DURHAM, North Carolina -- It's an early summer night and a blistering 92 degrees. I'm sitting in Durham Bulls Athletic Park, home of baseball's Triple-A Bulls. I've got a quart of Miller Lite in one hand and a baseball bat in the other. It's the Fraternal Order of Police bat giveaway night, and my friend Kathy and I lined up early to get it. Somehow, I'll get the bat into my suitcase and back home.
I'm on vacation visiting friends Kathy and Mike, relocated Torontonians. I miss them terribly, and this trip is about reconnecting, drinking coffee on the back porch and comparing our changing lives.
We've already made the car trip into the Blue Ridge Mountains in search of folk-art furniture, and checked out the Tobacco Museum -- which does not, as we expected, feature an effigy of Jeffrey Wigand swinging out front.
But there's no better way to get to know an American town than by going to a local baseball game.
Famous film The Bulls, made famous by Kevin Costner's best film, Bull Durham, are the Tampa Bay Devil Rays' minor-league franchise. They're first in their division, and tonight's doubleheader against the Pawtucket Red Sox is a battle between first-place teams.
The stadium is brand new, but it's small and intimate and has a turn-of-the century look. It fits in with the rest of downtown Durham's skyline, which is full of 100-year-old red-brick tobacco factories with "Lucky Strike" and "American Tobacco Company" scrawled up the length of their tall chimneys.
For a scant $6.50, you can get a seat in the stadium's first seven rows. The cheap seats are $5.50 and land you anywhere else. With these affordable prices, the stadium is full of families. Kids run up and down the aisles while their parents saunter behind them, loaded down with hot dogs and beer, always beer.
Former champs It's a little scary seeing the kids swinging their free baseball bats over their heads. Kids, like cars, have a blind spot, and they don't do shoulder checks.
I spot former Toronto Blue Jays Juan Guzman and Pat Borders running out to the field. Guzman is working on strengthening his bum shoulder, and catcher Borders looks to be playing out his career.
"Go, Jays, go!" I shout. But Kathy says that's mean -- they probably don't want to be reminded that they were once in the big leagues and played on a world-championship team. It's a cute sentiment, I think, but I yell "Go, Jays, go!" one more time.
By the second inning, the Bulls are down a run and Guzman has re-injured his shoulder. He slumps off the field with a trainer gently cradling his million-
dollar arm. Borders is struggling at the plate.
It's not looking good for the Bulls -- or the game. In the eastern sky, a bank of dark clouds is rolling in like a large India-ink stain. In the South, you always pay attention to the clouds. Fierce storms form, attack and then make quick retreats, heading off in another direction.
These clouds are getting darker, purplish, and they're moving with a
purpose. The crowd is restless. The first game of the doubleheader is almost over, the Bulls are down 3-1 and people have started herding their kids out to the exits like calves out of a stockyard.
I look over at Kathy and Mike. We don't have to speak; we know we're staying put for the moment. We're friends sitting together, drinking beer and watching the sky get ready to rip open.
The perfect storm