Wool E. Bull forgets his mask as he gallops out of Durham Bulls Athletic Park. He quickly realizes his mistake and returns with it looped over his furry ears. It is giant and looks more like a diaper strapped across his snout than a mask. It is adorned with baseballs.
As his team prepares for a new season after being shut down for the pandemic, the 6-foot tall, furry bull – proclaimed to be “The Greatest Mascot in the World” – is making some adjustments as he gears up for Opening Day on May 11. The team says he has been vaccinated.
I learn this from talking with Emily Almond, the director of promotions for the Bulls and Wool E.’s translator. “I speak bull,” she explains.
I feel a giddy nervousness in front of the fluffy bull that stands on two feet outside the ballpark. Even without a bull translator, I would’ve felt his excitement for the upcoming season. As we begin to talk, fans honk at him. He jokingly points to me, realizes the commotion is for him, and shrugs off the attention. A humble bull.
The mask isn’t his only adjustment this season. In past years, Wool E. frolicked with players and fans alike. He danced in foul territory, stole hats from coaches, spun along the warning track in his go-cart, played tug of war with fans, or led the “running of the bulls,” when kids chased him and then tackled him before he reached safety.
This year, Wool E. will be banned from the field and will have to mix with fans in the stands. How close he gets will depend on the fans. Almond says, “We are comfortable with whatever our customers are comfortable with.”
Fans can choose to hug Wool E, or stand at a distance of six feet. “You have to choose to go see him, rather than him interacting with you,” she says.
The Bulls are working to make sure they follow the latest restrictions from the city, state and Major League Baseball. “It’s really about just working with the guidelines that we have right now, just trying to modify and still make it a great fan experience while still being safe,” she says.
She assures me that the pandemic hasn’t altered his personality.
“We are still planning on having a whole bunch of Wool E. antics,” Almond explains, “Obviously he hasn’t changed much.” As she says this, we look over to find Wool E. crawling towards a camera, looking more like a cat than a bull.
With no games in the last year, Wool E. made virtual appearances at kids’ story-times and P.E. classes (since he can’t talk, no one on Zoom has to remind him to unmute himself) as well as private, in-person events. He also helped deliver meals to hospital workers.
With a job that requires energy and strength for constant dancing and hugging, Wool E. finds himself battling some of his lazier quarantine habits. “We don’t need an out of shape Wool E. for the season,” Almond says. But he appears fit. Wool E. flexes his muscles for the camera as two fans walk by. Almond sighs, clearly used to this behavior and says, “C’mon now, don’t get too full of yourself.”
Wool E. is still planning on having his annual birthday celebration at the game May 23, an event when even the Tar Heel and Blue Devil set aside their differences.
Almond and Wool E. are trying to come up with new gags that are appropriate for the unusual summer of transition. They have just come from a two and a half hour brainstorming session to dream up new ideas to entertain fans. They’re considering lots of different bits, although “within reason,” Almond assures, “He’s not allowed to eat the grass during the game.”
In photo at top: After last year’s season was canceled, Wool E. Bull is ready for baseball – even though he’ll be confined to the stands. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama – The 9th Street Journal