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.