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Official Review by Harrison Huntley, Stadium Journey Regional Correspondent
It’s amazing what a few successful years will do for an event. The ACC Baseball Tournament has evolved from a niche event to one of the most popular conference tournaments in the country. This is in no small part due to the location of the tournament. The conference selected the Durham Bulls Athletic Park (in Durham, NC) to play host for the 2015-2018 tournaments. It’s a great spot, since three teams (UNC, NC State, and Duke) are less than a half-hour away, and five others (Clemson, Georgia Tech, Wake Forest, Virginia, and Virginia Tech) are within a few hours of Durham. That list usually includes most of the ACC’s top teams, making it an attractive event for those fans. When the tournament was played at the DBAP back in 2013, the games involving local teams consistently filled three-quarters of the stadium, around 7,000 fans. UNC and NC State’s matchup was one for the history books, as they drew a stadium record crowd of 11,329. It’s safe to say that the tournament in Durham is a huge success.
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Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
You can't expect too much more than what's offered. Everywhere you look, there is food and drink featuring a good mix of local and chain food. Standard stadium fare (like hot dogs, bratwurst, burgers, pizza, Chick-fil-A, and wings) is available on the main concourse. Depending on the game and time, some other favorites such as Rita's water ice and local stands like Locopops popsicles and Rise donuts may be open. Most of the stands not run by the ballpark are only open for prime-time games or those with local teams involved. When they're open, the food is closer to a five-star rating.
The atmosphere will depend greatly on who is playing and when they are playing. If you're watching lower-seeded, non-local teams, there won't be much of an atmosphere. On the other hand, local teams or nationally-ranked clubs will draw a bigger crowd. Thankfully, the stadium is fun either way, so you're sure to enjoy your time.
There are three gates by which you can enter the stadium, but I highly recommend the home plate gate. The home plate gate is decorated with fountains, flags, and the Durham Bulls' four retired numbers (Joe Morgan, Chipper Jones, Bill Evers, and Crash Davis). The Ballpark Corner Store is also located here, where you can buy tournament shirts and those personalized for your team.
Every seat at the DBAP is a good one, considering that they all have extra-wide seat backs and extra leg room. 95 percent of seats also have cup holders, which are often forgotten when trying to give fans leg room. Sun will obviously depend on what time of day your game is, but know that the sun sets behind third base. If you want to avoid the sun altogether, consider sitting under the roof. The space is outfitted with large ceiling fans and a high-quality sound system that makes these seats the best for those trying to avoid the elements. On the other hand, if you want to sit near the players, make sure to sit in the sections on either foul line. The bullpens are on the field, and pitchers warming up are only a few feet from the fans in the first row.
Walking around the ballpark, one concourse circles the stadium and splits into two as you walk around the infield. This design makes it very easy to walk around the ballpark without missing any of the action.
Perhaps the most noticeable part of the ballpark is the Blue Monster. Durham's version of Fenway Park's Green Monster sits just a few feet shorter than Fenway's and also has a hand-operated scoreboard. The biggest difference between the two blue monsters is the giant LED video board built into the Blue Monster. The screen is 25.4 feet by 63 feet and is well-used to provide stats, highlights, and even ACC trivia. The rest of the outfield is enclosed by video screens on the walls. They are used to show ads and stats. Even if you are sitting in the outfield or standing atop the monster, you can still see the score. There is a video scoreboard on the wall directly behind home plate that can easily be seen from almost anywhere in the park.
During the game, there is a good mix of baseball and between-inning games. There are few antics during the innings, but between innings there are plenty of games to keep you entertained. There are the Bull Durham racers, a Bull Durham-style take on Milwaukee's sausage racers, along with trivia, and "race an ACC shortstop" which puts kids up against the average speed of an ACC shortstop.
The only things preventing this from being a five-star neighborhood are the lack of lodging and that there are only a handful of restaurants within walking distance of the stadium. On the other hand, the city has made a serious effort to attract pre and postgame traffic around the ballpark. Surrounding the stadium is Only Burger, Which Wich, Moe's, Mellow Mushroom, Cuban Revolution, Saladelia, and Tobacco Road Sports Cafe, which happens to be located atop the Blue Monster. As you can imagine, Tobacco Road gets very crowded during ballgames, so make sure to call ahead.
Only Burger is one of two permenant locations of a restaurant that started out of a food truck. They cook made-to-order burgers that are renowned as some of the best. There are also some specials, like the Frito Bandito that comes topped with guacamole, chili, spicy cheese, and Fritos.
If you have a little time before the game and are looking for something a little different, check out Dame's Chicken n' Waffles. A local favorite, Dame's serves exactly what you think it would: Chicken and Waffles. Served with the waffles are "Dame's Almost World Famous Shmears," which are butter mixed with a fresh fruit or other ingredients to create a perfect topping.
Attendance depends greatly on who's playing. Most games were reported between 3,000-4,000, with a few of the 11am games dipping into the 2,000s. Friday and Saturday night's games involving NC State drew around 7,000, and Sunday's championship (also involving NC State) broke the championship game record, with 9,759 in attendance.
Fans are passionate and are greater in number the closer their team is. Florida State was an exception, as they brought multiple charter buses to their games and were always well-supported. Most fans are knowledgeable and usually polite to one another.
The DBAP is easily accessible via NC-147 (Durham Freeway), which runs between I-40 and I-85. Take either exit 12B or 12C, and stadium parking is just minutes away.
Around the ballpark, there are four parking decks, and all have reasonably low-cost parking. The decks closest to the park cost $5. On weekdays, they may be restricted to only allow those with permits. No matter what deck you choose, you will have a scenic walk to the game through the American Tobacco campus, which is full of newly-renovated warehouses that have been converted to offices.
There is no shortage of restrooms, and the ones behind home place even feature signs honoring famous ballplayers.
There's not much to complain about with pricing. Tournament passes cost $150 and give you access to the PNC Triangle Club. Weekend passes provide tickets to Friday night's game, the three Saturday games, and Sunday's championship for $50. Finally, single-game tickets cost $10. Team packages can also be purchased, but I don't recommend those, since they are vouchers that must be redeemed before each game.
One of the most iconic signs is the "Hit Bull, Win Steak" sign. The sign is located just above the Blue Monster, and any player who hits it wins himself and a lucky fan a free steak at a local restaurant, just like in the movie.
The Durham Bulls employ a very charismatic on-field announcer, and he works the ACC tournament, as well. Games, trivia, and other odd promotions (like "who can hold up hand sanitizer first") keep the fans entertained between innings.
The weekend games are accompanied by the Fan Fest. Inflatable games, prize drawings, and other entertainment are available for free while you wait for the game to start. If you are waiting for a game to finish, the current game is on display on a giant TV in the Fan Fest, as well.
It's safe to say that the conference made a great decision bringing the tournament to Durham. The only real complaint one could have would be the location in regards to their school. While it may be a long trek from the ends of the conference, Durham provides a relatively central location for the tournament. The location, along with the extra effort by the conference, has turned the tournament into a great event for casual and die-hard fans alike.
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