The International League schedules 144 games for each of its teams. Half of those games are played at home. So, unless you are truly a Durham Bulls fanatic, you will only have 72 chances to see your Bulls during the regular season. (Note: Trust me. There are some among the readers here who will drive to Charlotte or Norfolk for a game. More power to them.)
In 2012 the first home game (April 5) against the Gwinnett Braves is the first day of the season for the International League. The last home game (September 1) against the Charlotte Knights is two days before the end of the season.
Another very important feature of the schedule is that the Bulls only play 8 games against each team outside the South Division, 4 at home and 4 away. That means that if you are a Boston fan the only chance you’ll get to see Red Sox prospects will be May 15 - 18. That’s it. They won’t be back unless both teams are both in the playoffs in September. The same is true if you’re a Yankees fan (June 5-8), or a Reds fan (May 1 - 4), or a fan of any of the other parent clubs of teams in the North or West divisions of the International League. Said another way, the Bulls only play 40 games at home with the teams from outside the South Division.
On the other hand, if you’re a Braves (Gwinnett) or White Sox (Charlotte) or Orioles (Norfolk) fan, you’re in luck. (Well, it’s a bit difficult to call an Orioles fan as being in any sort of luck, but you get the idea.) Those teams will be here about a dozen times each this year.
As a general rule Bulls home stands last eight days and road trips eight days. But not always. In mid-April the Bulls have a 14-day road trip.
Triple-A ballplayers have a much more relentless schedule than major leaguers. They play more games with fewer days off, at least until September.
The Triple-A All-Star Game pitting the International League All-Stars against the Pacific Coast League All-Stars is set for July 11 and will be played at the ballpark of the Buffalo Bisons. Exactly how the players are selected for the game is something of a mystery. Fans do get a vote; however, usually the IL doesn’t bother to tell us how the voting went.
The International League Championship (The Governors’ Cup) is decided with two rounds of best of five playoffs in September. A one-game “AAA Championship” game is to be played right here, at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park on September 18, 2012. You're going to here a lot about that game this year.
The Durham Bulls, as all readers of this blog must know, won the Governors’ Cup and the AAA Championship in 2009 and has won the Southern Division of the International League for the last several years.
The 40-Man Roster
And now, sigh, let's talk about the Tampa Bay Rays.
To clear up some possible confusion, the Tampa Bay Rays play baseball in St. Petersburg, Florida, not Tampa. That may come as a bit of a surprise to those not familiar with Florida geography (or modern marketing strategies).
Every major league team consists of 25 players on the “active” roster. An additional 15 players are added to make up the 40-man roster. In general, once a player makes it to the 25-man active roster he stays there (unless traded or sold). For players who have been around for a while, there are all sorts of byzantine rules regarding how this works. To complicate matters in 2012, the major league teams can expand their roster to 26 on days that they have a double-header. What matters to Bulls fans, however, is that a Bull cannot be called up to play in a Rays game (even to temporarily replace an injured player) unless he is first on the 40-man roster.
Here in Durham, we are not much interested in the active roster. What matters to Bulls fans are those 15 ballplayers who are on the Rays 40-man but not on the active roster. Members of that 15 man group usually make up the heart of the Durham Bulls.
If previous years are typical, we can expect that 11 or 12 of the players on the 40-man will be assigned to Durham and they will probably be split about 6 or 7 pitchers and 4 or 5 position players (a few will be playing at lower than AAA level). Of the pitchers, one or two will be prospective starting pitchers, the other potential relievers.
Why are they in Durham? Lots of reasons. And that’s one of the pleasures of watching AAA ball. Why is this guy here? When will he be called up? Will he be called up?
The odds of being called up are pretty good. There are enough injuries and trades in a given year that most if not all of the players on the 40-man will at least get a few days with the Rays. Some will go there and stay.
What about the Bulls who aren’t on the 40-man? Unless Tampa Bay takes someone off the 40-man, they can’t be called up. Adjustment to the 40-man can, and does, happen, but not very often. However, the Rays are nothing if not creative in gaming the major league player rules system.
The 40-man roster also has an effect on how the players who are with the Bulls are used. For example, pitchers may be on defined pitch counts and/or working on specific pitches that the Rays have decided the pitcher needs to develop. Relievers may be tested to see if they can do two days in a row, or “tried out” as a closer. We will see infielders playing the outfield (and vice versa).
My point is that sometimes what we see on the field is often decided in St. Petersburg, not in the Bulls' clubhouse. The Rays really aren’t particularly interested in the Bulls’ won-loss record. So, we will inevitably see some unfortunate (for the Bulls) decisions, such as a player being called up, sitting on the Rays’ bench for a couple of weeks, then coming back to Durham with his timing shot and struggling at bat. And with this new 26 man roster for double header rule, I'm guessing that Bulls' pitching rotations could get really screwed up with a pitcher being called up for a spot start and then coming back.
We cannot avoid the fact that the Durham Bulls live and die at the whim of the Tampa Bay Rays front office. What’s fortunate for Bulls fans is that the Rays have invested a ton of effort into building a steady stream of talent to feed into the big team. More than that, very few just “pass through” AAA-level ball. This is a real and very serious testing ground for pitchers and hitters. So we will get to see a lot of very talented ballplayers. Furthermore, we have a first rate managing/coaching crew with the team. Lastly, of course, without the Rays we wouldn’t have AAA ball here at all.
All of which is not going to keep me from complaining about the Rays. Hey, it’s baseball!
For Durham Bulls history, check out the Bulls’ web page and the Wikipedia page. They need some work, but are very good introductions.