Andy Sonnanstine allowed one run in seven innings to earn the win for Durham.
  • Photo by Al Drago
  • Andy Sonnanstine allowed one run in seven innings to earn the win for Durham.

DBAP/ DURHAM—An apparently digressive yet (I promise) piercingly relevant introduction to the Durham Bulls’ 2-1 win over the Toledo Mud Hens follows, so let me preface that with a piercingly concise summary of the ballgame—a civic duty, perhaps, given that I was the lone reporter at the ballpark last night. Some sort of college football jamboree had everyone down in the Sandhills, evidently.

Andy Sonnanstine, the erstwhile Tampa Bay Rays pitcher trying to work his way back up to the majors—the second time in three seasons he’s had to climb back up that ladder—tossed seven innings of one-run ball, backed by scoreless relief from Dane De La Rosa and Rob Delaney. The pitching collaboration made Felipe Lopez’s tiebreaking home run in the fifth inning stand. The Bulls won their fifth straight game and eight of nine overall. They opened up a 2 1/2-game lead over second-place Gwinnett, their largest margin in exactly a month.

Details of the game come after the jump, and also after this item of unpleasant news: Yesterday, the Independent reported on the latest act of negligence committed by Greenfire, the Durham-based development concern that keeps making news it surely would rather not make.

Mid-May saw the highly publicized collapse of the roof of Greenfire-owned Liberty Warehouse, the last of the old tobacco auction buildings in Durham. The collapse forced the departure of some of Liberty’s tenants, including the beloved Scrap Exchange.

Now it has transpired that another Greenfire building, 117 Parrish Street, is unstable. One of the walls could crumble under heavy winds and fall into the lot next to it, which has become a informal park and pedestrian green space over the years. I happen to cut right across that park on nights when I walk home from the DBAP after ballgames, and as I did so last night I found myself thinking about investment.

Greenfire is a big player in downtown Durham. The company owns something like a million square feet of property there and has developed some of it. Former Bull Chris Richard’s baseball academy, for example, is housed in one of Greenfire’s buildings, although it’s a rather unloved one.

Greenfire has failed to do much of anything with most of their properties, some of which could be lost under bulldozers if they aren’t properly restored. Projects like the boutique hotel Greenfire has been promising, for some years now, to put in the Suntrust building, haven’t started at all. (The hotel project must start by the end of the month or Greenfire forfeits the $4.2 million the city promised to pitch in.)

To be fair, the recession that hit a few years ago slowed growth, and I’m sure there are plenty of other explanations for what appears to be Greenfire’s legacy of dereliction of both buildings and civic duty. To the ungenerous of mind, the company seems to be impeding Durham’s remarkable renaissance over the last decade. There are those who wish Greenfire would sell its holdings to developers with the means to do something productive with them—such as, perhaps, the Jim Goodmon empire, which turned the American Tobacco complex, right by the DBAP (whose baseball team Goodmon also owns), into a thriving hub of commerce and community.

Whatever those reasons for Greenfire’s failure to get it going, at some point they sound like nothing more than excuses, especially in a boom town, which Durham appears to be: the surging arts, the innovative and nationally-feted food—the whole entrepreneurial mood—are the evidence of a city that is fully self-invested, both financially and spiritually. Greenfire doesn’t seem to be participating.

And that brings us back to the Durham Bulls, pretty much the ground-breaker in downtown Durham’s rebuilding back in the 1990s. There are so many reasons why the Bulls’ players might not care at all about winning: They don’t really want to be here, the major leagues being the hoped-for destination; minor-league victories don’t count for much; and the corporation known as the Durham Bulls changes on a virtually daily basis, and never more so than it has recently. Of the 86 roster transactions the Bulls have weathered this season, a whopping 25 of them have occurred over just the last two weeks.

Yet the Bulls have gone 8-3 during that time, poising themselves for a run at what would be their fifth straight division title under manager Charlie Montoyo, and Montoyo’s sixth in a row as a minor-league helmsman: his 2006 Montgomery Biscuits won the Southern League championship.

The players, of course, aren’t playing in order to bring championships to Durham. Their sights are set higher. That’s the way it is—indeed, the way it should be. There is no reason to blame the Bulls for that perspective. These are the minor leagues: a stepping stone, a middle passage, a proving ground. Real investment belongs elsewhere. Any ballplayer who is content in Triple-A will probably never rise above it.

Still, as Charlie Montoyo put it after last night’s game, “If you’re gonna be down here, why not win?” His players probably don’t need to hear that from him, although it can’t but help. For one thing, ballplayers, despite their naturally self-centered focus on improving their individual skills and results so as to advance to the majors, are a competitive breed. They want to win games, even when winning is basically meaningless.

