Adapting to change key for Bulls in yet another playoff run
Posted August 26
Durham, N.C. — The Durham Bulls, already minor league’s most identifiable team, are also the most dominant. With Monday night’s 4-2 win over Gwinnett, the Bulls clinched the International League’s South Division for the seventh time in eight seasons and the 12 time in the last 17.
“This is not easy. We have kind of made it look easy, but it’s not easy to put all these different groups of guys together every year and get them to play together for all these months,” said Bulls general manager Mike Birling Tuesday while joining Mark Thomas and Mike Maniscalco on 620 the Buzz.
While building a dynasty at the professional level is largely attached to financial means, in the minors teams are at the mercy of their parent organization’s development strategy and overall health during the season. Those factors make the Bulls’ run even more remarkable.
In 2014, the Bulls have already used 44 different players. Over the past eight seasons that have seen the Bulls win seven division titles, two International League titles and one Triple-A championship, a total of 247 different players have put on a Bulls uniform. That amounts to nearly 31 new faces a year.
“Every team is so different and you have different guys,” Birling said. “Even though we have done this a lot as the Durham Bulls, you still have some new players that when you talk to them after, they have never won a championship. That’s the best part -- it’s special for them.”
One key new face to the team this season is veteran Wilson Betemit. He may have turned down an offer to swing in the home run derby at DBAP this year, but that shouldn't be misconstrued as apathy.
"With a guy like Wilson, they feel they still have what it takes to play at the Big League level, and they take some of the younger guys under their wing all season long," Birling said. "Once you win, you can tell how much they still love the game. He was one of the first guys in the locker room smiling with the team."
Each of the last seven titles have come under the watch of Charlie Montoyo, who earlier this season became the franchise’s all-time winningest manager, passing Bill Evers’ mark of 613 wins on July 21. Evers is responsible for guiding the team to five titles in six years from 1998 to 2003.
Montoyo has been with the Rays organization since 1998, working his way up to Triple-A having studied Evers’ managing style.
“It never gets old. The run that we have had has really been amazing,” Birling said. “It’s a true testament to the players over the years and Bill Evers and Charlie Montoyo.”
Another factor that minor league clubs have to deal with – especially in the playoffs -- is the expanded rosters of Major League clubs in September. Montoyo himself was a September call-up during his four-game cup-of-coffee with the Expos in 1993. Birling said that with all the injuries to the Tampa Bay Rays this season, however, the big club has already seen most of the young talent and isn’t likely to over-pick from Durham.
“Now, with the team that we have, I think they are going to want these guys to continue to pitch and get at bats and call them up after the playoffs,” he said. “I think there will be a couple of moves but I think for the most part this team will be intact.”
The Bulls, having already clinched the South Division, now have their sights set on a second consecutive International League championship. The last team to do that was the Columbus Clippers in 2010-11. Durham last went back-to-back as IL champs in 2002-03.
“You see these guys, and people don’t understand the grind they have to go through,” Birling said. "They start in the middle of February and they have like one day off a month from the middle of February. Hopefully we can put it together over the next couple weeks and go back-to-back.”