Springfield, Mo. (News-Leader) -- He can still remember traveling in the low Class A Carolina League in an old, 1950s-era team bus -- in the mid-1980s.

Yes, that was the same bus in which Kevin Costner, er, Crash Davis eventually captivated farmhands about his big-league days, dropping one of movie history's most memorable lines, saying, "Yeah, I was in the show. I was in the show for 21 days once. Twenty-one of the greatest days of my life."

Phillip Wellman remembers riding that bus like it was yesterday. After all, he was a real-life Durham Bull, having played his last game about a year before Costner arrived to town.

So ask Wellman about how it was back then in the minor leagues and expect a sheepish grin. It was a different era that doesn't seem that long ago but really is if you think about.

"Back then, our college fields were nicer than our A-ball fields," the Springfield Cardinals batting coach said recently. "That old bus they had in the movie was the bus we rode. You were lucky if the air conditioning was working on it from road trip to road trip. I do remember times being on that bus where we'd have to get up and open up the vents on the top just to let some air in.

"No one complained too much. It made you want to play your tail end off and get out of there."

Hard to believe it, but it was 25 years ago this summer when a baseball season of Crash, Annie and a prospect flame-thrower named "Nuke" LaLoosh hit theaters and captured a sporting public's attention.

Little did anyone know that "Bull Durham" would spark a rebirth of the minor leagues across the country, too.

Since the movie's release, a whopping 127 ballparks in Minor League Baseball have opened as communities have invested an estimated $1 billion to be part of baseball's farm system. An additional 25 parks in the big leagues and at least 40 more in the independent leagues also have risen from prairie fields, the pines or the broken concrete of urban metropolises.

But that's only the abbreviated version of the minor's rich and recent history, if you talk to Pat O'Conner, the longtime president of Minor League Baseball who has long lived the dream. The movie did so much more.

"(The movie) is one of two or three events that could be responsible for the rebirth of the modern era," O'Conner said. "It had an exceptional realism that people on the inside accepted it. And people who were on the outside enjoyed it."

The movie was a catalyst to change. In the early 1990s, the minors and major-league clubs struck a deal, called the Professional Baseball Agreement. It called for better ballparks, comfortable for fans and players alike. You can't talk about one without the other, O'Conner said.

"It corrected the perception and took us out of the bush league scenario," O'Conner said. "But we were able to maintain that curiosity, that these were still our (baseball) heroes on the field and these were our ballparks, and we were able to blend the two features."

The minor leagues have certainly come a long way since the 1980s.

"Our stadium," said Miles Wolff, former owner of the Durham Bulls, "was an old WPA project."

Wellman and Springfield's Doug Stockam, also a past pitcher for the Bulls, will never forget Durham Athletic Park. A treasure, they called it.

"Of my 30 years, those are two of my fondest years," said Wellman, also a Bulls coach in 1991, riding the same old bus. "The smell of tobacco in the evenings when you came out to stretch. Fans were right on top of you. The atmosphere was unmatched. You could hear the vendors. You could smell the cotton candy. That's one thing I remember about it -- you could smell everything because it was so tight."

"Players had to pull the tarps. We had to set up for (batting practice) because there was only one grounds keeper," Wellman added. "At the time, we didn't think anything about it."

Wolff, who re-established minor league baseball in Durham in 1980, eventually bought and relocated a trade publication called Baseball America, now respected throughout the game.

The magazine's staff initially set up for years in a small storage building across the street, their desks surrounded by boxes of food for the concessions and door giveaways.

Oh, and then there was the bus.

"I bought that bus for $10,000," Wolff said. "The AC worked half the time."

Stockam, a Kickapoo High School graduate, remembers it, too. He signed a free agent minor league contract in 1987 with the Braves after his days in NAIA, at then-Missouri Southern State College in Joplin. The next year took him to Durham.

By then, the community was aware of the movie, filmed after the 1987 season and targeted for a mid-June release date. Curiosity drove attendance, a sign of things to come nationally over the next 25 years.

"There were Triple-A teams that didn't draw as many fans as we did that year," said Stockam, a right-handed relief pitcher for the 1988 Durham Bulls.

"They still had the bull up," from the movie, Stockam said, referring to the bull in right field. Hit it and and win a steak.

But that was the minor leagues back then.

"You could buy a ballclub for debts. That was not uncommon," O'Conner said. "I had an opportunity to buy a club in the early 80s. I think I bought it for $75,000 to $100,000. You look back, if you could sustain it, it'd be worth $10 million today. And that was a (Class) A ball club."

Texas League president Tom Kayser counters that the minor leagues already were on the rise in the 1980s. Buffalo, N.Y., built a state of the art ballpark in 1986.

"In 1980, I bought a (Double-A) club for $35,000," Kayser said. "By the end of the decade, they were selling for $1 million."

Still, Kayser acknowledged that "Bull Durham" accelerated the growth of the minors.

Attendance skyrocketed from 21.6 million in the summer of '88 to a record 43.2 million some 20 years later in Minor League Baseball alone. That figure has stayed above 41.2 million since the Great Recession.

Communities across the country joined the party. In the Texas League these days, the oldest ballpark in operation was built in 1994. Collectively, construction costs alone, according to newspaper stories and websites, ran almost $224 million, including $32 million for Hammons Field.

"There are palaces in A ball now," Wellman said.

To O'Conner, "Bull Durham" did so much more for the minor leagues. The minors also became a safe haven for investors after the dot-com bust in the late 1990s and again during the Great Recession.

"We have ballclubs that are stable and ballparks that are leased," O'Conner said. "Yeah, you can lose a hell of a lot in this business, but if you manage it right ..."

O'Conner let on that the "mom and pop" ownership feel of the minors has faded, replaced by more corporate interests. But only to a point.

The legacy of "Bull Durham," and the old minor leagues remain: Free door prizes such as T-shirts and caps; money prizes during between-inning contests; a general admission ticket at most parks cost roughly $5; and a high level of baseball.

Said O'Conner, "We've kept the zany, without making (the game) a farce."

Read or Share this story: