Editor’s Note: Please allow me the opportunity to introduce Walter Triebel, a veteran sports blogger who has written several team-specific guides for minor league road trips. This year he’s taking on the Tampa Bay Rays system, and we are happy to welcome him at DRaysBay while he conducts his research. He has previously had his work featured at Fish Stripes and Bucs Dugout. Links to his published work are at the bottom of the page. Welcome, Walter! - DR
Durham, North Carolina is a Mecca among Minor League Baseball destinations. That is, a destination where fans of baseball need to attended at least one game if not more.
The city of Durham might be one of the best knows Minor League baseball destinations in the United States. It is the home of a legendary baseball club named the Durham Bulls. In fact, a Durham Bulls professional baseball team first took the field in the city in 1900 and since then a team played in the city during ninety-eight of the one hundred twenty-two baseball season from that year through 2021. Moreover, the team’s moniker has been the Bulls during all but four of those years.
The photo above shows the Durham Bulls Athletic Park (DBAP), which is located in a historic section of downtown, Durham. That ballpark and its city are an exceptional destination for attending a Minor League game, as it is located in the American Tobacco Historic District that is the home of a number of interesting restaurants and very close to a number of other historic shopping, dining, and entertainment areas, such as Brightleaf Square and the Ninth Street District.
In fact, the DBAP was one of writer Josh Norris’ highly ranked Minor League ballparks in his 2018 Baseball America article “Top 10 Minor League Ballparks.” Norris ranked Durham Bulls Athletic Park #6 in the list on that list.
The reorganization of Minor League Baseball that took place prior to the start of the 2021 season has opened up an interesting new opportunity for North Carolina-based fans of the Tampa Bay Rays (TB) Major League club and their Durham Bulls (DUR) Minor League affiliate.
Prior to this season, the Bulls where the Rays only Minor League club that played games in NC. However, the reorganization of the minor leagues into Major League Baseball’s new Professional Development League (PDL) has changed that. This opportunity will be highlighted shortly, but first a little about the reorganization of MiLB that has created the Durham Bulls/Tampa Bay Rays road-tripping opportunity.
MiLB Reorganization brings Rays affiliates to North Carolina
The Durham Bulls, who had been the Triple-A team of the Rays in the International League (AAA) for the twenty-three years from 1998 through 2020, became a member of the Professional Development League’s new AAA class league the Triple-A East League for the start of the 2021 season.
Next, the Charleston RiverDogs, of Charleston, South Carolina, transitioned from the former South Atlantic League to the new Low-A East League of the PDL. At the same time, the clubs Major League affiliation moved from the New York Yankees to the Tampa Bay Rays.
Finally, Tampa Bay’s prior A-class team the Bowling Creek Hot Rods, who where the Rays full-season A-class team since 2009 and had served that role in the Midwest League for eleven years (2010 to 2020), transitioned to the new PDL High-A East League.
During the 2021 season both the Hot Rods (High-A class) and RiverDogs (Low-A class) clubs travel to NC to play away game against other members of their league.
Also, for the 2021 season, there was a major restructuring of how team’s home/away games are scheduled. That was done to cut back on the amount of travel the teams did during their regular season. This season all home and away series versus another team are six days long—Tuesday through Sunday; instead of the traditional three or four day stints. This has lengthened the teams stay in each city.
Now, for the first time, two other members of the Tampa Bay Rays Minor League system play away games within easy day-tripping travel distance of the Bull’s home ballpark in Durham, NC.
The table above highlights the summer 2021 dates that each of those three teams are playing home (Bulls) or away (Hot Rods or RiverDogs) games at ballparks in North Carolina. Note that the Durham Bulls home game dates are coded in green, Bowling Green Hot Rods days with yellow, and Charleston RiverDogs blue.
Specifically, a review of the table shows that for the period from June 22nd through July 4th all three teams are playing some game in NC.
The Bulls are at home at Durham Bulls Athletic Park each day from June 29th through Sunday July 4th. During that exact series of days/dates, the Charleston RiverDogs are in North Carolina playing away games versus the Kannapolis Cannon Ballers (KAN/Chicago White Sox) at their new stadium—Atrium Health Ballpark.
On the other hand, the Bowling Green Hot Rods are visiting the Hickory Crawdads (HIC/Texas Rangers) at L.P. Frans Stadium in Hickory, NC the prior week—Tuesday, June 22nd through Sunday, June 27th. That period represents a quite short time window during which local fans of the Durham Bulls or country-wide fan of the Tampa Bay Rays could attend a series of games in which each of those three teams are playing in North Carolina cities.
