Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Roanoke grandmother is Salem's biggest baseball fan

The artist doesn't matter. Miley Cyrus, Queen, John Fogerty, Guns N' Roses -- Ellen Fuller is up and moving to all of them, shaking her Mugsy doll in tune with the beat.

"I just can't sit still when there's music going," she says.

Or any other time, if you want to know the truth.

Surely you've seen her at Salem Memorial Ballpark. She's the smiling, silver-haired woman in Section 209, the one usually dressed in purple, the one waving that Mugsy doll like a rally towel from inning one to inning nine.

She is this club's biggest fan. Watch her for five minutes -- pick the five at random, doesn't matter -- and you'd know that.

What you probably wouldn't know, though, is that she is 83 years old. Seems impossible with moves like that.

Fuller's day starts at 4 a.m., when she gets dressed and drives her husband, Curtis, to his cancer treatments. Then she goes to work at Kepley Real Estate, where she's put in 40 hours a week for the past three decades.

Then, if the Red Sox are home, she makes the 7-mile drive from her Roanoke home to the ballpark.

Fuller hasn't missed a game all year. She's such a fixture at this place that her nameplate is affixed to her aisle seat. Other fans slap her on the back as they walk by. Mugsy made two personal visits to her during Monday's game alone.

"I can understand baseball better than I can football and some of the others," she said. "I don't know. Baseball just fascinates me."

It has since the 1970s, when she started playing in the backyard with her four sons. She'll still take the mound during family reunions -- despite some relatives' urgings that she ought to take it easy.

"She can strike me out," said her 18-year-old grandson, Stewart, a rising senior at Patrick Henry High School. "I think I can hit, but not when Grandma's pumpin' it. She does a windup and everything. I mean, she looks like Barbara Bush on the mound."

The Red Sox would like to get her on the mound to throw out a ceremonial first pitch. Fuller was reluctant at first, but she's warming to the idea.

The family's ready to help if that happens.

"I'll have to take her in the backyard and let her heat up her cannon," Stewart Fuller said. "I'm going to have to tell that catcher to put a glove on, because she has a heater, man."

Most days, she's content to just watch. Fuller has her favorites -- "Dan Butler is my No. 1," she says -- but she is into every pitch, every at-bat, regardless.

"She takes an interest in different things, and whatever it is, she sticks with it," said her son, Roger, who recently retired from the Roanoke City Police Department. "It used to be Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts. If a neighborhood kid wants to sell something for an organization, she always wins the award.

"That's her personality. She goes out, and people want to buy from her. She'll sell, sell sell. Anything she puts her mind to, she stays with it."

That includes this team -- even when it's going through some tough times. The Red Sox lost Monday's game 108, their fifth consecutive loss to start the second half, but it would take a lot more than that to drive her away.

"That just means they need her support more," Roger Fuller said. "That's the way she looks at it."

Monday's game took nearly 3 12 hours, but Fuller was in no hurry to leave. When it ended, she stuck around an extra five minutes to watch fans try to throw tennis balls into a tire on the mound.

The steel drums of a Bob Marley song played on the loudspeaker as she got up to go.

"Baby, don't worry ... about a thing."

Even her walk has rhythm.

" 'Cause every little thing's ... gonna be all right."

And for Fuller, it will. There's another game today. First pitch is at noon. And there's a perfect seat waiting with her name on it.

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