When I strolled into Durham Athletic Park with my Lynchburg Red Sox teammates on June 12, 1988, I couldn't help but marvel at the odds of being there to play the Durham Bulls on "Bull
Durham Night", which marked the premiere of the movie that had been filmed there six months earlier. I wondered if it was destiny, divine intervention, or just freak luck that had me playing
in that small city on Tobacco Road, just eight miles away from where I attended college at UNC.
I walked out of that same park in October after working on a movie with a title that made no
sense and a plot that many critics said was going to make for one of the worst films ever. I didn't
have any expectations of appearing in the movie, nor did I ever think I'd be playing baseball again
after an unfulfilled career with the Tar Heels. The line for actors and extras left on the cutting
room floor stretches from Durham to Los Angeles and there wasn't a major league team busting down my door to get my name on a contract. But I did make sure to get a picture with Kevin
Costner before I left Durham Athletic Park for good. Or at least, I thought for good.
That June, I was back there, somehow, someway, playing the real life Durham Bulls on a typical North Carolina night that was so hot and humid, you had to towel off after blinking. Before the game, Ron Shelton, who wrote and directed, "Bull Duham", called me over to his seats, which
were directly behind home plate. He told me the home run scene I had filmed with Costner had
made the final cut and wished me luck in the game. I thanked him but I wasn't exactly doing
cart wheels. Again, nobody thought "Bull Durham" was going to do well at the box office and
when you hear a film critic say it's going to be the worst movie ever made, well, it's not something you tell the world about.
I was more excited about playing the Durham Bulls in front of 5,000 fans, all of whom seemed
to be right on top of you. The charm of the "DAP", as it was called, is that the seats are extremely close to the field, like Wrigley Field and Fenway Park. There is a 20-foot high fence in right field with an old warehouse behind it. And that mechanical bull from the movie was still there. It's a
great baseball experience for the fans, as well as the players.
I thanked Shelton for helping to make that happen as well. Before the filming of the baseball
scenes, we had a two-week camp where we took batting practice everyday with Costner and the other actors with Shelton and Howard McCullough, a Red Sox scout hired as a consultant,
watching from behind the cage. I finished a round by hitting one out from the right side of the
plate, then hit two over the fence from the left side. Shelton, who made it to AAA with the
Baltimore Orioles, turned to McCullough and said, "You mean to tell me you can't sign a
switch-hitting catcher with some pop?" McCullough, who I had known from my UNC days,
didn't say anything, but he called me in Decemeber and offered me a free-agent contract with
the Red Sox. Funny how things sometimes work out.
So, there I was in Durham Athletic Park on the night of June 12, 1988 catching against the Bulls,
the Class A affiliate of the Atlanta Braves in the Carolina League. Everything seemed so surreal
and almost like an out-of-body experience. It was baseball nirvana. Things would get even more
interesting and magical as the night wore on. I came to the plate in the fifth inning with the bases-loaded and stepped in against a hard-throwing right-hander named Jimenez.
Two months into my professional career I had yet to hit a home run, and had never hit one from
the left-side of the plate in my entire life.I started hitting left-handed during my junior year at
UNC and didn't get many at-bats from that side of the plate. We had two catchers, Matt Merullo
and Jesse Levis, both of whom went on to play in the major leagues, hitting left-handed so there
wasn't much of a need for a lefty neophyte to take away any of their at-bats.
On a 2-2 count, Jimenez, delivered a belt high fastball that I took a whack at. Honestly, I thought
it was just a lazy fly ball to right-field. I hit many of those, so I had a good idea of what they
felt like. But for some reason, perhaps it was divine intervention, the ball just kept carrying on
this hot, muggy, Carolina summer night. The ball disappeared over the right-field fence, clearing it by what seemed to be a half an inch. It didn't matter. It still counted as a grand slam. I was so excited, I nearly broke the hand of our third base coach as I celebrated my first professional home run, which came on "Bull Durham Night" in nearly the same spot as I belted one during the filming of it. Unreal.
As I jogged back to the dugout after crossing home plate, there was Shelton yelling and
screaming, celebrating the home run with more excitement than I was showing, at least on the outside, anyway. This was pro ball, you had to be cool and restrained. But on the inside, I was
saying, "No effin' way that just happened. What are the odds of that? Five months ago, I was
laying on my couch with my baseball dreams shattered. And now this? You can't make it up?
The night of the premiere?" Hollywood couldn't have written that script.
It was a magical night for me and one I'll never forget. How could I? My teammates and I
went to a special showing of "Bull Durham" the next afternoon, which turned out to be really special. After a long night of celebrating at "Four Corners" in Chapel Hill, my old college
stopping grounds, I showed up with a nasty hangover. But the excitement of seeing the movie
took care of that. To see how that movie came together and the rip-roaring laughs I got out of it,
was truly a classic moment. Seeing myself on a huge screen was a little more than I could take.
And when my teammates all looked over at me, I just slunk down in my chair and tried to
"Bull Durham" had a lot more staying power than my career, which fizzled out the next year.
The movie, which had been dogged by critics before its release, turned out to be a true moive
classic. YouTube, the Internet, and incessant re-runs have kept it alive 25 years later. People
can recite many of the lines from what was a brilliantly-written script and nearly every
minor-leaguer has seen it more than once.
It became a part of my life for good 25 years ago today, and while I honestly get embarrassed
when people bring it up, I still get one helluva chuckle out of it. Going from one of the worst
movies ever to a classic, is something I can always laugh about. And being a small part of it,
is something I will always cherish.