Writers, photographers document Durham Bulls
“I believe in the Church of Baseball.” So begins Bull Durham, the 1988 film that captured the fervor and frustrations of minor league baseball in what many players consider to be the most accurate depiction of the sport. Coinciding with the 25th anniversary of the movie, Bull City Summer: A Season at the Ballpark and Beyond will chronicle the 2013 season of the Durham Bulls through blog entries, literary writing and photography. Additionally, beginning next February, Bull City Summer will display a culminating photography exhibition at the North Carolina Museum of Art. The documentary project is the brainchild of Sam Stephenson, a visiting professor of Documentary Studies and American Studies at Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill. Stephenson says that the idea came to him while at the last Bulls games of the 2010 season, where he was inspired by the stadium’s symbol as a microcosm of the greater Durham community.
“Every neighborhood, every walk of life was represented, and there aren’t many places you can say that about,” says Stephenson. While Stephenson acknowledges that such documentary projects could potentially be recreated with other sports, he calls baseball “the most artful” sport of all.
“We are trying to find and document and reveal the art and craft of baseball,” says Stephenson. “Baseball is the only [team] sport I know of that’s not a war over real estate. Basketball, football, soccer—it’s human warfare made into a game. It’s one of the oldest instincts in biological history, and baseball’s not about that.”
Already a well-regarded documentarian, Stephenson is interested in spaces that are a “locus of culture.” He uses the term to describe both the Durham Bulls Athletic Park and the Jazz Loft Project, a documentary project he worked on for twelve years that ended in 2010. The Jazz Loft Project is dedicated to preserving photographer Eugene W. Smith’s portrayals of the 1950s and ’60s jazz scene in Manhattan. After exhausting 1950s New York, Stephenson was looking for a contemporary space that lent itself to similar documentation.
“I really wanted to use the same techniques from the Jazz Loft Project like oral history, audio, radio and museum exhibitions. I was looking to do something current and local.”
“Bull City Summer” represents a too-rare intersection between sports and the arts, but it’s one that Adam Sobsey, co-writer for the project alongside Stephenson, already knows well. Originally a playwright and literary writer (a stage reading of his most recent play Lee & Lee was performed at Manbites Dog Theater in March), Sobsey joined the staff at Independent Weekly in 2009 as a beat writer for the Durham Bulls. He continues to write plays while also covering the Bulls through a more literary lens. For Bull City Summer, Sobsey will be contributing narrative essays and incorporating the site’s photography into his columns, and along with Stephenson, the two will also contribute to The Paris Review Daily blog for a bi-weekly series about the team.
Echoing Stephenson’s belief about baseball’s inherent poetry, Sobsey says, “I think the reason that writers and photographers are interested in documenting baseball is that it moves more slowly, and there’s more opportunity for contemplation and to watch things unfold. The pace of it—it’s friendlier towards the artist’s eye.”
For Sobsey, the 2013 Durham Bulls roster is one that will excite both fair-weather fans and die-hard Bulls followers. “They’re a much better team than they were last year,” he laughs, citing the 2012 Bulls’ 13-game losing streak that effectively ended their season. “The whole team’s got more youth, more exciting young players.”
Perhaps the most unusual feature about the 2013 team is that two of the season’s biggest prospects, outfielder Wil Myers and pitcher Chris Archer, both hail from North Carolina, a rarity for a farm team that attracts players from all over the world. But as Sobsey points out, the two probably won’t be with the Bulls much longer, as they are predicted to get called up to their parent team, the Tampa Bay Rays. Unlike major league baseball, “Triple-A has this automatic governor,” says Sobsey, “It’s a really unusual place in that you have hot prospects on the rise, you have guys on the way down and you have this middle section of essentially career Triple-A players.”
Bull Durham presents each kind of minor league baseball player mentioned, and it reveals how Triple-A as an institution is uncertain and tumultuous. Although the movie is a realistic portrayal of the revolving-door roster and offbeat baseball philosophy that defines the minors, Sobsey hopes to both disrupt and reinforce minor league fictions.
“[The Durham Bulls] are the iconic minor league team because of Bull Durham, and we’ve sort of pinned all of our mythologies about the minor leagues on one team,” says Sobsey. “So the documentary gets enriched by that history and that notoriety that hovers over the team. But I’m interested in interrogating that.”
The Bulls have certainly benefitted from the notoriety that the movie has created—they sell more merchandise than any other minor league team in the country, says Stephenson. And with Durham’s growing national prominence as a center of American and commercial history, creating a literary and visual snapshot of the seventy-two home games of the 2013 Bulls season will document Durham at its cultural and artistic peak.
“It’s a poignant moment in time to document the intersection of people,” says Stephenson.
Visit bullcitysummer.org for updates throughout the 2013 Durham Bulls season.