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Hit Bull, Win Steak: DBAP home to baseball’s best performance bonus

Pat Watkins' Historic Home Run

Pat Watkins talks about hitting a home run off the bull at Durham Bulls Athletic Park and winning a steak. The Garner native was playing for Toldeo in 2000 when he connected for the historic home run. Video by Robert Willett/rwillett@newsobserver.
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Pat Watkins talks about hitting a home run off the bull at Durham Bulls Athletic Park and winning a steak. The Garner native was playing for Toldeo in 2000 when he connected for the historic home run. Video by Robert Willett/rwillett@newsobserver.

You remember the scene. If you’re like Pat Watkins, you’ll probably start laughing midway through this brief recreation ...

Nuke LaLoosh, the hard-headed, harder-throwing rookie, rigorously shaking off Crash Davis’ sign for a curveball, instead wanting to “announce his authority” with a first-pitch fastball. Davis, the wily catcher, knowing exactly how that would end, allowing it, then joyfully describing how hard the batter smacked that fastball off the bull at old Durham Athletic Park.

“Well, he really hit the (mess) out of that one, didn’t he,” Davis tells LaLoosh, with a chuckle in Bull Durham. “... Look at that! He hit the (bleeping) bull! Guy gets a free steak!”

“Every baseball player has seen that movie a thousand times,” said Watkins, a former Garner High and ECU star who hit the bull as a Triple A player in 2000. He can barely finish the sentence. “That scene. ... That’s just hilarious.”

Hit the bull. Win a steak. It was an ingenious addition to the quintessential minor league baseball movie, a promotion so perfect, in fact, that the Durham Bulls kept the prop and borrowed the idea after the “Bull Durham” film crew left. The bull snorted for visitors in the movie, but in reality, it only snorts when a Bull hits it.

That doesn’t happen often. It’s happened just 29 times since Durham Bulls Athletic Park opened in 1995, most recently when Corey Brown hit the bull on May 26, almost a year after Justin Christian did the same thing on May 31, 2014. Christian ate well, at least twice, last summer. He also hit the bull a month earlier, earning a steak from Angus Barn each time.

Visiting players, who have hit the bull 17 times, no longer receive a steak.

Watkins, who was with Toledo when hit the bull in 2000, said he did, though he couldn’t recall who grilled it.

He did remember walking into the new ballpark for the first time, though. He played in the old DAP as a Carolina League player on his way to the major leagues -- (“Was good enough to make it but not good enough to stay!” his twitter handle jokes.) He played in the last game there, actually, a playoff game in 1994 in which his Winston-Salem team beat the Bulls. He returned to Durham in 2000, after playing parts of three seasons with the Cincinnati Reds.

The first thing he noticed about DBAP was the blue monster in left field. The second thing he noticed was the bull. It had moved from right field to left field.

“In the old ballpark, I never had a chance because it was in right field,” said Watkins, a right-handed hitter. “But I saw it in left field and I’m thinking, at least I have a chance, it would be cool to hit the bull.”

On July 26, 2000, Watkins turned on an inside fastball, and even though he wasn’t a home run hitter, he knew immediately he got enough of it to savor its flight.

“The hard part is, it’s right down the line,” Watkins said. “It’s a small target. I was a leadoff hitter, so I’m usually sprinting. But I actually got to see it hit off the bull. I remember thinking, ‘Wow, I just hit the bull!”

Making the moment more memorable was the fact Watkins’ ailing mother was in the stands. Diagnosed with cancer, she was seated in her wheelchair on the third base concourse. She had a perfect view. It was the last game she saw Watkins play, and he remembered making eye contact with her as he rounded second base.

“That was the last homer she saw me hit,” he said.

Nothing else like it in baseball

That bull is one of the most iconic images in all of baseball, as instantly recognizable and unique as Wrigley’s ivy, Pittsburgh’s Clemente Bridge or San Francisco’s oversized mitt in left-center field.

The bull is 20 feet tall, 30 feet wide, about 10 feet off the ground and 310 feet from the batter. The original bull was smaller. The Bulls moved it to the concourse after moving from DAP to DBAP in 1995. A larger bull debuted in right field at DBAP, but was destroyed by a hurricane in 1997. Bull III has been in place, taunting hitters from left field, since 1998.