For another, the Tampa Bay Rays tend to stock Durham with self-motivating and fairly mature players, and the Bulls’ ongoing quality mirrors the parent club’s. (The Rays, who are teetering on the edge of pennant-race irrelevance, might very well be in the thick of things if only they had more money.) Compare that to the Cincinnati Reds’ organization, for example, in which the major-league squad and the Class AAA team, Louisville, are underachieving given their talent. Look at the Yankees and Red Sox, excellent at both levels and in their own unique ways; at the Phillies, whose teams are tops in the National League East and in the International League North; at the Orioles, in last place in Baltimore and Norfolk.

The Norfolk comparison offers this example: The Rays used to have a player named Rhyne Hughes, whom they traded in late 2009 to the Orioles. Thus Hughes, who had hit well for Durham after a June callup from Montgomery and showed flashes of big-league promise, went from the Bulls to the Norfolk Tides. In 2010, Hughes’s OPS dropped over 100 points from the previous year. It’s up again in 2011, but Hughes, who turns 28 at the end of the season, seems to have stopped evolving (and he’s on the disabled list). When the Tides come to Durham to play the Bulls, he often looks disengaged or detached, stuck as he is on a bad team in a bad organization.

Now it could be that Hughes just isn’t major-league material and the Rays recognized that before it became obvious to teams like Baltimore, but the Rays didn’t seem to think Elliot Johnson or Justin Ruggiano were big-leaguers either—yet they hung onto both players, marooning them in Durham for four years and basically daring them to burn out in Triple-A. Both have since played their way to Tampa, basically refusing to be dustbinned.

There are three current Bulls in the boat that Johnson and Ruggiano rocked. One is Felipe Lopez, who must be quite unhappy about his current lot in Durham, having been up and down twice already this year while lighter-hitting infielders have gotten to stay in Tampa; yet Lopez is hitting .306 as a Bull with an .816 OPS, third on the active roster. Another is Dan Johnson, who has continued to fight his way through a terrible season-long slump, perhaps injury-related, and is now having (finally) a respectable year. I’d argue that that’s partially because of Charlie Montoyo, who trustingly sends Johnson out to first base and bats him cleanup nearly every day, no matter whether he’s hit well the day before.

And then there is Andy Sonnanstine. Sonnanstine must be sick to death of the bizarre purgatory in which he’s been mired for much of the last three seasons, during which he’s pitched himself out of a starting job, wound up working haphazardly out of the Rays’ bullpen, and been dropped down to Durham, twice. Sonnanstine played for Montoyo way back in 2006 with Montgomery, and under him for the Bulls in 2007, 2009 and now 2011. That can’t be good for the competitive spirit.

But there he was last night at the DBAP, throwing his modest curveball for strikes over and over again, mostly pitching ahead in the count and inducing the not-very-good Toledo lineup to put the ball in play (they swung at more than half his pitches, of which he needed just 82 in seven innings) and let his minor-league fielders do their work behind him. “Our defense pretty much won the game,” he said, also crediting his bullpen and his catcher. It’s likely that major-league hitters would have wised up to Sonnanstine’s modest fastball and his hit-me curve, but you have to credit him for beating Toledo at its own game, for investing in the task at hand, which was winning last night’s game for the Durham Bulls. Durham may not be getting much benefit from Greenfire; but the Bulls, thanks to the all-in Rays, have been paying off big dividends in wins (and the happiness they beget) for the benefit of the Bull City for five years running.

Don’t think for a second that the Bulls’ success doesn’t contribute to the common weal. Cities with winning sports teams have happier populaces, buoyed by the triumphs. Love Durham Love Yourself, as the popular t-shirt puts it.

Sonnanstine was probably disappointed to discover that the reporter he found himself talking to after last night’s win was same one who pointed a voice recorder at him the last time he was demoted to Durham, more than two years ago. This Bull(s) again? Yes, I’m afraid so, comes the answer, from one A. S. to another. Well, Sonnanstine rode that Bull, both after the game and (especially) during it, channeling into his effort on a minor-league mound whatever major-league resentment or frustration he may be dealing with. His desire to get back to the Show may be motivation enough, but he had to coax that motivation into action before 6,138 sleepy fans on a drizzly night in sleepy, dirty Durham, where our major-league aspirations remain unfulfilled prospects that rest upon collapsing roofs and walls, on a Greenfire that barely burns.

If it’s any consolation to Sonnanstine, at least he knows he’ll start every five days as a Bull, which must be a welcome regulation of the erratic and difficult life he was leading as the last guy out of Tampa’s bullpen, trying to stay sharp with side sessions without tiring himself out by overthrowing—he frequently went a week or more without pitching in a game. Did he underperform? Yes. Are the guys up there now an improvement? Probably. But that doesn’t make Sonnanstine—who is if nothing else a quietly but obviously intelligent ballplayer, and just entering his prime—a suddenly worthless stock. Stocks decline, but they also gain, and Sonnanstine, who is demonstrably working to improve, is part of a mix of assets the Rays need to keep moving around. It’s not as if the other ones have been convincing. Brandon Gomes lost a game for Tampa on Saturday. Alexander Torres, summoned for emergency relief, did the same a week ago. Adam Russell, who seemed like a workhorse for Joe Maddon, was designated for assignment simply because the Rays needed a fresh arm after Russell lost the 16-inning marathon last Sunday night; the replacement they called on, the Bulls’ Dane De La Rosa, gave up two runs in his first big-league game and was promptly sent back down.

Bullpens are deucedly hard to construct, relievers a dubious investment: you seldom know which of these unreliable and volatile commodities you can count on, and for how long. It’s hard to understand why the Rays never gave a shot to Cory Wade, who opted out and is now pitching very well for the rival New York Yankees; or to Chris Bootcheck, who seemed to demonstrate while with the Bulls that he could have held down Sonnanstine’s swingman role. R. J. Swindle never got a LOOGY opportunity in a year and a half and finally cashed in his Tampa chips. He’s still without another job. He’s a sight better than plenty of guys who have one.

Well, you get what you pay for. If you aren’t willing to invest, and to utilize your investments in the maximal way, you wind up with mediocrity, or with nothing at all: someone else will snap up your prospects (Wade, Bootcheck). You have to think creatively about what’s available to you, see potential where no one else does—especially if you’re the small-market Rays—and take chances, even when those chances go bust, or perhaps boom and then bust (e.g. Sam Fuld, who lit the baseball world on fire in April and has since regressed; Justin Ruggiano has a higher OPS).

And sometimes you have to rethink roles. Bootcheck became viable because he was turned from a reliever into a starter. Russ Canzler has been moved back to the outfield, lessening the danger posed by his radioactive glove. Jake McGee is learning how to relieve. All of these players have talent; how best to use it? Need and willingness meet. Downtown Durham needs workable space. When will Greenfire be willing to provide it? These gems are standing right before the appropriate eyes, practically begging to be put to good use; they just have to be properly polished and set.


Two little notes before I sign off. First, the next two Bulls starters have been flip-flopped. Brian Baker starts tonight against Toledo and Matt Torra goes against Gwinnett on Tuesday; it used to be vice-versa. I suspect the change has something to do with minimizing Baker’s heavy exposure to the Braves, whom he has already faced four times in 2011. Baker has struggled at home this season. His ERA at the DBAP is 8.01 as compared to 3.96 on the road, in exactly the same number of innings (39 1/3). Perhaps he’ll have the advantage of the Mud Hens, who have only seen him once this season, in Toledo, when Baker went five innings and allowed three runs.

Second, Reid Brignac is due to report to Durham today, like Sonnanstine another 2009 returnee who will be battling the demons of demotion and disappointment. Montoyo said that Brignac will play both shortstop and second base with the Bulls. Brignac’s return means that someone will have to be dropped from the roster. (Edit, 11:17 a.m.: The Bulls reminded me that Desmond Jennings’s departure for Tampa gives the Bulls an open roster spot, making the rest of this paragraph irrelevant. Sorry about that.) and this time it won’t be Craig Albernaz, one of two Durham catchers as long as Jose Lobaton stays on the disabled list. I totally forgot to ask Montoyo who the roster victim is; I guess sending Daniel Mayora back to Montgomery is the most obvious choice, although he has hit well in Class AAA since his promotion. I confess to a deficiency when it comes to staying on top of these personnel comings-and-goings. Maybe I just don’t want to. Maybe I’m too invested in the fortunes of all of these players, myself.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t wish a happy birthday to two of the Bulls’ longtime blue-chips: PA Announcer Tony Riggsbee, whose rich and melodious voice fills the DBAP air every night; and Wool E. Bull, who burns more calories than anyone else at the ballpark. All his mascot pals, even the Charlotte Knights’ dragon, came out to wish him well, and our photographer Al Drago (a young talent whose stock should be going up quickly) has the parting shot for this game story. See you at 7:05 p.m.