Sunday, March 03, 2013

Fan Fest

Hit Bull, Get The Snot Beaten Out Of You By Said Bull

Sometimes, it's good to take a break from the snark.

This afternoon, I swung by the DBAP (Durham Bulls Athletic Park for those of you not privileged to live in the greater RTP area) for the annual Durham Bulls FanFest, which, I suspect, is like fanfests everywhere but had the distinct advantage of being located something less than fifteen minutes from my house.  Admission was free, though if you bought a "ticket" in advance you also got a free hot dog and soda (and possibly a cookie - sources were unclear) from a concession stand inside.

Basically, the Bulls opened up the park and invited their friends over to play. One member of the grounds crew was pitching batting practice. The infield was roped off, presumably to keep people from attempting to slide into second and face-planting road-rash style, but the outfield was open, and dozens of families were out there playing catch, wandering around, or just hanging out. There's a Burt's Bees sign in center field on the so-called "Blue Monster"; three kids were playing "bounce the souvenir baseball off Burt's face". Good arms on those kids, too - the Burt's logo is way up there.

The longest line is for a chance in the batting cage. One of the grounds grew guys is there, feeding a pitching machine for the grownups and tossing underhand from in close for the kids. Every so often one of the adults gets a decent hold of one and sends it skying into the outfield. What happens then is pure Stooges routine; half the guys out there run to try to catch it, while the other half immediately form human shields over any small children in the vicinity. While I'm watching, maybe two of those fly balls get caught. The rest bounce off gloves, or land softly in the grass.

Out in centerfield, one kid and his dad are practicing web gems. Dad throws the ball high up against the fence. Junior runs after it, leaping and crashing into the wall as he attempts to catch it. Sometimes he succeeds. Most of the time he just bounces off the wall, then runs off to retrieve the ball. He tosses it to his dad, then gets back in position to try again.

You get five pitches in the batting cage. This is good policy; the line is long and the temperature is palpably dropping as the day rolls on. I get in line, largely because, hey, it's a batting cage on an actual baseball diamond, and besides I've already made myself That Guy by wearing a Bulls jersey to the thing. People get their shots in front of me. Prep school kids, clearly on traveling teams, who have carefully crafted swings that rocket line dive after line drive into short right. Small kids who manage comebackers of surprising force. Aging ex-jocks wearing baseball caps, dreaming just a little bit of hammering one off the wall and attracting somebody's notice. And then there's me, the chunky guy in the replica jersey, who goes into the cage convinced he's going to go 0-fer against a machine.

I get in maybe half a practice swing before it's my turn. There's no dawdling here, the line is too long. Convinced of my doom, I step in, and wave at the first pitch like we're on opposite sides of airport security. The second one, I turn into a bouncer through the left side. There's a weird crack as I do so, and the guy manning the cage says "It's broken. Sounds like it's broken. Here, don't want to hit with one that's broken." We swap bats; the one I get is both shorter and heavier.  The next pitch I actually make decent contact on, and get a sorta line drive over the mound. Maybe it would have been a single, maybe a long run for the shortstop. And them the last two, I flail away heroically at but don't come close to.

I step out of the cage to pick up my iPad. The guy working the cage holds up the bat I'd started with. "Weird. I thought it was broken. It sounded like it was broken. It's not broken."

"Good", I say, because, really, what else can you say. Then again, the kid who broke a bat earlier, he got to keep it. Clearly I'm too old for this, on any number of levels.

There's no sign of Wool E. Bull around, just his wingman "Blue Monster"  (not to be confused with the large blue Fenway-looking fence of that name). Blue's hanging downstairs and outside, where the hard sell is on for the season ticket packages, the Bulls' store has all the clearance material outside (at, it must be said, reasonable prices), and there are people giving away cases of Pepsi for no reason I can fathom. My wife Melinda loves Wool E.; she particularly enjoys his race around the ballpark in his little go-kart that he generally does around the sixth inning. He wraps it up with a powerslide near the home bullpen, so of course I sneak over that way and take a picture of the spot he disappears into with his kart after finishing his lap. It's largely filled with lawn care equipment, but Melinda doesn't care. It is still a place of mysteries.

The Bulls' dugout is on limits, though empty. I take a seat on the bench and watch people walk by. Behind them, the big scoreboard is lighting up with upbeat trivia about Bulls players - Chris Archer, and Tim Beckham, mostly. Nothing about new guy Wil Myers, just stuff like "Beckham was voted best arm among Rays prospects!" I read this, look at the Baseball America subscription on my iPad, and realize I already know it. Shocking, really.

All of the ballpark seating is open. Very little of it is filled, but the folks who are sitting down are generally right on top of the field. Except for one guy, anyway. Long beard, dark glasses, hat - he sits there in between two blue helium balloons in Section 200 by his lonesome, and watches.

I fail to purchase anything on my way out. My employer periodically showers me with logo gear (last count: two fleeces, two hoodies, one windbreaker, one jacket, no thongs and thank God for that) so dropping sixty bucks on a game-worn jacket feels more excessive than I can justify, at least until the closet thins out a bit. Classic rock from massive speakers follows me out into the street.

And underneath it, oh so faintly, the crack of bat on ball.

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