Twenty-five years (and two months) ago, I sat down in the Carolina Theater in Durham to watch the world premiere of “Bull Durham” with members of the 1988 Durham Bulls and a few players from the minor league Red Sox of Lynchburg, Va. About eight months earlier, we had wrapped filming of writer-director Ron Shelton’s paean to baseball.
Most of the filming took place here in the Triangle, at historic Durham Athletic Park, the James Manning House on Durham’s north side, Mitch’s Tavern in Raleigh and assorted other sites.
The movie launched careers for Shelton and Tim Robbins, revived one for Susan Sarandon and established Kevin Costner among the hot-property actors in Hollywood. It wasn’t exactly cinema vérité – the jokes were painted with too broad a brush – but there was no doubt that Shelton, a former farmhand himself in the Baltimore Orioles chain, captured the spirit and feel of minor league ball.
In large part, it was because he cast real baseball players. Most of the “actors” you saw were actually local college and minor league players who were available after the 1987 season ended and filming began in October. They went through a 10-day “spring training” session under former Bulls GM Pete Bock to assemble a team behind the characters of Crash Davis and Nuke LaLoosh.
There was also a real-life sportswriter among the cast of extras who finagled his way into the background a few times and into the middle of one memorable locker room.
That was me.
In 1987, I was a sportswriter for the Durham Morning Herald, and my chief beat then was the Bulls.
My big scene comes early in the movie. After Nuke’s first victory, I interview him in the locker room (a converted downtown Durham warehouse, not the real closet-sized locker room at Durham Athletic Park) with another writer (a real actor named Robert Dickman). I don’t ask a question, just take notes. I jokingly told one of the assistant directors that I had a good question just in case. His response: “We would have to pay you a lot more if you asked a question. Don’t.”
So I was happy with my non-speaking but pivotal role in the movie, and I ended up in more scenes in the background. I had no idea what it would look like on screen until I attended the premiere. As my wife, Irene, and I walked up to the Carolina Theater, Shelton was talking with Thom Mount, the movie’s producer. Shelton broke off his conversation, grabbed me in a big bear hug and exclaimed, “You’re going to love your scene!”
He was right. The camera pans from Nuke answering a question from the other reporter, past me and then on to Crash in the background, who voices his disapproval over Nuke’s inanity. The camera stayed on me so long that during the premiere the Bulls players were yelling “There’s Kip!” at the screen.
Paul’s home run
I wasn’t the only extra immortalized in the movie, which the Bulls have been celebrating all season because of the 25th anniversary.
Two of my old friends, Paul Devlin and Jeff Greene, got their big-screen moments, too. Paul hits a mammoth home run off Nuke when Crash, annoyed at being shaken off by Nuke, tells Paul’s character, “Charlie,” that the next pitch will be a curveball. That’s the home run when Crash opines, “Anything that travels that far ought to have a stewardess on it.”
“I don’t even say anything in the scene,” Paul said. “My friends always wanted to know why I didn’t answer Crash. It wasn’t in the script.”
In one of those quintessential sports ironies, the night before the premiere Paul, playing for the Lynchburg Red Sox, hit a grand slam to beat the Bulls at the DAP. Shelton, seated in the first row behind home plate, started whooping and hollering as he watched life imitate his art.
Paul played baseball at UNC in the ’80s, then signed a free-agent contract with the Red Sox and spent two years in the Carolina League at Lynchburg before, as he puts it, “slow feet and a slow bat did me in.” He went on to become a sportscaster for Fox Sports South and NESN and a writer for MLB.com. Today he is a freelance writer in Connecticut and writes a sports blog titled “SportsRip.” He says he’s never shied away from his movie fame – for a time his blog profile photo was a still from the movie of him waiting for the pitch from Nuke.
“I never bring it up, but it’s funny how it’s grown because of the Internet and YouTube,” Paul said. “Everybody who’s ever played baseball knows every line from it. It’s amazing the cult following it’s gotten.”
How amazing? As an NESN sports anchor, Paul was an emcee for an event where he was to introduce Peyton Manning and conduct a live Q&A session with the quarterback. Paul met with Manning and his handlers earlier in the day at their hotel to go over questions, and apparently someone had given Manning the head’s up on Devlin’s movie career.
“So Manning is saying, ‘I’ve seen you before,’” Paul recounted, “and I tell him I was on Fox Sports and NESN, but he says, ‘No – didn’t you hit a home run in ‘Bull Durham?’’ And then he starts quoting lines word for word from the movie.”
Jeff hits the bull
Jeff has his own reminiscences of movie stardom. He was drafted in the 11th round by the Braves in 1985 and spent four years in the minors before an arm injury spelled the end. Much of his work on the movie called for him, off camera, to throw pitches to batters for action shots. (Jeff hits the Bulls mascot with a pitch, not Nuke.)
His big break came when Shelton told him to get on the mound for a scene with Costner. That’s the one where Crash can’t stop daydreaming about Annie Savoy and ends up striking out. Jeff gets a couple of close-ups on screen during the duel with Crash, which includes a knock-down pitch.
“That scene took us a couple days because of the sun and so many camera angles involved,” Jeff recalled. “Ron kind of coached me through it. He wanted me to exaggerate my delivery a little bit. That’s how it evolved.”
Today, Jeff is a sales manager for a distribution company in Kernersville. He also coaches a youth baseball team and offers specialized sports training.
“I used to get asked about the movie a lot, but not nearly as much as 10 years ago,” he said. “But every time it’s on TV, my phone blows up and it’s all over social media.”
‘Bull Durham II’?
The other question Paul and Jeff say they get all the time is, will there ever be a “Bull Durham II?”
Five years ago, I asked Mount about rumors I had heard about a sequel, and he said there wasn’t a script yet, but that the principals were willing and he expected things to happen in a year. Unfortunately, things did happen. Robbins and Sarandon, who first met on the set of “Bull Durham,” ended their 21-year relationship, and with it probably any chance of a sequel.
It just so happens I’ve been spitballing some ideas about a script that I’d be willing to pass along to Thom.
It’s 20 years later, and an aging and arm-weary Nuke – one-time Rookie of the Year, a former All-Star – is trying to reach back for one last playoff run with the big club. He’s sent down to (now Triple-A) Durham to get back in shape under manager Crash Davis. Davis has transformed many prospects into stars but never gotten a chance to manage or coach in “The Show,” and he’s bitter after being passed over so many times in favor of big-name players with little coaching or managerial experience.
The prospect of nurturing Nuke one more time sets him off, and he gets ejected and suspended after a run-in with an umpire. Crash threatens to quit, and Annie threatens to end their on-again, off-again relationship if he does. Nuke’s return further complicates romantic matters. But Crash comes to his senses and teaches Nuke a new “out” pitch, the split-finger fastball, that will revive his career. “This is Durham, Meat,” he tells Nuke. “Do you know who’s from Durham? Roger Craig. He’s like the father of the split-finger fastball.”
Nuke returns to the majors and wins the game that gets the big club into the playoffs. Fast forward to spring training, and the big club has a new manager. Of course, it’s Crash.
So what do you think, Thom? Have your people call my people.
We’ll do lunch.
Kip Coons is editor of the North Raleigh News and the Midtown Raleigh News.
Coons: 919-829-4653 or firstname.lastname@example.org