DURHAM, N.C.—For the first time in 607 days, the Durham Bulls played a home game. And even with a crowd of just 2,737—considered a sellout because of Covid-19 restrictions—the atmosphere was as tremendous as always.
Sure, the people in the giant plastic hamster ball battle were staff members, and the scene was recorded at the nearby Durham Athletic Park and shown on the giant video board embedded in the massive blue wall in left field, but it still drew cheers nonetheless.
The usual gaggle of children wasn’t there to chase mascot Wool E. Bull across the field, either, but the team made due as best it could to entertain its first audience since the end of the 2019 season.
Before their season-opening series in Memphis last week, the Bulls were at the alternate training site at Tampa Bay’s spring training home of Port Charlotte, Fla.
But on Tuesday, the players and coaches were back in Durham, where a cool spring breeze paired with a picturesque spring sunset to provide the perfect atmosphere to welcome the Bulls back after the first canceled season in minor league history.
“When (Dalton) Kelly hit that home run in the eighth, we hadn’t heard that kind of noise in a while, so it kind of caught me off-guard. It was awesome to hear it,” Durham manager Brady Williams said. “I wish we could have heard it a lot more tonight, but overall it’s great to be back playing in front of fans.”
Before Kelly’s home run, the loudest sound of the night came off the bat of a former Bull, Jacksonville outfielder Jesus Sanchez. The 23-year-old slugger was dealt from the Rays to the Marlins as part of the package for relievers Trevor Richards and Nick Anderson.
Sanchez has opened the season on fire, and on Tuesday swatted a 3-1 offering from Joe Ryan 452 feet to right-center field, where it cleared the bleachers entirely. The ball left the bat at 110 mph for his fourth home run of the year.
“He had some pop (when I managed him), but I’m not sure I’ve seen that out of him,” Williams said. “That ball went pretty far. I’m not sure that ball landed in the stands, did it? It went over the stands.”
Sanchez was just one of a collection of talented players on both teams, including Durham shortstop Wander Franco, who currently sits atop Baseball America’s Top 100 Prospects list. Infielder Vidal Brujan is on the list too (No. 49), as is rehabbing Marlins infielder Jazz Chisholm (No. 54), who opened the game with an opposite-field double.
First baseman Lewin Diaz, who ranks as Miami’s No. 7 prospect, and shortstop Jose Devers (No. 10) were also on the field. On the home side, Franco and Brujan were joined by infielder Taylor Walls and outfielder Josh Lowe, who rank as Tampa Bay’s No. 15 and 16 prospects.
“They’re very driven, young, talented baseball players, and that combo can be dangerous as long as they stay focused on what they’re doing,” Williams said. “They challenge each other and they keep each other in check. For a young group to do that is pretty impressive.”
Because of the Covid-19-altered schedule in 2021, which has regionalized schedules in order to minimize lengthy travel, Tuesday night’s game was the first of 36 meetings between Durham and Jacksonville. That means two supremely talented teams will meet each other three dozen times over the course of the summer.
For Durham, no game is likely to be as significant as Tuesday night, which brought the team back to its home park for the first time in far too long.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Yankees 3B Andres Chaparro has been scorching the baseball in the early going. The 22-year-old is 10 for his first 27 with four doubles and a home run. Moreover, he’s already produced five exit velocities of 104 mph, one of 110 mph and two of 112 mph. The atmosphere in the Low-A Southeast League has been highly hitter-friendly early, but Chaparro has made some very loud contact … Speaking of the Yankees, righthander Roansy Contreras—whom New York traded to Pittsburgh as part of the Jameson Taillon deal—has been getting plenty of ink for his eye-popping stats, but don’t sleep on the youngest player in that deal, shortstop Maikol Escotto. At Low-A at just 18 years old, Escotto has opened the season on fire, going 8 for his first 19 with a double, a triple, four RBIs and four walks against six strikeouts. He had three hits on Tuesday night, all of which left the bat at 100 mph or harder, with a peak of 108 mph on a single … The top two strikeout artists in the minors are big names—Contreras and Orioles lefty DL Hall—but the No. 4 spot belongs to Mariners RHP Matt Brash (who turns 23 today), who has opened his career by whiffing 16 hitters over his first seven innings. Brash, who was the Padres fourth-round pick in 2019 out of Niagara of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, was acquired by the Mariners as the player to be named later in the deal that sent righty reliever Taylor Williams to San Diego … Speaking of the Padres, their first-round pick from 2020, outfielder Robert Hassell III has gotten on base in every game of his brief pro career, with eight hits in 27 at-bats as well as 10 walks.