Growth, glory and love in the minors—sounds like the dramatic elements in the movie Bull Durham, right? Well, they are also the main ingredients in The Miles Wolff Story, or How a Minor League Meanderer Beat the Bushes To Become the Real-Life Owner of the Durham Bulls.
Prelude: War Memorial Stadium, Greensboro, N.C., 1959. A bespectacled young boy sits alone along the third base line, watching the hometown Class B G-Yanks play in a nearly empty stadium. Joy fills his eyes when baseball clown Jackie Price shoots a bazooka loaded with baseballs into the air and swings at pitches while hanging upside down from the backstop. Somebody yawns, and 14-year-old Miles Wolff says to himself, "Am I the only person here who likes this stuff?"
Montage (as credits roll): Wolff gets an M.A. degree in history at Virginia, serves a hitch in the Navy, then goes in search of a job in the minor leagues.
Act I: Grayson Stadium, Savannah, 1971. Wolff is the 26-year-old general manager for the Double A Savannah Braves of the Atlanta organization. We see him selling ad space on the fence, deploying the concessionaires and checking the toilet paper supply. All the while, he is scheming to draw more fans and grinning like a big dog when one of his gimmicks, such as Pray for Pitching Night, pays off. We also see Free Hot Dog Night, during which the fans bombard the players with wieners. But the turnstiles keep spinning, and in 1971 The Sporting News names Wolff the Double A Executive of the Year. His secret: "I try to avoid giving away tickets. You want somebody to reach into his wallet when he comes to your ballpark."
Montage: Wolff takes over as general manager of the Double A Jacksonville Suns; he returns to Savannah in 1975 to write a mystery novel, Season of the Owl, while living on chili and working as the Braves' P.A. announcer for $10 a game; and he moves on to do radio play-by-play for the Triple A Richmond Braves.
Voiceover (Wolff): "After a while I didn't want to worry about if a guy's hot dog was cold or whether the pitcher was slow. I wanted to own a team."
Act II: Durham, N.C., 1979. Wolff falls in love with Durham Athletic Park, the Bulls' quaint stadium, built in 1939. He raises $30,000 and revives the team, which had been out of business for eight years. "Minor league baseball is a product nobody needs," Wolff tells the locals. "It's not like a shoe store or a supermarket. You have to create a want." Even though he fails to fill the house for the opener, five days later, on Jacket Night, he has to turn people away from the packed 5,000-seat stadium. In Wolff's first year, the Bulls draw more than 170,000, an alltime Durham record.
Montage: Wolff plows his Durham profits into other minor league clubs from Butte, Mont., to Utica, N.Y., to Burlington, N.C. In 1982 he purchases Baseball America, a newspaper focusing on the minors, and in the ensuing six years pushes circulation from 6,000 to 45,000.
Act III: Durham Athletic Park, the present. Wolff is now a baseball mogul. He is married to Michelle Guimond, and they have two kids, Hoffman and Claire. At 43, he has done well. Yet he still spends his days hanging out at the park, selling memorabilia in his store and cooking up one crazy scheme after another. This year the Bulls are hot; the sale of souvenirs has tripled since the movie came out, and the team has been in a fight for first place all season.
Voiceover (Wolff reading from his novel): "There are some things money can't buy, and money can't buy a warm Carolina summer night with a ball game, a box of popcorn, and green grass on a field."
There is nothing minor league about Wolff's affection for the Bulls.