The travel distances and times from the Durham Bull’s ballpark in downtown Durham to those of the Kannapolis Cannon Ballers and Hickory Crawdads are within easy day-tripping range. The Cannon Ballers’ stadium in Kannapolis, North Carolina is approximately a 116 mile/1 hour 49 minute drive from Durham Bulls Athletic Park; however, the drive between DBAP and the Crawdads ballpark in Hickory, NC is approximately 153 miles and should take about 2 hours and 19 minutes.
The table also shows some alternate July, August, and September dates in which two or three of the teams could be seen while playing games in NC.
During those periods, the Hot Rods and RiverDogs are playing different teams. For instance, in mid July (the 14th through 17th) Bowling Green is visiting Greensboro, NC for a six game series versus the Greensboro Grasshoppers (Pittsburgh Pirates) at their ballpark—First National Bank Field. Then, in September they come back to play the Winston-Salem Dash (Chicago White Sox) at Truist Stadium.
On the other hand, the Charleston RiverDogs only return to North Carolina once and that is not until the last week of the regular season—September 15th through 19th. That week, the RiverDogs play the Down East Wood Ducks (Texas Rangers) at Grainger Stadium n Kinston, NC. The ballparks of each of those three teams are closer to Durham Bulls Athletic Park than those of the Kannapolis Cannon Ballers or Hickory Crawdads. In fact, the Grasshoppers stadium is the closest to DBAP—approximately a 54 mile/58 minute drive.
Why you should make the road trip: Baseball’s Top Farm System
Here’s a break down of the Tampa Bay Rays Top 30 Prospects on the Durham Bulls, Bowling Green Hot Rods, and Charleston RiverDogs rosters, per MLB.com.
At the moment of the writing of this article, twenty-three of the Tampa Bay Rays 2021 MLB Top 30 Prospects are assigned to the rosters of the Durham Bulls, Bowling Green Hot Rods, or Charleston RiverDogs. Note that eight of the Rays top 30 ranked players are on the Bulls roster, three on that of the Hot Rods, and nine on the RiverDogs. It’s a fairly even spread, and further review of the table shows that five of the Rays top 10 prospect currently play for one of those teams.
Earlier this season, I attended a Durham Bulls home game at the DBAP. That day four Bulls players that were ranked as Tampa Bay Top 30 Prospects were in their starting lineup. However, since then, one of them, shortstop Taylor Walls, was called up to the majors and for that reason is no longer listed in the table.
Two of the other three starters, field players Wander Franco (#1) and Vidal Brujan (#2), remain in the table. That day the Bulls played the Charlotte Knights (CWS); opened the scoring with four runs in the bottom of the first; and rolled on to a 7 run to 2 victory. In fact, Franco, Brujan, and Walls all played key roles in that first inning rally. However, the big hit, which drove in the eventual game winning run, was by number five batter, designated hitter Ryan Boldt. He hit a two-run homer that knocked in runs 3 and 4 of the inning.
The fourth top 30 prospect I got to see is Tampa Bay Rays current number 19 prospect Drew Strotman.
Strotman, a 40-man rostered pitcher, took the mound as the Durham Bulls starter in that game and also played a star role. He was making his third start of the season and had a quality start. Strotman threw six complete innings and allowed just one run on two hits and did not walk a batter. In fact, four of those six were 1-2-3 innings and he record 8 of the 18 outs over that stretch via the strikeout.
When Strotman departed, he was replace by a reliever that is also ranked among the Rays top 30 prospects—right hand pitcher Brent Honeywell (#18). He pitched a shout out seventh inning.
Fans of the Tampa Bay Rays and Durham Bulls: it’s time for a little Minor League Baseball road-tripping adventure. You have the opportunity to see many of the Tampa Bay Rays current MLB Top 30 Prospects in action of the field as well as visit historic Durham and attend a game at one of the top ranked Minor League ballparks in the country.
The 2021 Durham Bulls/Tampa Bay Rays North Carolina Minor League Baseball Road Trip awaits you.
Walter Triebel is the author of “Road-Tripping the South Atlantic League: A Guide to the Teams, Ballparks and Cities” published by McFarland. It is available for purchase on their website as well as Amazon. Walter previously spent 15 years as an adjunct faculty member at Fairleigh Dickinson University, and has led an extensive career as a textbook and reference book author. You can follow him on twitter here.