Mike Birling has been running arguably the most iconic franchise in minor league baseball for nearly the past two decades, the Durham Bulls, which was made famous by the classic movie “Bull Durham” 30 years ago and helped lead a revitalization of the sport 30 years ago. The team also helped kick start a ballpark building boom in the early 1990s, when they moved out of their quaint-yet-iconic home of Durham Athletic Park for the brand-new, downtown Durham Bulls Athletic Park.
What follows is my conversation with Birling, the Bulls’ vice president, about his path through the minors, the challenges and rewards of running a team as famous as the Bulls and the close relationship between the team and city. The transcript has been edited in spots for length and clarity
How did a Wisconsin kid like yourself come to Durham? How did you break into the game and end up with the Bulls?
My story is probably like a billion others. You thought you could play sports and then you realized that you couldn’t play sports. I went to college at [the University of] Wisconsin-La Crosse. We had a CBA [the now-defunct Continental Basketball Association] team at the time. It was in La Crosse and it was one of the most successful basketball teams in that league at that time. I knew I wanted to be in sports. This was the mid- early 90s . . . So I did the old sports management and had a business admin minor. I knew I needed to get some experience so I went to work for this CBA team. And really it just got me hooked on sports.
My boss was Flip Saunders, who obviously went on to some great things in the NBA. The fun part about him was that all of his phone calls were on speaker phone. So here I am, this sophomore in college, just listening to him talking to all of these, in my world, celebrities, all these NBA people. He’s doing deals with the phone on speakerphone, he’s trading guys for a case of beer—just everything you would think the CBA probably was at that time.
I think they had three or four full-time people. I just literally walked in the door and said, ‘Hey, I [am a student] over at the college. I really want to look at the sports thing. You don’t need to pay me, just let me do whatever you want me to do.’ They really threw me into everything. I was doing some ticket sales. I had to fly the [miniature] blimp. Here I’m driving a blimp while I was in college.
To me that’s one of the coolest things, look it’s sports I get to do all of this fun stuff. Then they started telling me to come up with some creative stuff at halftime. My wife now, she was my girlfriend at the time, I had her and all her roommates come over. I remember we had General Mills Night, so we had Lucky Charm and Trix the Rabbit. So we needed people to hop into these costumes and play a little basketball at halftime. So here I get my girlfriend and all her friends and some of my friends to hop in these costumes, so I had an early indoctrination into the crazy world of minor league sports.
As part of graduating you had to have an internship. So there was a minor league team called the Appleton Foxes, who at that time were a Single A affiliate of the Seattle Mariners. They were 15 minutes from my house, so the natural thing was just to go to them and say, ‘Hey, once again. I’ll work for free. Just let me know.’ They had three full-time employees, I believe. So I went working there for the summer. That was just an incredible experience. It was an old stadium. I think we drew about 76,000 people the whole year. Alex Rodriguez was there. That was his first team. Raul Ibanez was on that team. We had some really great guys. They would have me throw batting practice anytime we were facing a lefty because I had just gotten out of college and I was a pitcher.
So, I was like ‘Oh my gosh, sports is so much fun.’ You don’t really realize. Every morning you’re there picking up garbage from under the stands. You’re cooking. You’re doing concessions. It really was awesome because I wasn’t doing just one thing. I was literally—even if it was a small team—doing everything. If we would have a good night, which was pretty rare, my boss would hand me a $20 bill off of the stack of money when he was counting it. I thought that was the greatest thing in the world. So from then on, I was just hooked . . .
That next year we moved into a brand new stadium [Fox Cities Stadium] and became the Wisconsin TimberRattlers. So much of it for me was just timing. I just kind of lucked out. I was the intern there. They obviously had to expand the staff moving into a new stadium. The GM at the time, he left, so the assistant GM, Steve Malliet, became the GM and he instantly put me as the assistant GM. So here I am going from intern to assistant GM moving into a new ballpark.
We end up shattering all sorts of records. The TimberRattlers logo was a top-five logo in all of minor league baseball. Everything was great. So obviously with that success, my boss was getting offers from everybody, and he ends up leaving for the Brewers. And next thing you know, our board of directors was deciding if they want to make a 22-year-old a GM. It took a few months, but finally they decided to let me do that. We continued to have great success. We had the Seattle Mariners come for an exhibition. We had the all-star game. Here I am thinking I’m going to be the GM of my hometown team forever.
