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With Protocols, Prospects And Sock Puppets, Minor League Baseball Is Back In North Carolina

 Wander Franco of the Durham Bulls gets in some batting practice at DBAP in early May 2021 before the team's first roadtrip of the season.
Paxton Rembis
courtesy Durham Bulls
Wander Franco of the Durham Bulls gets in some batting practice at DBAP in early May 2021 before the team's first roadtrip of the season.

It’s been nearly 20 months since baseball fans have filled Durham Bulls Athletic Park.

The last time the Durham Bulls played a home game was Sept. 12, 2019, when they lost 6-2 to the Columbus Clippers in the finale of the Governor’s Cup, which is essentially the World Series of Triple-A baseball in the International League. It was a disappointing end to an otherwise successful season, in which the Bulls won 75 regular season contests. Jason Coats’ home run in the bottom of the seventh inning was really the last time Bulls fans had something to cheer about.

Since then, longtime fans like Erin Byrd and her husband haven’t been able to go to the stadium to enjoy a game. And ballpark pretzel enthusiasts like Andrew Schnittker haven’t had the chance to savor one of those salty snacks while witnessing a Bull hit a dinger over the right field fence.

While many sports were able to adjust and adapt during the pandemic in 2020, Minor League Baseball didn’t. On June 30 last year, the season was canceled for the first time ever. And many tight-knit communities, from mid-sized cities to small towns – including 11 in North Carolina – missed out on seeing live baseball for the first time in a long while.

But Major and Minor League Baseball, and all their affiliates, have made adjustments for this season. So, for the Tar Heel State, baseball is back.

The Bulls began their season on the road on May 4, notching a 7-5 victory over the Memphis Redbirds. They’ll play their first home game of the season on Tuesday, May 11 against the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp. The first pitch is at 6:35 p.m.

Durham Bulls' pitcher Brent Honeywell Jr. gets in some pitching reps at DBAP
Paxton Rembis
courtesy Durham Bulls
Durham Bulls' pitcher Brent Honeywell Jr. gets in some pitching reps at DBAP in early May 2021 before the team's first road trip of the season.

“This has been a tough time for so many folks in our community. It’s tough not to think about all the restaurants and all the things that make downtown Durham what it's become. But I think our staff, and our fans, our seasonal employees, our full time employees – I live downtown, I can speak for my neighbors as well – everyone is just ecstatic,” said Scott Strickland, the Assistant General Manager of Operations for the Bulls. “We can kind of start to see the light at the end of the tunnel. And we're happy to hopefully play a small part in getting Durham and the Triangle back to as close to normal as we can. And hopefully, we can do that via baseball.”

In Burlington, the newly named Sock Puppets – which we’ll get to in a moment – will begin play June 5.

“It’s incredible. You can feel it. People just want to go back to the ballpark,” said Anderson Rathbun, Burlington’s General Manager. “Our season ticket sales have been incredibly off the charts. We sold more season tickets this year than ever before in Burlington baseball history. It’s been fun. The community response has been great, and they're definitely counting down the days until opening night.”

Safety First

While the number of people getting vaccinated for COVID-19 is going up as the rollout continues, the pandemic is still very much ongoing. So, while baseball is back and fans will be in ballparks across North Carolina, some restrictions and safety measures will still be in place.

For starters, per Gov. Roy Cooper’sexecutive order on April 28, outdoor venues like baseball stadiums can only operate at 50% capacity. That number can increase in June if North Carolina continues to see an uptick in vaccinations.

Byrd, who operates a mobile veterinary service – Socks and Co. – based out of Cary, says she and her husband are both vaccinated and feel “fine” going to Bulls games this year. For the past five years, they’ve gone to about 18 games a season. They plan on attending at least five this year.

An usher holds a sign asking spectators to wear face masks to help curb the spread of COVID-19 during the third inning of a baseball game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Toronto Blue Jays, Friday, April 23, 2021, in St. Petersburg, Fla.
Phelan M. Ebenhack
An usher holds a sign asking spectators to wear face masks to help curb the spread of COVID-19 during the third inning of a baseball game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Toronto Blue Jays, Friday, April 23, 2021, in St. Petersburg, Fla.

“It’ll be good to be back,” Byrd said. “We’re happy to be masked as requested, and my husband often prefers to be separated by a bit of distance. We are both well-versed in diseases, public health... So, being outside, plus good protocols, will make for a safe experience.”

Schnittker has been going to Bulls’ games as long as he can remember. His first game might’ve been when he was three-years-old, he said, back when his parents and grandparents would get partial season ticket packages. Now 24 and living in Raleigh – and working as a sportswriter covering N.C. State and the Carolina Hurricanes – Schnittker spends his own dime to see the Bulls play. He’s got tickets for the season-opening home-stand. And he too feels “pretty comfortable” walking into DBAP, noting that he’s been “fully vaccinated for a few weeks.”

For Strickland, not playing last year and watching all the other professional sports leagues wade through the pandemic was a bit of a silver lining. The Bulls were able to see what other teams and organizations did and learn.

“I think it'll be a continuation of what people have seen. There are essentially four staples to how we will operate at least for the month of May,” Strickland said. “Reduced capacities is the large one, social distancing, wearing a face mask, and enhanced cleaning procedures. We’ll be around 2,800 people to start the year, but we fully expect them to be just as loud as an 8,000-person crowd.

While the state of North Carolina no longer requires masks to be worn outdoors, MLB requires them to be worn in its stadiums at all times, except for when fans are eating or drinking at their ticketed seat.

A New Era In Burlington

 The minor league club in Burlington changed its name from Royals to Sock Puppets.
courtesy Burlington Sock Puppets
Along with adjusting to changes in the Appalachian League, the minor league club in Burlington changed its name from Royals to Sock Puppets.

Some minor league teams did not survive the pandemic.

In a move that had been whispered about for a few years, MLB seized control of its minor league system and announced a radical and broad restructuring plan. MLB slashed the number minor league affiliates from 160 down to 120, leaving dozens of teams without major league affiliates. In the new system, each of the 30 MLB teams has four affiliates, one in Class AAA, one in Class AA and two in Class A.

Teams like the Bulls were unscathed. They’ve been the Triple-A affiliate of the Tampa Bays since 1998 and will continue to be this season.

Other teams, like the Asheville Tourists, made the cut, but jumped up to High-A ball from the Low-A ranks, and saw their MLB affiliation change from the Colorado Rockies to the Houston Astros. And Tourists’ President Brian DeWinetold Blue Ridge Now that the team’s stadiums will need “significant upgrades” by 2023 to meet MLB’s new standards. The same is true for the stadium that the Down East Wood Ducks call home in Kinston.

In overtaking control of the minor league system, MLB argues that the changes will reduce travel time in the minors, that it will enforce higher standards and even the playing field of its affiliates, and lessen the financial strain on players.

During its overhaul of the minors, MLB tookthe Appalachian League and flipped it into a 54-game summer circuit for collegiate players. The 10 teams in this league, which includes the club in Burlington, will have players provided to them by MLB and USA Baseball, instead of a single major league club.

Burlington was the only minor league team in North Carolina to lose its affiliation with an MLB team. According toa map from Axios, no matter where someone lives in North Carolina, they are still always less than 100 miles away from a minor league baseball park.

With the change, the team in Burlington saw an opportunity to rebrand. Since 2007, the team has been known as the Burlington Royals, simply because of their affiliation with MLB’s Kansas City Royals. With its relationship to a team 1,015 miles away severed, Burlington sought out a new identity. The club wanted a name and brand that was fun and recognizable, but also something that related to the community.

The name they landed on: The Burlington Sock Puppets.

“There's a lot of history that people just don't know about. We're excited to debut that as part of our brand,” Rathbun said.

Indeed, the name is both whacky and memorable, and reflects Burlington’s history in the textile industry, which once dominated the local economy.

“Everybody who has lived here for generations has a family member or a close friend that worked in the textile mill, so we wanted to honor that,” Rathbun said. “Furthermore, we wanted to have a product that was made here. And then we want to take that one step further and have legitimate fun and be different.”

The other big change for Burlington is that the team has a new on-field manager in Jack McDowell, the winner of the 1993 AL Cy Young award and a three-time All-Star with the Chicago White Sox. McDowell previously coached at Queens University in Charlotte and in the Los Angeles Dodgers’ minor league system.

“He's an incredibly good guy, incredibly high spirited and has a huge passion for teaching these kids how to play the game and what it means to be a potential professional,” Rathbun said. “And man, there's no better manager in this league.”

Wander Watch

While fans in Burlington will be treated to top tier collegiate talent this summer, fans who come to the Durham Bulls Athletic Park will get to see the No. 1 ranked prospect in all of minor league baseball, Wander Franco.

A 20-year-old switch-hitting shortstop from the Dominican Republic, Franco has already made a big impact for the Bulls at the plate, starting the season off with five hits in 11 at-bats through the first three games of this season. One of those swings was a home run that he muscled over the left field wall in Memphis.

With the Bulls being an affiliate of the Tampa Bay Rays, baseball fans down in Florida are keeping a close eye on Durham and the progression of players like Franco. Florida resident Danny Russell has been writing for the SB Nation site DRaysBay for 10 years and says, "to be a Rays fan is to always have your eye on the future."

"Franco may be the best prospect of the decade, and not just his promotion class," Russell said. "He does everything well, but the most remarkable aspect of his game are his bat speed and use of his hands from both sides of the plate."

Count Andrew Schnittker among the locals in the Triangle excited to see Franco’s talents on full-display in-person.

“Having a player like Wander Franco on the Bulls definitely enhances it for me,” he said. “And it might be a determining factor in buying tickets to one specific game if a certain prospect is going to be there.”

Other MLB Top 100 prospects on the Bulls’ roster this year include infielder Vidal Brujan and left-handed pitcher Brendan McKay.

Ask Erin Byrd what she’s most looking forward to about seeing the Bulls play in-person again and her answer is simply, “Just all of it.”

She adds: “My husband is truly a fan of the game. Crack of the bat and a hot dog in hand – he’s happy. I enjoy the general atmosphere, the game... and a Bull Durham Beer.”

Mitchell Northam is a Digital Producer for WUNC. His past work has been featured at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, SB Nation, the Orlando Sentinel and the Associated Press. He is a graduate of Salisbury University and is also a voter in the AP Top 25 poll for women's college basketball.
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