'Bull Durham' Turns 30 - And So Does Asheville's Greatest (Fictional) Baseball Moment
30 years ago Friday, the movie Bull Durham premiered. The film merged baseball and romantic comedy, all while showcasing the state of North Carolina. Filming locations in the state included Durham, Raleigh, Greensboro, Wilson, Old Fort, and Asheville.
Bull Durham’s biggest legacy though is the resurgence it sparked in minor league baseball that’s still felt today. It was released in 1988, and while minor league baseball had been around for decades by that time, it didn’t really resemble what it does now says Asheville Tourists team president Brian Dewine. “When minor league baseball first started, it often times (teams) would take the name of their affiliate, they would play in front of a few hundred fans, and it just was what it was," Dewine says. In 1988, the total attendance for all of minor league baseball was just over 21.6 million people. Last season, the total attendance was nearly double that. “Bull Durham showed everyone what minor league baseball was. Yeah there were bus rides and there’s craziness, but there’s also a lot of fun,” says Dewine.
North Carolina, where Bull Durham is set, is a great example of the growth of minor league baseball the past three decades. Of the 11 teams in the state, seven play in stadiums opened since the movie premiered. An 8th will open in two years when the Buies Creek Astros move to Fayetteville. While Bull Durham isn’t the only reason for that growth, it certainly is a reason for it says Dewine. “I think it showed that this was legit. That minor league baseball…you could see some great baseball, you could see players who maybe the next day were going to be in the major leagues,” he says.
The Tourists, and their home McCormick Field, were featured in a small but important part of Bull Durham, and the team is celebrating that this weekend. But to understand the significance and depth of all they’re doing, we’ll need a quick synopsis of the film.
Bull Durham is the story of Annie Savoy, who teaches English 101 and Beginning Composition at Alamance Junior College part-time. Annie is a full-time fan of baseball, and in particular the Durham Bulls (who at the time played in the Class-A Carolina League). Annie, played by Susan Sarandon soon takes to young pitcher Ebby Calvin ‘Nuke’ Laloosh, played by Sarandon’s future ex-husband Tim Robbins. As the story goes, Nuke has a million dollar arm and a five cent head, so Annie takes him under her wing so to speak to show him life and baseball advice. But the Bulls soon send aging catcher Crash Davis to Durham to do the same thing.
Davis, played by Kevin Costner, has been the in the minors so long he is close breaking the all-time minor league home run record, though he wants no one to know about it. Throughout the season, Annie and Crash show Nuke the ropes, all the while fighting their attraction to each other. In the film’s climax, Nuke gets called up to the majors. The Bulls no longer need Crash and release him. After spending a night with Annie, he leaves without waking her, hearing the Asheville Tourists in the South Atlantic League may need a catcher. By this point in the season Crash needs only one more home run to set the minor league record of 247 dingers. He hits the record-breaker at McCormick Field as a member of the Tourists, and then retires, heading back to Durham and Annie.
Annie mentions that when Crash broke the record, she felt she was the only one who knew about it, and that the Sporting News surely didn't. Well, the Tourists with the help of the Sporting News have righted that wrong with the program fans will receive this weekend. It’s a mock 1988 cover of the magazine, with a photo of Crash Davis in his Tourists uniform on the front, with the caption 247. Its authenticity even extends to the address tag, which is addressed to Annie Savoy using the correct address of Durham’s historic Manning House, which was used as the character’s home in the film. Dewine said the team contacted the Sporting News about making the programs, and the magazine was thrilled to help out.
The first thousand fans at Saturday’s game will get a Crash Davis bobble head doll, and the Tourists will wear 1988 throwback jerseys, with a 247 patch on the sleeve (and auction them off) – all to celebrate one of baseball’s greatest moments, however fictional it may be.