Ten years ago, the Durham Bulls Athletic Park hosted 80 games. Seventy-two of those were regular-season home games for the Bulls. The additional eight games were for USA Baseball's Collegiate National Team, which typically starts its summer schedule in North Carolina.
Between then and now, DBAP has added plenty of baseball dates. Duke started playing most of the majority of its home games from Jack Coombs Field on campus to DBAP. This season marks the first of a seven-year deal for the Blue Devils to host nearly all of their home slate in one of the most recognizable stadiums in the minor leagues, with their own clubhouse under the outfield seats and the coaches' offices in one of the buildings beyond the fence in right field.
With the increased workload, the DBAP will host its 80th game—its high-water mark just a decade ago—in early June.
The symbiosis between the Bulls and Blue Devils isn't unique. Several stadiums across the country split their schedule between a college team and a professional team, and the dynamic between the two creates challenges and opportunities that vary from park to park.
In some locales, professional baseball needed the kick-start of a new park built (often with football dollars) by the college athletic department. In others, the college program needed a boost from a high-level pro park.
Getting Started Early
Duke's season began on Feb. 19, when California came to Durham for a three-game set to open the year. But the prep work for the season began long before that, in the summer of 2015, when the Bulls franchise put in a call to its sod supplier.
With all the extra games, Bulls director of stadium operations Scott Strickland knew he'd need to get stronger grass in place at some point during the season, so his field could maintain its quality throughout the year and all the way into late September if Durham made the International League playoffs.
Winter-kill over the last two years had caused a bit of shortage in sod, so Strickland knew he'd have to get in early to place his order for Bermuda grass, which is stronger than the Rye grass the DBAP began its season with this year.
With his order placed well in advance, Strickland and his team made plans to completely turn over the playing surface at some point during the year. On April 15, three days after the Bulls' season-opening homestand ended, Strickland and his crew went to work.
Over the course of four days, the infield grass was completely removed and replaced with the stronger Bermuda. With the new turf in place, the DBAP is ready to handle the remainder of Duke's schedule, the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament and a long Bulls run through the summer.
Even before the re-sodding, there were preparations to be made to ensure things were ready for Duke and Cal as soon as the weather permitted. In particular, that meant making sure all the clay around the park—on the bases, in the batter's box, on the warning track, in the on-deck circle— was properly thawed. Sliding on clay made from crushed brick is no fun to begin with, but it's even worse when the surface is still frozen.
The groundskeeper's nightmare involves wildly fluctuating temperatures throughout the offseason. That was the case in Durham this winter, when the temperature was shorts-appropriate during Christmastime and downright frigid a few weeks later. Ultimately, though, the hope is to have the truly wintry weather out of the area before the season.
"Come February, you're just hoping that rain and extreme cold comes when Duke's scheduled to be on the road," Strickland said. "We had a couple of practices there . . . the warning track was frozen solid. That's a legit playability and safety concern."
At his current position, Strickland essentially serves two masters. First and foremost are the Bulls and their parent organization, the Rays. The stadium bears their name, after all. The Blue Devils are a close second, and keeping both parties happy over the course of nearly six months can be a tough juggling act.
"A big concern that was out there when this deal (with Duke) was being discussed was making sure we could keep this field in the playing condition that met Tampa's expectations," Strickland said, "which are obviously very much in line from what our expectations are, which are as close to major league quality as possible."
Chris Lamberth, an architect with the HOK design firm, echoed Strickland in noting that dual-use parks can present challenges.
"A lot of places love them and a lot of communities love them," he said, "but they can be a challenge operationally and not necessarily provide a benefit to the collegiate program or the professional program. It's not that it's a bad thing, it's just that there are pluses and minuses."
PK Park, which lies 3,000 miles of the DBAP in Eugene, Ore., is another split-residency stadium but with the priorities flipped. The University of Oregon is PK's primary proprietor, but the facility is shared for three months the Eugene Emeralds, the Cubs' short-season affiliate in the Northwest League.
