DURHAM — Its hard to believe, but this will be the 20th season of operation for Durham Bulls Athletic Park, which opened in 1995 when it succeeded historic Durham Athletic Park as home of the Bulls, a Class A team of the Atlanta Braves in the Carolina League.
Three years later the franchise became the Class AAA affiliate in the International League of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays (now just Rays), which coincided with the first improvements to DBAP, located just north of the Durham Freeway in downtown.
For its 20th season, the 21st-century DBAP has received an extensive $20 million makeover, and fans and players alike will notice the improvements when the Bulls open defense of their IL championship against the Gwinnett Braves at 6:05 p.m. Thursday. Its not your fathers DBAP any more.
General manager Mike Birling, beginning his 17th season with the Bulls and 14th as GM, acknowledged that the team raced the clock trying to finish the work by opening day.
Obviously its been a crazy winter, Birling said. Weve been working crews pretty much seven days a week for a month and a half.
The upgrades include the PNC Triangle Club, the playing field and lighting, video boards and the sound system, concessions, picnic areas and seating.
One thing that wont change is capacity.
Weve taken away some seats but added some in some areas, Birling said. For us to increase capacity, wed have to increase bathrooms, things like that, so 10,000 is still a sellout.
Bulls management has dubbed the PNC Triangle Club "the crown jewel of the renovation."
The 5,000-square-foot club room will be available to suite holders and any season-ticket holder who purchased a $650 membership. It accommodates 225 fans directly behind home plate with a full glass view of the field. There will be a private bar, dining options that change nightly, a dessert bar and carving station, outdoor access to the stands, complimentary parking, unlimited Pepsi products and premium drink vouchers.
Members can sit in lounge-style padded seats outside the club room or box seats behind home plate. Inside the club room will be 17 HDTVs, club seats and a high-grade sound system.
Birling said the club room improves the game-day experience and offers a year-round revenue stream for the franchise.
Were a 72-date season, he said. The trend for sports teams all around the country is making your place available 365 days a year. We can hold Christmas parties, weddings, meetings, you name it, in that club.
On game days, suite holders and qualifying season ticket holders can use the club room. Some groups also might be included, depending on how many club room tickets are sold, Birling said. The club is not available to individual ticket buyers. The suites on the upper level of the stadium will be enclosed, and suite patrons will have elevator access to the club room.
Every game they get all they can eat and drink, Birling said. We hired a new chef, our first full-time chef. The food menu up there will be changed out every night. It will be a really nice area to take clients, customers or employees.
Despite the high-end attraction of the club room, Birling said the Bulls havent lost sight of keeping ticket costs down for the average fan.
As far as minor league baseball goes, its still extremely inexpensive, he said. No ticket more than $9.99. We still have a lot of individual buyers who take advantage of that.
Birling said the first thing fans will notice when they enter the ballpark is a sense of openness.
The pillars and gates around the entrance have been removed, and that openness is transferred throughout the ballpark, he said. It used to be you couldnt get to our (souvenir) store unless you went through the office.
There are also areas where fans can congregate around the seating bowl.
I call them hangout areas, Birling said. You can still see the game, but you can gather with family, friends or co-workers to watch. Thats why people come out to the ballpark, to enjoy themselves and have a good time. Thats what were trying to create here.
Once theyre in their seats, fans will notice the three new state-of-the-art video displays featuring instant replays, in-game entertainment and game information.
The primary video board graces the 32-foot-high Blue Monster wall in left field, which at 28-by-62 feet is three times the size of its predecessor.
But take heart, baseball purists: The Bulls didnt scrap their manually operated scoreboard. Its been relocated toward center field.
That would be like taking the Bull away, Birling said of the iconic logo left over from the 1988 movie Bull Durham.
There are two other new video displays. A 6-foot-high ribbon board runs 315 feet along the outfield wall from left center to right field, and another video display has been installed above the club level in the grandstand.
A total of 3,838,464 LEDs comprise the stadium project, and along with that is a complete overhaul of the sound system with at least 146 new speakers installed.
Miss the replay on the video board? No problem. Fans can access WiFi and watch replays on their own.
Well have one of the most robust WiFis in minor league baseball, Birling said. We can have between 6,000 and 8,000 simultaneous users. As we go through the season, well learn how to do replays and more things. Youll be able to see replays through our app and watch them on your phone during the game.
At least 20 concession stands have been added as well as a 10,000-square-foot area behind first base, called Jackies Landing, after Jackie Robinson Place, the street that bounds the southern side of the ballpark. Jackies Landing will have food kiosks and bars where fans can congregate and watch the game.
The Front Porch Boxes, a new picnic area, have been added outside the right-center field fence. They are similar to the Terrace Boxes along the first-base line. The third-base picnic area is getting two new canopy-covered areas for group events, and behind right field the Budweiser Picnic Area and Carolina Hurricanes Home Run Patio have been spruced up.
Throughout the ballpark, every seat was replaced with higher backs and longer seat planes for greater comfort.
This renovation project has been from the fans standpoint. Birling said. You have to remember, the ballpark was meant for a Single-A team. The concessions were never expanded. Were expanding food options in different areas of the ballpark, which is something fans will enjoy. And from a technical standpoint, the video boards, sound system and menu boards will increase the wow factor.
Although a renovation project two years ago improved locker room facilities, the players havent been forgotten. Theyre getting a new playing surface, Tifway 419 Bermuda Grass and a DuraEdge Pro Infield similar to major league stadiums like Fenway Park in Boston and Citi Field in New York. A new irrigation system and pipes will allow the field to drain better.
The stadium lights also got a long-needed upgrade. They are more energy efficient and provide more even lighting while exceeding standards for TV broadcasts.
The field lights have not been up to Tripe-A standards since we joined Triple-A, Birling said. Minor League Baseball asked us to upgrade the lights, which we were happy to do at this time.
However, the fans are the ultimate winners in the renovation, Birling said.
The focal point has been the whole experience for our fans, he said. New concession stands, new equipment, new kitchen, that kind of stuff. Thats the mode were in, making sure we can take care of 10,000 (nightly) beginning next week.