Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins, the movie humorously depicts life and love in the minor leagues. (Among the many great lines in the movie, Sarandon’s Annie Savoy utters my favorite: “The world is made for people who aren’t cursed with self-awareness.”)
The film’s backdrop was the Bulls’ venerable home, Durham Athletic Park, or the DAP. Ironically, the popularity of “Bull Durham” made the minor leagues fashionable again and ushered in a golden era of stadium construction that made places such as the DAP outdated.
I first visited Durham and saw the Bulls play in 1993, in what was promoted as the final season of the DAP. (Because of construction delays, the move to a new downtown stadium didn’t occur until after the 1994 season.)
I’ve been back to Durham several times in recent years, along with paying visits to nearby Chapel Hill to watch the University of North Carolina baseball team.
It’s hard for me to believe that the Bulls have been in their current stadium — Durham Bulls Athletic Park — for more than 20 years, not to mention how much of a catalyst it has been in the neighborhood’s transformation. I described it in this post from last year’s Durham trip.
At the same time, it’s comforting to know that the old ballpark is still standing. It’s even available for rental, for baseball and non-baseball events alike.
‘Tender as a mother’s love’
Like Annie Savoy, our family believes in the Church of Baseball, so we raptly watch games. But we also savor the local flavors associated with baseball trips.
Our first stop in Durham after the six-hour drive from Hershey was The Original Q Shack. We’re not big meat-eaters generally, but we discovered this place five years ago and have embraced it. Let’s just say that the barbecue is so good (“BBQ as tender as a mother’s love” is the slogan) that I would consider driving to Durham just for the brisket sandwich and hushpuppies.
The Bulls offer standard baseball fare, but the presence of Bull Durham Beer Co. gives Durham Bulls Athletic Park the distinction of having the only on-site brewery in minor league baseball. (Lollygagger Kolsch is an homage to “Bull Durham” the movie.)
We saved our appetites for post-game and a short walk up Blackwell Street to OnlyBurger, which began with a food truck in 2008 and now has two locations.
The burgers are major league. Like pitching phenom Ebby Calvin “Nuke” LaLoosh from “Bull Durham,” they announce their presence with authority.