A very weird coincidence, [a friend] who worked for the Myrtle Beach Pelicans, which was owned by Capitol Broadcasting, calls me up and asks if I can leave tickets for somebody who is in town who works for Capitol Broadcasting—I had never heard of Capitol Broadcasting, being in Wisconsin. I went and gave the guy a tour of the place, and randomly, he says to me, ‘So what are your plans?’ And so I tell him that I’m probably going to stay here forever. And he tells me that more than likely they’re going to have the assistant GM position open up in the next few weeks in Durham. Would I be interested? And I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, the Durham Bulls. Really?’
So I send him my resume and don’t think much of it. The next thing you know, a few weeks later, I’m on a plane coming out to Durham to interview . . . I decided to take the chance and come here and be assistant GM. I got here at the end of the first year of Triple-A, so the end of 1998. I was assistant GM until 2002, I believe. And I have been GM ever since.
What was that transition like coming from a low Class A team like Wisconsin to Triple-A in Durham? Was there a noticeable difference?
It was night and day. Not just from the sheer size difference, but the bigger thing for was that we were a community-owned team in Wisconsin. We had a board of directors of 30-some people that I had to meet with once a month. We had an executive committee of seven or eight people and they were all community leaders that just watched over the team. All of a sudden, I’m moving into this corporate world for a big media company. Obviously there are things you need to worry about from that aspect. So it was definitely a culture shock for me, not only just moving to an area that I had no clue about, but the size of the Bulls operation.
Me as an outsider knew the movie, and that the Bulls were the most recognizable name in minor league sports. Instantly it hit me that I really understood how important this brand is, how important this team is to the community. And not only to the community but how important this team is to minor league baseball. People are always looking at the Bulls. Over time I’ve learned to appreciate that more. I definitely understand what it means to lead this franchise. But it was definitely a culture shock when I got here.
The Bulls are truly the franchise that is most synonymous with minor league baseball because of ‘Bull Durham.’ How does that impact how you operate the team or how you promote the team?
It impacts us a ton. We’re fortunate that we get attention because of who we are. But with that I think there is a certain standard that we are expected to uphold, or at least we kind of force that upon ourselves. You know, we like doing crazy promotions just like all of the other minor league teams, but we’re not going to push it over a certain level. We just don’t feel like that is what this team is about. This team is an iconic brand. It’s a brand that, like I said, everybody is looking towards. We’re not going to be the ones that step out and do some of the things that minor league teams do to get attention.
Now on the other side, we’re fortunate that we don’t have to do that, because we do get attention because of who we are. But I think there is a standard. We kind of look at ourselves as the 31st major league team. And we have a responsibility with that. That’s kind of how we guide things. Everything we do, we always want to be the first. We always want to be the most technologically sound. We always want to be pushing the envelope, but not necessarily on a wacky, crazy promotional side. We want to push the envelope on a fan side, on a fan experience side, on a technology side. I think we are always going to try to lead by example that way.
It must be incredible to have that connection with the movie because you are able to draw on that past and the people involved in it, like you were able to do this year with the team’s 30th anniversary celebration of ‘Bull Durham.’
Sometimes when you are in it everyday you forget how important that movie was, and it really hit home this year with the 30th anniversary. With [Bull Durham Director] Ron Shelton here and just talking with him. We brought him back to the DAP [Durham Athletic Park] and we brought him to Annie’s house in the movie. And hearing him go through it, and hearing him talk about what Durham looked like when he decided where to shoot this movie. And hearing him talk about how buildings were just boarded up and there was nothing happening in downtown Durham.
I don’t know if everyone will admit it, but this movie had a huge part in the revitalization of Durham. There is no just no way around it. It put Durham on the map. The Bulls were successful before the movie, but obviously it pushed them up to a new level. All of a sudden, you build a new ballpark. And you know what has happened around the ballpark [since then]. That movie, you can definitely trace it back to that.
Like you said, Durham has changed significantly since your arrival. It’s even changed pretty significantly since I got here 11 years ago. The Bulls were one of the first businesses to build and invest in downtown Durham. What role do you think the team has had in the revitalization of the city?
