I no longer live in a major league town. Having moved to North Carolina a few years ago, I don't have the luxury I enjoyed for many years in Baltimore of catching a big league game on a moment's notice. It's one of many taken-for-granted things I miss now that I'm away from the place I'll always consider home. These days I find that I'm not breaking old habits so much as I'm finding replacements for them. So I still make regular ballpark visits during the summer; they just happen to be to Durham Bulls Athletic Park.
The Durham Bulls are the Triple-A affiliate of the Orioles' next opponent, the Tampa Bay Rays. The Rays ascendance in the American League East has largely been a product of their farm system, which is one the best in baseball. That means good games - the Bulls won the International League championship as well as the Triple-A National Championship in 2009 - but more importantly, it means good players.
Last season, I watched Jeremy Hellickson compile a 12-3 record in Durham with a 2.45 ERA and 9.4 strikeouts per nine innings pitched. Hellickson will bring a 7-3 record, 2.64 ERA, and solid Rookie of the Year credentials to Camden Yards on Friday night as the Rays begin a three-game set in Baltimore. Meanwhile, the Rays' 2009 Minor League Player of the Year, Desmond Jennings, continues to roam the outfield - or, more appropriately stated, glide across it - for the Bulls.
It's fun watching these guys play and develop prior to their big league days. However, my conscience will only allow me a certain level of enjoyment while watching a division opponent's stockpile of young talent. The Bulls are technically my home team now, but roots run deep, so I mark the days on my calendar when the Orioles' Triple-A affiliate, the Norfolk Tides, is in town. I was the only person in the ballpark giving Matt Wieters a standing ovation when he visited Durham a couple years back, and I hope to do the same for Manny Machado sometime in the not-so-distant future.
But more than the players, and certainly more than the outcomes of the games, these minor league outings help occupy that space in my spirit that believes a summer isn't complete until you've responded to the question, "What do you want to do tonight?" by saying, "Let's catch a ballgame." Don't take it for granted.
Matthew Taylor blogs about the Orioles at Roar from 34. His ruminations about the Birds will appear this week as part of MASNsports.com's season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.