Whereas Strickland can plan out his course of attack months in advance, the Emeralds have to be ready to move as soon as Oregon's season ends. When it does, Allan Benavides and the 10-member staff who do their work in the space behind the ticket windows in front of PK Park, have to be ready to move in as quickly as possible.
"It is a minimum of a week to move in. When Ducks hosted a super regional, they hosted Sunday, (the) team was out Monday and we opened that Friday," Benavides said. "We had 72 hours to flip the stadium. Worked from 8:00 a.m. until 2:00 a.m. for three straight days."
After the Emeralds' season ends in early September, all of their equipment is packed away into seven off-site storage units and onto 45 wooden pallets that are then covered in plastic wrap. Signage, grills, condiment dispensers, equipment and everything in between is packed away, not to be seen again until the following summer. So when the Ducks' season ends, it's a race to get everything unloaded, organized and installed.
None of Oregon's equipment overlaps with the Emeralds', so the process is truly a total rebuild every summer.
"We've got this down to a science now. We've been able to know what's on pallets and know what's in storage. It's gotten really easy as we've done it every year," Benavides said. "We've learned along the way to code things, to color mark things so we know where everything is going."
Sharing A Space
Back in Durham, there is significant overlap between the Bulls and Blue Devils seasons. That means that when the Bulls go on the road, their stadium generally doesn't get much time off. That's true both of the turf and the facilities inside the stadium.
Accommodations have been made this year to make everything the dual relationship run more smoothly. Before Duke's series with Miami, construction was completed on a third, auxiliary clubhouse down the line in right field; previously Duke used the visiting clubhouse. Duke's new clubhouse, which should impress recruits more than a visitor's clubhouse, will also get plenty of use during the ACC tournament, when 10 college teams will run in and out of the DBAP over the course of one frenetic week. DBAP also installed two new batting cages, which will be of use to all parties involved but particularly the college teams.
Duke pitchers Kellen Urbon and Brian McAfee, graduate transfers from Cornell, only know the new setup and rave about the clubhouse and sharing of the ballpark. "It's pretty sweet all around," Urbon said. "It's a great ballpark, and It's a quick drive from campus, so it's pretty convenient."
The overlap between the college and minor league season sometimes creates the perfect storm of two games on the same day, generally a Bulls "education day" game in the morning and a Duke game at night. The most recent such example came on April 12—before the infield turf was ripped out and re-installed—when Durham finished its series with Gwinnett at 11:00 a.m. before Duke took on Davidson in a midweek tilt 6:30 that night.
And those are the easy days. Things really get chippy when the script is flipped and the college game is the first on the docket.
"The ones that are problematic is when Duke plays the game before and they're still in school, so they can't start a game until after 12:00 p.m. and then our guys are playing at 7 p.m.," Strickand said. "That's when you'll have inning cutoff times (for Duke) to make sure that our schedule stays on schedule. Those are days that we fear. Worst-case scenarios are when there are weather delays and we have to be flexible and go on the fly."
A Constant Presence
Because Eugene is a short-season club, the Emeralds and Ducks will never have to worry about cramming two games into one day. That's not say, however, that you won't find a bit of Oregon around the park during the summer.
Recruiting is a year-round task—PK Park was built in the same hyper-modern, extravagant style as Oregon's other athletic venues—and George Horton and his Ducks coaching staff will sometimes give tours to potential recruits in the hours before the Emeralds take the field.
"The Ducks' season doesn't end in June. Their players are showing up early to start practice. If we're not playing, they're out there warming up," Benavides said. "There's students out there playing. They're recruiting people year-round.
"I think it's as big a benefit for the Ducks to have a pro baseball team playing here in the summer when they're not using the ballpark as it is for us to be able to play in a facility of this size."