That’s the part where yes, it’s clear we are not like a normal team. Most teams are not owned by a fairly decent-sized media company. So we have resources that others don’t and we understand that. But just because you have resources doesn’t mean you are going to be able to make an impact. And that’s the great part about the Goodmons [Capitol Broadcasting CEO Jim Goodmon purchased the team in the early 1990s]. You know, when I came here, I thought I would be here may two four or five years at most, and move on and try to figure out what the next step is. But then you get involved with people like the Goodmons, who are so focused on the community and what they can do.
They love this area so much, the Triangle region. Sure, do we want to make money? Yeah. But the Bulls are not here to make money. Jim always talk about it: The Durham Bulls are not his team. They are the Triangle’s team. And when you have a person like that who really sees what a minor league team can do to a revitalization of a city, it’s been great.
Jim knew that the city needed one person to be a catalyst and that’s what he was. He decided to challenge the city, challenge the county: All right, we have these buildings around the ballpark, I’ll get involved but I’m not going to just do it myself. You guys have to come in with parking infrastructure. You have to come in with a few other things. He challenged the local business community to say, we need a couple of you guys to sign on for leases. Next thing you know it snowballed and now you look at what’s happened. None of this would’ve happened if the Goodmons didn’t have that vision of the American Tobacco Campus.
And there was a reluctance from the city to build the ballpark, right?
Oh absolutely. It’s easy, in hindsight now, to look back and say, oh my gosh, we all knew this was going to happen. I don’t think anyone knew this was going to happen . . . Now you have real estate people from California, from Texas. They are all over coming here. That’s been the fun part for me. When I first got here, we would have to lock our players’ cars in a barbed-wire fence area. That’s what Durham was. Now you look at it, and there are apartment complexes going up all over. There’s tons of restaurants. Obviously the business community has exploded down here. But now we are finally getting to see the people living down here. That’s going to be the fun part for the Bulls, because we’ve never had people living around us.
I believe you have a background in finance and are certainly interested in the financial world. How does running a minor league franchise satisfy that interest?
Going back to when I first wanted to get in this. I wanted to get in this because I was a player. You are a player because you’re competitive. And then when all of a sudden you can’t play anymore, you have to find ways to [channel that competitive spirit]. That’s why this was such an easy transition for me. Instead of looking at it, like can I hit a ball or pitch a ball? Now all of a sudden, you have these numbers. There is always [a number] you can hit and you are never going to have it figured out. There are always attendance numbers. There are always financial numbers. All of that stuff that goes with running a business.
I’ve basically flipped it from on the field to off the field, where I still have that drive. I still want to be the best. There are so many great minor league teams. I still talk to all of the GMs. ‘How did you do this? Why did you guys do this promotion?’ That’s the fun part. And that’s the great part about minor league baseball, that we are all willing to share. So there is this competitiveness between all of us. It’s off the field. I know fans look at standings and see that part of it, but behind the scenes we want to beat other people in attendance. Hey, we did this promotion, you guys couldn’t get that done. That’s the fun part about our sport. So that’s why for me it was an easy transition, because I have that competitive spirit in me and I always want to do better. Most businesses, it just kinds of go on, day after day after day. We have a cut-off point. The season ends, so you can say, ‘OK that season is over, how do we turn it? Let’s wipe the slate clean. We have to start all over again. How do we fix the challenges we had the prior year.’ So that’s a lot of fun.
Running a team now goes beyond just a minor league season. So how do you keep going after nearly two decades of running the Durham Bulls, of grinding through minor league seasons?
As you know, we’re not just a minor league team. I think we’ll have 130 different [events]—either between scrimmages or games here at the DBAP, just at the DBAP this year. So we’ll have Duke, we’ll have USA Baseball, we’ll have the Bulls, we have the ACC tournament. We also run the DAP, which is the old ballpark where the movie was done. We have North Carolina Central, that plays there, and a bunch of travel ball. We also own the Holly Springs Salamanders, which is a Coastal Plain League team. Obviously we have a bunch of games over there. So there is definitely enough to keep you busy. And yes, without a doubt, it is getting much harder as I get older to do this . . . But at the end of the day you’re working at a ballpark and there is just something about that.
And the other thing that I love about my job is that you are not just doing one thing. One day you are dealing with tickets. The next day you are dealing with retail. The next day you are on the field or something happens in the stadium. It’s never dull, and like I said before, you never figure it out. There is the challenge of constantly trying to understand your fan base. Your fans change so fast. The way we used to promote to our fans is totally different than the way it is now. And you have to constantly figure out ways to stay in front of it. So I think that drive is what keeps me going at my old age.