All-Star Longoria delights crowd in return to Durham

Evan Longoria walked up to the plate at Durham Bulls Athletic Park for the first time in almost five years.

The larger-than-normal crowd roared in anticipation. And in his first at-bat, he delivered a base hit.

Longoria is with the Durham Bulls on a rehab assignment. He injured his hamstring earlier this season and has played just 23 games with the Tampa Bay Rays. Fans cheered before each of Longoria’s four at-bats Thursday night, just as they did during his original 38 games as a Durham Bull in 2007 and 2008. Some things have changed since then.

Longoria blossomed into a three-time All-Star and playoff hero with the Tampa Bay Rays. But there was a sense of nostalgia, too, remembering how he made his mark as at the DBAP in 2007.

“This place was good to me, I enjoyed playing here,” Longoria said. “The fans are great, it’s gotten nicer in here. It’s good to be back.

He led first-year manager Charlie Montoyo and the Bulls to the 2007 International League title game that season, the year after winning the Southern League championship with Montoyo and the Montgomery Biscuits. Needless to say, the two naturally bonded through their minor league success together.

“He’s a great manager and he’s fun to play for,” said Longoria. “No matter how big or how important someone else may think the stage is, when the ballpark is packed and there’s energy in it, it doesn’t matter where you are – it’s fun to play.”

Longoria had a chance to provide a storybook ending to Thursday’s game. In the seventh inning, Longoria stepped to the plate with the bases loaded. It would have been a great time for his first DBAP home run since Aug. 31, 2007. But he struck out looking, ending a 1-for-3 performance that included a walk and two strikeouts.

“It’s the first 3-2 curveball I’ve seen in long time,” he laughed.

Back up third baseman Cole Figueroa was happy not only to see Longoria’s bat in the lineup, but for what might await after the Bulls’ 1-0 victory over Gwinnett.

“They usually bring some after-the-game spread,” Figueroa said, grinning. “Like they’ll buy meals for you after the game. That’s always cool too.”

Figueroa figured Thursday would be special. Ballpark specials and an All-Star make a pretty neat combination.

“Evan plus Dollar Night (for hot dogs), man, oh yeah,” Figueroa said, when asked if he expected a jump in attendance.

It isn’t just the team that has received a boost from Longoria’s arrival. The crowd of 8,198 was about 1,500 above its season average.

The East Chatham All-Stars, a group of little leaguers 10-and-under, didn’t know Longoria was going to be in town when they made plans weeks ago.

“We already had this planned, we just got lucky,” said Cindy Villani, a mother of one of the players.

Two fans, brothers Jake and Sam Weinberg, 14 and 11, stood outside the Bulls dugout more than an hour before the first pitch in hopes of getting Longoria’s autograph.

Another, Richard Stewart, 38, came to see the visiting Braves but found himself among the dozens of Bulls fans surrounding the dugout to get a signature before the game.

“You can recognize a future Hall-of-Famer when you see one,” said Stewart, wearing an Atlanta Braves T-shirt.