Born to be a Bull
Posted May 28, 2013
Jatovi McDuffie doesn’t smile; he beams. When he talks to you, his eyes widen and his face lights up, then he laughs with his whole body. He’s easy to recognize from across the stands—arms folded at an angle, black Durham Bulls Baseball Club shirt neatly tucked into his khaki shorts, head tilted to one side as he listens and nods and confers.
Watching McDuffie, a thought occurs—he’s the mayor of the stadium. He can’t make it 10 feet without bumping into someone he knows and exchanging effusive backslaps. Given his job—and his personality—this isn’t surprising. For the past nine years, McDuffie has worked as the on-field promotional announcer for the Bulls. Every three outs, he’s on the diamond with his microphone in hand, rallying the crowd to cheer along while members of the promotion squad wrestle in sumo suits or kids race around the bases against Wool E. Bull, the team’s bovine mascot.
“Okay, everyone, I want to introduce you to Chaz! Everybody wave!” McDuffie yells at the crowd with infectious energy, one hand on the shoulder of this young contender. “Chaz needs to throw all four of these beanbags into these buckets. Your job is to make noise. Chaz needs to hear you all the time so he has the strength and the willpower to make these shots!” The crowd cheers and cheers—and McDuffie cheers with them—as Chaz launches his beanbags into the air.
McDuffie’s enthusiasm doesn’t fade once his microphone is back in his pocket and the game has resumed. Instead, he circulates around the stadium, greeting fans and making jokes and catching up with the season ticketholders who have become game day staples for McDuffie after nearly a decade of emceeing. (That includes six years of emceeing full-time for every home game of the season, totaling well over 500 games—not that he’s counting.)
“You recognize faces,” he says. “It’s so weird watching kids that I saw when they were three that are now 12 years old. It’s so crazy. You see kids grow up.”
McDuffie also grew up in Durham, graduating from Northern High School. He came to this job after years of performing improvisational comedy for Triangle troupes ComedyWorx and Humor Therapy. When the on-field announcer position opened up, two friends—a basketball buddy who at the time worked for the Bulls and a fellow improv performer who worked for Fox 50—encouraged him to try out. After several auditions, during which the promotional director’s first and second choices for the job backed out, McDuffie landed the gig.
McDuffie draws on his improv comedy experience to keep the crowds entertained and the activities moving:
“Honestly, the biggest difference between this and improv is just the size of the crowds,” he says. “You can have 10,000 fans watching at the stadium, and an improv show might have 300 people in the audience on a good night.”
And the other difference? Out on the field, McDuffie isn’t playing a character.
“In a sense, it’s being me playing me.”
All of these skills—the improv, the humor, the sociability and endless energy—come into play for McDuffie’s other job, his day job, so to speak: He works as a teacher at the New Horizons Character and Leadership Academy, a faith-based independent alternative school for at-risk youth in Durham.
The students at New Horizons range in age from 15 to 21, and many of them have been through the criminal justice system and are three or four grade levels behind. The majority are from low-income, single-parent homes; over half are raised by their grandmothers. In addition to offering traditional high school coursework, the school provides instruction in character development, restorative justice and public speaking. McDuffie teaches classes in computer systems and communications. The aim is to give students a voice and instill in them self-worth, discipline and accountability through a dose of tough love.
“A lot of the students are reading at a fifth grade level,” McDuffie says. “They’ve been told that they’re stupid and dumb for years, so you’ve got to be patient and make sure they understand that they’re really smart, that they just have to take time with it.”
And that’s where his improv comedy skills come in.
“Improv is required to find different ways to tap into their abilities. And jokes help in the sense that it makes that child respect you—that you’re not trying to be this giant authoritative figure, that you’re not trying to be their dad.”
But McDuffie doesn’t open up to his students about his other role outside the classroom and on the diamond.
“I don’t want them to think that I think I’m on this level [above them] or I’m on this plateau,” he says. So he keeps his alter ego a secret—he’s a teacher by day, and an announcer by night.
“One kid I’m teaching now, she found out. She came into class, ‘Well, you know, I just realized something. My mom and I go to Bulls games, and there’s this guy who I thought was funny, and then I realized that it was Mr. Jatovi!’ That tickled me.”
New Horizons is taking steps to secure a new building to house its high school students.
“We want to keep them outside of the neighborhood or home that they live in now, at least for a little while, to keep them focused on education, on improving themselves,” McDuffie says. “Because most of them only see their neighborhood and think that’s the only place they’re ever going to be. So there are few options besides, ‘I’ll go sell drugs with my boys.’”
It’s a lot to balance—teaching, a long stretch of 72 games to announce each season, and the full-time responsibilities of being a parent to a three-year-old girl. But McDuffie, who was just nominated for 2013 Man of the Year for Community Service by Durham’s Spectacular Magazine, thrives on the busyness of his schedule and says he wants to keep announcing as long as the Bulls will have him.
“To me, being out on the field, it doesn’t feel like I’m talking to a giant crowd. If feels like I’m talking to one or two people out there, I just have a microphone,” he says.
“It really does feel like I’m hanging out … No matter if I never knew them or if I knew them for 10 years, it’s like hanging out with a bunch of friends.”