For the past 13-plus years I’ve been studying a nondescript five-floor brick and wood-plank walk-up in New York City’s wholesale flower district that was an after-hours jazz haunt in the 1950s and ’60s. The work became known as The Jazz Loft Project at the Center for Documentary Studies (CDS). Over the years we documented more than 600 people that hiked the steep, dank stairwell of the loft building. The true number was probably twice that. In my old office at CDS we maintained a dry-mounted map of the United States with pins for the birthplaces of people we documented in the loft. The pins were all over the map, including the edges to indicate international locations, and they represented all kinds of family and cultural backgrounds. The community in that loft included icons, underground figures, and ordinary people alike. Pretty soon we realized that this wasn’t really a jazz story, and it wasn’t just a New York story, either. There was something universal about it. The story had a full range of human activity, a literary range, framed by one building. It just so happened there was jazz there, and a feverish master photographer who documented it all.
Flash to the afternoon of Monday, Sept. 7, 2009. Labor Day. I was sitting down the left field foul line at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park (DBAP). The place was packed. Kids were everywhere.
At some point in the middle of the game I realized that every walk of life within a 30-mile radius was represented in the stadium that day. White people, African-American, Latino, Asian, and seemingly every income level, and all ages. I wondered, what other buildings in the Triangle see this mix of people passing through and sticking around? The mall, perhaps, but the mall is a chaotic and crass commercial environment. This was different. There’s a retreat quality to baseball; it’s home is called a park for a reason. The game on the field is untimed, offering a more natural rhythm than other team sports. Sure, you pay admission, and concessions are not free, but a good number of seats cost less than a movie, and unlike the movie you don’t have to remain silent and there is no thermostat set on extreme chill. I’ve been attending Bulls games since I was in college at UNC in the late 1980s, but something about that Labor Day game stayed with me.
I drove home wondering if there were ways to apply the documentary principles of The Jazz Loft Project to a season at the DBAP. I’d want top-notch photography and documentary writing. I thought, what if we did oral history interviews with players, coaches, umpires, ball boys, concession staff, grounds crew, clean-up staff, office staff, corporate sponsors, parking attendants, and fans? There could also be radio and video elements, perhaps. The ballpark would be a prism through which to glimpse Durham, a city with profound and conflicted history, and a burgeoning present and future, and the whole region. In the same manner I always said The Jazz Loft Project wasn’t really about jazz, this project wouldn’t really be about baseball. The difference between the two projects is that instead of documenting something that happened a half-century ago we’d be documenting here and now; rather than relying on dusty archival materials we’d create new ones. After 13 years of reveling in mid-century New York City, a local project in current time had great appeal to me.
I mentioned these thoughts to Duke Performances‘ Director Aaron Greenwald, who responded, “Have you seen Adam Sobsey’s coverage of the Bulls on the Independent‘s website?” I hadn’t. He said, “I think his work is unique. You should check it out.” Aaron’s tastes in the arts are refined, and he’s a sports fan, so I knew this tip was significant.
I went to the Independent‘s website and sifted through Adam’s blog posts on Triangle Offense. What I found was extraordinary. He writes 3,000- to 5,000-word pieces on each Bulls home game. Typically, he posts the pieces at 6 a.m. the next morning. In one memorable post, he wrote about leaving the game and walking home through downtown Durham, seeing the crowd filing out of the Durham Performing Arts Center (DPAC) after a show, and then stopping in a bar for a drink. I believe this was the same game story in which he evoked Tennessee Williams, or was it Ibsen? I got the impression that Adam watched the games with a depth more like Dickens or Malamud observing a neighborhood in London or Brooklyn than a sports reporter covering a sporting event. (Later, Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo told me Adam asked the best questions of any member of the media he knew.) Without the hammer of midnight deadlines that have restricted traditional newspaper game reports for a century, the Independent‘s blog gave Adam the time and space to stretch out. I remember one piece in which he mentioned seeing Bulls relief pitcher Joe Bateman walking around downtown Durham one morning. He imagined that Bateman was walking to the stadium—”From where?” a question he left open before moving on to a new paragraph.
A writer friend once described Adam as “an existential sportswriter,” a phrase that might accurately indicate Adam’s background in theater and playwriting. Each game offers a fresh story opportunity, on the same stage set, with threads dangling from the past, present, and even the future. (AAA baseball has a unique assortment of players—and coaches and umpires—going up and down the ranks of the profession.)
Adam and I met at The Federal in the spring of 2011 and began pondering and plotting a project for the 2012 season. We’re now calling it Bull City Summer: A Season at the Ballpark. This week the Bulls close their home regular season schedule with eight games in eight nights. The Independent has generously recast Adam’s ongoing blog under the auspices of Bull City Summer. These games (and playoffs, hopefully) will be a trial run for what we plan to do over the season in 2012. We’ve assembled a team of first-rate photographers. Adam will continue to write game stories, and I’ll add pieces from various angles, mostly behind the scenes. I’m working on a piece about Montoyo to run later this week, with him talking about his parents and background in Puerto Rico and how he made the rare transition from being a professional minor league player (he had only five at-bats in the majors) to a manager (of A-ball in Princeton, W.V.) without ever being an assistant coach.
We’ll use materials from these eight games to promote and raise money for the 2012 project. The basic outcome will be the daily blog with writing and documentary photographs. Radio and video could be added, but there’s something classic and timeless about writing and still photography, so we’re sticking with that focus, for now. Then, once the 2012 season is done, we’ll edit the materials into a book and art exhibition. In 2013, which will be the 25th anniversary of the movie Bull Durham, we plan to publish the book and open the exhibition.
But that’s down the road; there’s a lot to do between now and then. We are grateful to the Bulls and their parent company for welcoming our ideas and plans and for offering access and much in-kind support, and we are grateful to the Independent for their vigorous encouragement and for providing this pilot platform.
The presidential election year should be a poignant time for a project like this. With the machinery of American democracy in gear and shifting, Bull City Summer will offer a portrait of the goings-on at a ballpark and environs in downtown Durham, where, it can be argued (or maybe there is no argument), that the ballpark led its revitalization. It should be fun.