Durham Bulls, with their new manager, begin quest to three-peat as Triple-A champions
Michael Johns knew the question was coming Wednesday because he knows the history that now surrounds him.
Just before he led the Durham Bulls through a practice at their downtown Durham home, the team’s first-year manager made it clear he’s fully aware of the tradition and expectations that come along with his new job.
The Bulls won the Triple-A national championship each of the past two seasons, helping propel manager Brady Williams to a promotion to third-base coach for the big-league Tampa Bay Rays. In 2017, the Bulls won back-to-back International League championships and were the 2017 Triple-A champions under manager Jared Sandberg.
Though falling short of national championships, the team won International League titles in 2009 and 2013 under Charlie Montoyo, the club’s all-time leader in managerial wins. Two decades ago, Bill Evers managed the Bulls to league championships in 2002 and 2003, before the Triple-A national championship game existed.
Since becoming Tampa Bay’s top minor-league affiliate in 1998, the Durham Bulls have only posted four losing seasons.
So, yeah, Johns knows the type of job he’s accepted.
“It’s an honor,” Johns said. “I know those guys really closely. All four of them probably taught us all something a little bit differently. They all did things in their in their own way. But the one thing they did is they got players better. They figured out ways to win no matter what teams they had.”
Previously a manager in the Rays system’s lower levels with Rookie League Princeton, West Virginia (2010-12), Single-A Hudson Valley, New York (2013), Low-A Bowling Green, Kentucky (2014) and High-A Port Charlotte, Florida (2015-17), Johns worked as the organization’s minor-league field coordinator the past five years.
When Williams was promoted to the big-league club after his successful run in Durham, Rays management encouraged Johns to take over the Bulls.
“I’m very well aware of what Durham is and what they stand for and how much they’ve won here and how much the means of the fans to win,” Johns said. “So certainly, it’s in the forefront of all of our minds.”
Going on the offensive
When the Bulls open their new season Friday at 6:35 p.m. against the Norfolk Tides, Johns will have a strong hitting lineup to put on the field.
“There’s a lot of strengths,” Johns said, “but I think the one thing that probably that’s glaring is our offense. It’s a really good offensive lineup, top to bottom. We’re gonna have a No. 9 hitter that would probably be hitting third on most teams and that’s just the truth. I think most managers that we play against will say the same thing.”
Having played 199 games with the Bulls over the past two seasons on championship teams, infielder Tristan Gray is ready to continue posting big power numbers for Durham. Gray hit 33 home runs with 89 RBI for the Bulls last season.
“Just get to play here every day and just know that this is the best minor-league place to play with the fans and just everything about Durham has been so great to me,” the 27-year-old Gray said. “So to be able to give back a national championship again to the city again is great.”
Another good-hitting infielder, 22-year-old Australian Curtis Mead, is back after batting .298 with 13 home runs while splitting time between Double-A Montgomery and the Bulls last season. He played 20 games in Durham after appearing in four games with the Bulls in 2021.
“I think everyone should be excited,” Mead said. “Our team’s awesome. A bunch of good, young talented players. Hopefully, we can win a ton of games. And I think that the goal is definitely to win the championship again.”
Having regularly visited Durham Bulls Athletic Park to monitor players in his previous job as minor-league field coordinator, Johns arrives in his new job impressed with the fan support the Bulls get on a nightly basis.
“I’d always tell people this before I became the manager,” Johns said. “We went to Charlotte they would have 10,000 people. I came here and we might have 7-8,000 and it seemed like there was about 100,000 more people here because they’re just so into it more so than anywhere else you go. I’m not dissing Charlotte because I think it’s a great place. I just mean this place, it’s got this special environment. It’s hard to describe unless you come here. It’s a really neat thing.”