“As minor-leaguers, we travel all over the country, play in all kinds of ballparks. Not every ballpark has something like that,” said Brent Abernathy, a short-time Bull who also spent time in the major leagues. “Something that stands out like the bull. It’s always cool, and something the fans can enjoy. It’s nice to see the smoke coming out of the nostrils.”

Abernathy, who played parts of the 2000 and 2001 seasons in Durham, said teammates always talked about it.

“How could we not?” Abernathy said. “It’s iconic. We’d always talk about it during batting practice, try to hit it.”

Pitchers, too, Watkins said, even though they don’t hit at DBAP because the Bulls are affiliated with an American League team.

“They’d stand up there, toss a ball and try to hit it,” Watkins said. “Everybody talks about it. As a right-handed hitter, it’s over your shoulder. You know it’s there. Guys can say they don’t, but everybody wants to hit it. You’ll take a couple swings at it during the final round.”

Abernathy hit just five home runs as a Durham Bull.

He doesn’t remember much about the one he hit off the bull on May 4, 2001, but he sure had fun reminiscing about Toby Hall’s laser 12 days later.

“He smoked it,” Abernathy said. “It didn’t get higher than the bull. Most of them are falling when they hit it. We were surprised he didn’t put a hole through it. It was so loud. It almost got stuck in the bull’s gut. We were shocked it didn’t go through the bull.”

The bench erupted. It always did, Abernathy said.

Hit the bull. Win a steak. The greatest performance bonus in minor league baseball. Unless you just miss, of course.

“Hit the grass, win a salad,” Watkins said. “Now that’s really funny.”

Contact assistant sports editor Chris Wright at 919-829-4643.

4 Players who have hit the bull twice (Justin Christian, Shelley Duncan, Midre Cummings, Aaron Holbert).

3 Left-handed batters who have hit the bull.

3 Most bull shots by a team (Pawtucket and Toledo).

1 Fewest days between bull shots (Pawtucket hit it June 13, 15, 2000).

5 Most bull shots in any season (1999).

12 Career minor league homers in 1,026 games by Kevin Hooper, who hit the bull in 2007.

15 Days between Shelley Duncan’s two bull shots in 2013.

Who has done it

A list of players who hit the bull since DBAP opened in 1995 (Bulls players in bold):

2015

May 16: Corey Brown

2014

June 22: Steven Souza Jr. (SYR)

May 31: Justin Christian

April 7: Justin Christian

April 4: Edward Salcedo (GWN)

2013

Aug. 6: Craig Albernaz

July 4: Luis Exposito (NOR)

June 17: Shelley Duncan

June 2: Shelley Duncan

2012

Aug. 26: Sean Rodriguez

Aug. 3 Ernesto Mejia (GWN)

2011

July 7: Desmond Jennings

June 13: JJ Furmaniak

2008

July 28: Paul Janish (LOU)

May 14: Jeff Bannon

April 11: Jon Weber

2007

May 30: Joel Guzman

May 9: Shawn Riggans

April 21: Kevin Hooper (TOL)

April 10: Ed Rogers (PAW)

2006

July 31: Donaldo Mendez (ROC)

2005

May 9: Brandon Phillips (BUF)

April 27: Derrick Gibson (RIC)

April 7: Jonny Gomes

2004

Aug. 19: Midre Cummings

July 28: Keith Osik

May 19: Jason Maxwell

April 19: Midre Cummings

2003

July 28: Mark Smith (IND)

2002

June 23: Andy Thompson

May 20: Damian Rolls

April 13: Carl Crawford

2001

May 16: Toby Hall

May 4: Brent Abernathy

April 10: Andy Sheets

2000

Aug. 13: Pat Borders

July 26: Pat Watkins (TOL)

June 15: Izzy Alcantara (PAW)

June 13: Garey Ingram (PAW)

1999

Aug. 13: Peter Bergeron (OTT)

Aug. 1: Jason Maxwell (TOL)

June 7: Aaron Holbert

May 8: Aaron Holbert

April 23: Tom Wilson

1998

Aug. 16: Scott McCain

May 26: Tom Evans (SYR)

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