Bobbie and Marvin
Photo by Eliza Harris.
Triple-A baseball is an unpredictable sport, but come to a Bulls game and there are a number of certainties. Jatovi McDuffie will be on the field between innings, announcing promotional games. Vendors will be roaming through the stands and staffing the concessions booths, hawking costly hot dogs, popcorn and beer. And in two prime seats just behind home plate, you’ll find Bobbie and Marvin Wheeler, nursing beers and watching the game with silent intensity. They’re there every game. No, really — every game. And — barring illness or emergency — they’ve been at every game for the last 32 years.
“[Bulls radio announcer] Ken Tanner calls us Mr. and Mrs. Baseball,” says Bobbie, 80, as she shows me around her Durham home, a spacious two-story house surrounded by tall pines and filled with antique glassware, while Marvin, 85, gardens out back. Bobbie wears a vibrant tie-dyed Bulls shirt, a small bull figurine hung on a gold chain around her neck. This shirt is one of more than 75 pieces of Bulls apparel she owns — both Bobbie and Marvin make sure to wear Bulls gear to every game.
“If we’re late to the game, the management team starts asking, ‘Where are you?’ They all acknowledge us and know our names.”
That’s not surprising considering the number of games the Wheelers have attended. Bobbie doesn’t have a precise count, but she says that she and her husband haven’t missed more than 50 games since 1981. That means the two have been present for something like 2300 games over the past three-plus decades. (I ask Marvin, a gentle, hard-of-hearing man of few words, how many games he estimates he has attended over the years, and he simply answers, “All of them.”)
“In 2007, I had to have my knee replaced,” Bobbie says. “I told the doctor I had to wait until the end of baseball season to have the surgery.” The Wheelers also make sure to plan all their vacations around Bulls games, and Bobbie says she begins counting down the days to baseball season beginning in January or February.
That’s serious dedication. Bobbie and Marvin maintain that it’s fandom of their hometown team and a passion for baseball that bring them back to the Durham Bulls Athletic Park time and time again, but it does seem there’s another factor at play. The Wheelers have neither children nor grandchildren, and Marvin, the youngest of 10 kids, is the last living member of his family. Perhaps the Bulls play a sort of surrogate familial role?
“I do feel like the Bulls management is a sort of extension of family,” Bobbie says. “We’ve met a lot of people and there’s a lot of camaraderie down there … And the Bulls feel more personal to me than other sports teams. I feel like I have something invested in their future.”
It makes sense that Bobbie would feel she has something at stake in how the Bulls fare — the team has been a part of her life for 80 years. Bobbie began going to games at the old Bulls stadium with her father when she was just two years old, after her family moved to Durham from Granville County, North Carolina. Marvin is also from Granville; he grew up on a country farm where playing sandlot baseball and cow pasture ball was the norm. He didn’t meet Bobbie, however, until they were both living in Durham — a girlfriend of Bobbie’s worked in Marvin’s office.
Bobbie’s family lived in Old North Durham on Mangum Street, right near the old ballpark, and Bobbie would walk past the stadium going to school every day.
“Daddy had to take me to games to give Mother a break,” she explains. “Dad was a great baseball fan. He wanted to get to the World Series someday and I wanted to take him, but he had a sudden coronary problem and died in 1975, before I retired and had the chance.”
Until 1988, Bobbie worked in nursing management at the V.A. psychiatric hospital. She retired after 35 years. Marvin retired the following year from his position as a financial officer at Liggett-Myers. But even while they were working, the Wheelers managed to find time to go to games at the old ballpark. And when the new stadium opened, they purchased season tickets.
“The old stadium has lots of old memories and old ghosts,” she says. “When the new ballpark opened, at first it didn’t feel like home. But now it does … I think it’s the best thing to have happened to Durham. It’s completely revitalized the area.”
On gameday, the Wheelers have a precise routine to get to the stadium, a daily schedule that takes over during baseball season. They have breakfast, do chores, and then begin getting ready around 4 p.m. for a 7 p.m. game. They arrive at the DBAP nearly two hours early in order to buy food and beer from concessions and catch up with the Bulls management team who inevitably make the rounds to say hello to Mr. and Mrs. Baseball.
Then the game begins. Bobbie and Marvin remain seated and stay for all nine innings, cans of Yuengling cradled in their cupholders. Marvin listens to the Bulls’ radio broadcast through a headset. Bobbie sits quietly beside him, taking in the game and the crowd. The Wheelers have seen players and managers come and go; they’ve seen thousands of wins and losses. At this point, after 57 years of marriage, no words are necessary. So they simply watch and wait for the outcome. Then they go home — and prepare to do it all over again.