Last week, Mike Birling discussed the importance and reach of the Durham Bulls brand. As if on cue, Minor League Baseball backed up his point yesterday by releasing the top 25 teams in licensed merchandise sales during the 2017 season.
The Bulls are the senior statesmen on that list, having made the cut in the 25 seasons since Minor League Baseball’s licensing program began in 1993. That puts Durham one year ahead of the Trenton Thunder, which debuted in 1994 and have ranked among the top 25 sellers in each years since. The four other teams to make the top 25 every year of their existence include: Columbia Fireflies (two years), El Paso Chihuahuas (four years), Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs (11 years) and Sacramento River Cats (18 years).
“We’re fortunate that we get attention because of who we are,” Birling, the Bulls’ vice president, said in our conversation while referencing the team’s connection to the movie “Bull Durham.” “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.”
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.
On nearly any day, the most popular figure at Durham Bulls Athletic Park is neither a player nor a manager. It’s Wool E. Bull, the iconic minor league franchise’s mischievous, dancing, go-kart driving mascot that is regularly trailed around the ballpark by kids and parents seeking pictures and autographs.
Wool E.’s fame is hardly limited to the DBAP, as the character makes between 250 and 300 appearances at schools, parades and charity events around the Triangle region. Yet the mascot’s popularity is limited to the outfit because the person who has brought Wool E. Bull to life for the past 10 years prefers to remain anonymous.
“The character is the character,” said the person behind Wool E. Bull, who agreed to discuss the life of a minor league mascot on the condition of anonymity. “Some people like to divulge that they are the character. I prefer to keep Wool E. sacred. The Durham Bulls have been good about that: Keeping Wool E. Wool E.”
What follows is my conversation with the person who makes a full-time living as Wool E. Bull about the fun, challenges and aspirations of a minor league mascot. The transcript has been edited in spots for length and clarity.
The Durham Bulls hit the road following a 9-2 loss to Indianapolis on Sunday afternoon, signaling the end of a six-game homestand but the beginning of a much longer stretch for the Bulls staff. Just how long? According to Bulls Vice President Mike Birling, the Bulls are in the midst of a 17-day, 50-game marathon.
No, the team is not playing around the clock; it only feels that way. Instead, Durham is playing host to the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament beginning today, with 15 games scheduled over the next six days. This coincides with the National Club Baseball Association D1 World Series the team is hosting at their newly acquired Coastal Plain League franchise located in nearby Holly Springs. Combine those two events with the just-completed Bulls homestand, last weekend’s Division III Regional tournament in Holly Springs, and the upcoming Bulls homestand, and the number of games adds up to 50.
“We’re running around with our head cut off and spending a lot of money on the 540 tollway [between Durham and Holly Springs],” Birling said. “Once the final kid ran the bases last night, we went into full ACC mode.”