Perfect Storm of high-energy mascots
The above may sound like the disconnected fragments of a particularly surreal fever dream -- and they very well could be. But "particularly surreal fever dream" also might be the best way to describe the between-innings entertainment at a Lake Elsinore Storm game, which includes all of the eccentric characters mentioned above and many, many more.
Anyone with even a passing familiarity with Minor League Baseball knows that costumed characters are part of most any team's schtick, from the primary mascot down to anthropomorphic racing hot dogs. But with the possible exception of the Crazy Hot Dog Vendor/Tooth Fairy/Broccoli and Cauliflower-enhanced Reading Phillies, no Minor League team takes this approach to deeper and more absurd territory than the Storm. Primary mascot Thunder (a member of the canis thunderis family, according to the team's website) anchors this character universe, but there's room for many, many others.
"We just like to have a good time on the field. And if we can come up with something goofy or silly, we'll just try it out," explained Eric Theiss, the Storm's media relations director. "We just like to try different things and see what works."
The term "Minor League" often is used in derogatory fashion by sports fans, meaning not ready for prime time and, therefore, not worthy of attention. But Theiss' description of the Storm's on-field entertainment approach succinctly encapsulates why being "Minor League" can be a distinct advantage. As opposed to the streamlined, scrubbed-down and focus-grouped world of Major League Baseball, the Minors provide a ballpark canvas upon which creative front-office staffs can create some truly mind-boggling works of art. As long as the idea is family-friendly, executable within the two minutes that constitute an inning break and -- ideally -- sponsorable, then it's truly a world in which anything goes.
At any Storm game, fans of the Padres' Class A Advanced California League affiliate will witness the antics of a wide array of characters. Here are brief descriptions of some of the most notable:
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Jackpot: A pink rabbit who's been with the Storm since 1994, Jackpot's primary domain is the manual scoreboard behind right field. This is the ideal place for him, for once the home team scores, he bursts onto the field and executes a few of his signature dance moves (putting the "hop" in hip-hop while he's at it). Jackpot isn't the only Minor League character motivated to appear under scoring circumstances (Wilmington's Mr. Celery and State College's Nookie Monster come to mind), but Theiss said the concept began in Lake Elsinore.
"That originated here," he said. "Jackpot has been here from the start."
Grounds Crew Gorilla: The gregarious, gold necklace-wearing Grounds Crew Gorilla is the alter-ego of Storm promotions director Robert Gillett and appears prior to the bottom of the sixth inning of every home game. The Gorilla's routines are varied, but constants include costumes (Lady Ga Garilla, anyone?), dance moves and a live-wire, spontaneous performance ethos. He often morphs into what is referred to as "visiting team beatdown Gorilla," during which members of the opposing team attack him mercilessly with foam noodles.
On a personal note, I have had the good fortune to visit dozens of Minor League ballparks over the past three seasons. At none of these stops have I witnessed such pure, unadulterated anarchy as what occurred during the gorilla's routine. After receiving a beatdown from the visiting team, the enraged gorilla jumped onto the grassy berm seating area down the right-field line, ran up a hill and ripped out a section of plastic fencing separating the berm from the concourse. It was a truly riveting performance, one that pushed the boundaries of acceptable between-inning entertainment.
Ace the Fastest Squirrel in the World: Ace has what, in the world of Minor League Baseball, is a fairly typical origin story.
"We were just trying to utilize a costume because, for some reason, a squirrel costume had been purchased," Theiss said. "And then, all of a sudden, it just came to me."
"It" was Ace, the Fastest Squirrel in the World. Played by Theiss himself, the premise behind the character is simple. While most costumed characters purposefully lose their on-field competition with fans (see every mascot race, ever), Ace always wins. Because he's the fastest.
"When we first started [with the Squirrel], his name was Nuts, but once we found a sponsor for him, it was changed to Ace," said Theiss, who was a member of his college track team. "We run foul pole to foul pole. I give somebody the lead and then find a way to make up the ground."
Rally Cop: Similar to a closer, the Rally Cop only appears under specific game conditions: prior to the bottom of the ninth, whenever the Storm are losing are by three runs or fewer. Under those circumstances, the Rally Cop -- part WWE wrestler, part Erik Estrada -- embarks on a highly theatrical and even higher energy routine with the sole intent of rallying the home team to victory. According to the Storm's website, the Rally Cop is "the most intense act in Minor League Baseball history."
"During this act, EMTs stand at the top of each section just in case fans pass out from the intensity," the online bio continues. "WWE wrestlers come watch this act to take notes. Just by reading this bio, you are susceptible to being hit in the face."
Consider yourself warned.
What does it all mean?
Of course, not every idea is adaptable to all markets, and the Storm front office is a particularly irreverent group (this is, after all, a team that gave away flatulence neutralizers as part of an "All You Can Eat" promotion). But the character-heavy approach is indicative of an increasingly common operating approach. In the past, ballpark performers operated almost exclusively as touring commodities and were compensated as such. And though there will always be room for these sort of acts -- from Max Patkin and the Famous Chicken to Myron Noodleman and the Zooperstars -- teams have come around to the idea that much of their appeal can be replicated in-house and marketed to fans as a reliable part of each evening's entertainment.
"We know that we have a bunch of characters in this office, so we're always thinking of ways that we can utilize them on the field," Theiss said. "We're trying to find the value within ourselves."
Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog.