By Lisa Winston / MLB.comWhile baseball fans around the country and around the world were amazed by the performance of B.J. Upton in the 2008 postseason, baseball fans in Durham, N.C., were nodding their heads and smiling. Upton's heroics at the plate were nothing new to the fine folks from the Golden Triangle, who watched the Rays' talented center fielder when he spent most of the 2005-07 seasons with the Triple-A Durham Bulls.
"People forget that he was in the big leagues and at Triple-A when he was 19," said Neil Solondz, the Bulls' radio broadcaster. "What was exciting to watch were the tools that he had. We all thought that hopefully it would just have been a matter of time for him."A then-record 11,060 fans watched Upton hit a walk-off ninth-inning grand slam to upend the defending International League champion Toledo Mud Hens in the 2006 home opener at Durham Bulls Athletic Park.
Of course, the big difference was that Upton wasn't a center fielder in those days. The second overall pick in the 2002 Draft was a shortstop whose defensive inconsistencies (53 errors in '05) were preventing him from blossoming as a big league-ready player.
"When we watched him, a lot of people thought he would be an outfielder and when he moved there, he blossomed," Solondz said.Upton isn't the only member of the American League champions to have sharpened his skills at Durham. Fourteen of the 25 players on the Rays' World Series roster played for the Triple-A club at one point. The granddaddy of that group is reliever Dan Wheeler. A 34th-round pick in 1996, Wheeler was a workhorse starter for the Bulls in 1999 and 2000 before transitioning to the bullpen.
More recently, the stream of top prospects coming through Durham foreshadowed a magical 2008 season in Tampa Bay.
Durham fans are also familiar with several other players who garnered national attention during the 2008 postseason.
Players like Fernando Perez, the fleet-footed outfielder who batted .288 with five homers, 36 RBIs and an organization-best 43 steals for the Bulls in 2008. Or Grant Balfour, the demonstrative Australian reliever who posted a remarkable 0.38 ERA and limited International League hitters to a .067 average before getting the call to join the big club's bullpen.And although Bulls fans didn't get to watch Evan Longoria at Durham Bulls Athletic Park in 2008 -- his seven-game cup of coffee with the club was spent exclusively on the road -- they did get a glimpse of his talents for a 31-game stretch at the end of '07.
Right-hander James Shields, who has earned the nickname "Big Game James," was simply known as "Jamie" during his time with the Bulls. Using his pinpoint control, Shields went 3-2 with a 2.64 ERA, 64 strikeouts and just six walks over 61 innings with the club in 2006.
"We had him here for a 10-game stretch to start the '06 season, which was a difficult year, and he was a real shining star during the early part of the year," Solondz recalled. "Kevin Cash was his catcher in Durham that year and in terms of guys he had caught up to that point, he said he was as good as anyone who knew how to pitch. Shields was a tremendous, fiery competitor with an excellent changeup who has continued to grow and mature over the years."With the talent that has passed through Durham recently, it's little wonder that the Rays have emerged as dominant team.
"I didn't think anyone thought these guys would be this good, this fast," Solondz said. "But it was a good sign that they won titles and had championship experience in Double and Triple-A."Lisa Winston is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.