A hard-fought primary helped one small-market bird reach the highest heights of mascot stardom.
Dunedin Blue Jays mascot D-Jay pulled out an unlikely victory Thursday to claim the championship belt in Mascot Mania, edging Triple-A Omaha's Stormy and two other finalists to complete a campaign that was largely fueled by a local rivalry and international support.
"We're thrilled about it," said Dunedin general manager Mike Liberatore. "We're one of the smaller teams in the Florida State League and all of Minor League Baseball, so it's an underdog thing for us. The guy in the mascot costume went to the ER last night and he's been joking that he wants to win this if it kills him, so he'll be happy as well."
Liberatore said the mascot's secret man behind the curtain should be fine -- he said a heart condition is "under control." It all makes for a happy ending for the coastal Florida town that battled in the regional round against nearby rival the Clearwater Threshers, who boast the contest's defending champ, Phinley.
"Originally I think D-Jay and his friends were active on getting out the vote, but I don't think any of us expected us to be near the top," said Liberatore. "Once we got near the top -- we have a rivalry with Clearwater and their mascot was posting a lot and it got everyone involved in our staff and fans who wouldn't normally be all over the Minor League website. Everyone got into it and rallied around the mascot and voting."
The spirited campaign, Liberatore said, helped motivate and mobilize Blue Jays fans both locally and around North America to get behind D-Jay. Dunedin, which hosts Toronto's Spring Training operation and Grapefruit League games, has built a healthy social media following, especially on Twitter, that has attracted fans from Toronto. D-Jay may well have been the recipient of widespread support from Blue Jays fans from far north.
"On Twitter especially, a lot of our followers are not local. They're from Toronto and we use that account a lot in Spring Training to generate followers from Toronto," Liberatore said. "We compared it to MLB's last All-Star vote -- in Canada, you have a whole country voting. You have this entire group rallied around one cause. I'm sure we got some out of the country and our affiliates as well."
Liberatore said the local wrestling team from Dunedin High School was especially active in voting for D-Jay, and the mayor of Dunedin, Julie Ward Bujalski, has even been in contact with the team about the campaign.
"I didn't predict D-Jay's upset win, but what else is new?" said MiLB.com's Benjamin Hill, a self-proclaimed mascot expert. "Dunedin is one of the smaller markets in Minor League Baseball, but this just goes to show that, in Mascot Mania as in life, anything is possible."
Oddly enough, Liberatore also said some stormy weather in Florida had possibly ended up aiding the vote, with fans sometimes out at the ballpark voting during rain delays.
"I think it was just at the point where it was important to everybody, and we had a lot of games at home where we could promote it and a lot of downtime for our fans -- we've been hammered by rain," said Liberatore, who was helping pull the tarp at Dunedin's Florida Auto Exchange Stadium earlier Thursday morning ahead of another storm. "There was a lot of time at the ballpark where baseball wasn't being played."
It's an impressive accomplishment for a club that ranks among the lowest in average attendance, especially compared to big-market Triple-A teams like Omaha and Tacoma. Aberdeen's Ferrous, an Orioles-affiliated mascot, also reached the finals, providing a second small-market, avian-themed mascot for voters to consider.
"Clearly, D-Jay's upbeat demeanor, scintillating dance moves and beautiful plumage resonated with fans nationwide," said Hill.
Dunedin beat Durham's Wool E. Bull and Clearwater's Phinley to win the South Region, while Ferrous took the East and Stormy captured the Midwest. Rhubarb the Reindeer, Seattle's Triple-A mascot, won the West Region but didn't have enough late magic in the finals.
"We're definitely proud of our efforts," said Rob Sternberg, Omaha's director of marketing. "It goes back to our community relations outreach through the entire Midwest. Our mascot programs in general -- Taylor Edmonds is our mascot coordinator -- he led the effort in appearances. We're going to have over 400 appearances by the end of the year, so the success of Stormy in this year's Mascot Mania reflects his popularity in the Omaha metro. Like many clubs, we take it to heart -- we're in the business of putting smiles on people's faces. We have six mascots in the park, and you never know what you'll see walking around. No fan wants to see anyone more than Stormy."
Sternberg said the Storm Chasers used a mixture of social media and in-stadium campaigning to beat out a crowded field in the Midwest and finish second in the finals. He was humbled to see a smaller club take the belt in Florida.
"We wish them congratulations and we're proud of such a small-market team," he said. "I think it shows the reach of Minor League Baseball, if you can get along with your affiliates and Major League parent club. It shows the power of the Minor League organization to garner that much support."
Past Mascot Mania champs include Phinley (2014), LouSeal of Columbus (2013) and Orbit of Albuquerque (2012). Each winner receives a glamorous championship belt to show off in the community, although with Dunedin and Clearwater feuding both in voting and on the field -- Dunedin can clinch the division with a win over the Threshers on Thursday -- the hand-off may be a dramatic one.
"We talked about the plan, which was that the belt would be delivered to us by the other mascot [Phinley]," Liberatore said. "But there might be a little tension. We're five miles apart. There's enough on the line as it is and there's more people invested in the outcome of the actual games."