That means that while Cubs prospects such as Ian Happ or Eloy Jimenez were getting in a little extra hitting last summer, a teenager often was in the midst of getting his first look at his home for the next three or four years. It's a small benefit, but not one that goes overlooked.
Make no mistake about it, though, the Emeralds do get a benefit from playing at PK. Along with Hillsboro's Ron Tonkin Field, it's one of the most state-of-the-art facilities in the Northwest League.
That message is made clear by the players who come through Eugene every summer, usually getting their first taste of pro ball after college or after graduating from the grind of Rookie ball in Arizona.
"The vast majority of the comments (from Emeralds players), they're floored when they come in and they see the locker rooms and stadium itself and the hitting facility and the videoboard and the turf," Benavides said.
Duke, like the Emeralds, gets the benefit of vastly upgraded facilities out of its agreement with the Bulls. What, then, does Durham get out of the deal? After all, the Bulls are one of the most nationally known minor league franchises in the country.
The answer, of course, is exposure and the subsequent revenue that comes along with it. More events at the DBAP means more business funneled into the bustling downtown Durham area that has been revitalized since the stadium was erected in 1995.
"That's been the goal since the stadium opened," Strickland said. "As many events as we can have downtown, that's better for the city and makes it more attractive. Duke also gets to hook its brand with the Bulls too."
Seating For Two
Durham is a pro park that splits its space with a college team. PK Park is a college stadium that becomes a pro facility for a few months every summer. These two scenarios are commonplace at ballparks around the country.
There a few stadiums, however, that were designed from the start to accommodate two teams. Joseph P. Riley Jr. Park, in Charleston, S.C., is one such space. Opened in 1997, it houses Citadel's baseball team and the South Atlantic League's Charleston RiverDogs.
Functions that were just added in Durham—the third clubhouse and the extra batting cages—were part of The Joe's original design. All told between Citadel games and practices, RiverDogs home games, the Southern Conference tournament and the odd concert every now and then, the stadium's workload can easily extend past 120 events in any given year.
"The turf takes a beating, the infield takes a beating, the mound takes a beating," RiverDogs director of operations Philip Guiry said. "We just have to replace the grass when we can, replace the mounds when we can and fix up the infield and home plate area when we can."
Because the third clubhouse is used solely by The Citadel's players, it is maintained almost solely by its athletic staff. The RiverDogs take care of pest control and structural issues, but everything else falls under The Citadel's purview. The Citadel's laundry is kept separate from the RiverDogs' and is cleaned at the facilities on campus.
Overall stadium maintenance, too, is affected by such a crowded schedule. There are days that, if the stadium were for one primary tenant, would be earmarked for more high-effort cleaning. Pressure washing of the seating bowl, for example, would normally be done after a team leaves for an extended road swing. But if one team comes in the day after the other leaves, there's not enough time for a deep cleansing between game days.
"Last weekend the RiverDogs were off, so you think, 'Oh, I have a day off,'" Guiry explained. "But there's a (Citadel) doubleheader on Saturday and a game on Sunday. So myself, (head groundskeeper) Mike Williams and the food and beverage operations team, we were all here all weekend."
As is the case in Durham, Charleston will host several college-pro doubleheaders this year. That means long days for the stadium operations and concessions staff.
"They'll come in at (1 p.m.) and then they won't go home until after 11 or whenever the RiverDogs game ends," Guiry said. "It's long days. … We'll probably work from 8:00 a.m. until midnight on those days. They're long days when it's just the RiverDogs, but it's two baseball games on those days and in between doubleheaders, the grounds crew will have to tamp the mound and rebuild the mound for the RiverDogs game and fix home plate and redress everything in the dugouts."
Durham, Eugene and Charleston are just three of the cities across the country that have split-use stadiums for college and professional baseball. Monongalia County Ballpark hosts the West Virginia Mountaineers and the New York-Penn League's Black Bears.
The schedules and day-to-day operations differ from site to site, but each park accomplishes the common goal of bringing baseball to a wider audience for a longer period of time each and every year.