This is Part II of a two-part feature on Benjamin Hill's experience at the Keystone Mascot Camp in Annville, Pa. You can read Part I here.
It's just past 9 p.m. at Harrisburg's Metro Bank Ballpark, and I'm residing in a special kind of hell.
The Senators and the visiting Altoona Curve are slogging through an interminable top of the fifth inning, and I'm standing in a small entranceway that leads out onto the third-base side of the infield. I am out of breath, dripping with sweat, suffering from badly impaired vision and want nothing more than to find a secluded area in which to collect myself.
Escape, however, is impossible. To my right is a gaggle of frantically gesticulating wild animals; to my left is a cackling contingent of inebriated men attending a bachelor party; and behind me is a swarm of children in search of hugs, high-fives and autographs. And standing directly ahead, the cherry on top of this hallucinogenic sundae, is Sgt. Slaughter.
The legendary wrestler's steely gaze is affixed on the game taking place before us, posture rigid and square jaw protruding toward the pitcher's mound. His intimidating presence plants a simple mantra in my head, one that repeats on a loop until the inning finally, mercifully, draws to a close: "Keep your head in the game!"
Or both my heads, as it were. For this was my first night as a Minor League mascot.
Applying our teachings
My mascot debut was the culmination of a three-day stint at Keystone Mascot Camp, in which I slowly morphed from mild-mannered writer to costumed character "Giorgio the Bloggerman." The first day of this experience was chronicled in last week's Farm's Almanac, seven hours at a Central Pennsylvania sports complex that included character development exercises, lessons regarding appropriate gesturing techniques and the chance to leap off a trampoline into a pit of foam balls.
But there's no substitute for doing, and Saturday's stint at Metro Bank Park gave myself and seven fellow campers the chance to experience the thrill of in-game live performance. The trying experience described in the opening of this piece was just prior to our fourth and final on-field performance of the night. After the third out was recorded (following three runs, two hits, an error, a hit by pitch and a pitching change), the mascot camp contingent went out onto the field along with celebrity ballpark guest Sgt. Slaughter. He wanted the fans to make noise, and ordered the mascots to assist with these efforts. My crowd arousal techniques were apparently lacking, as Slaughter told me I wasn't doing a good enough job and summarily ordered me to "drop down and give him one."
A single push-up was about all I could handle at that point, and after fulfilling Slaughter's demand I made a hasty retreat to the makeshift mascot changing area located beneath the third-base stands.
My night as "Giorgio the Bloggerman" was over.
But I have no regrets, for the opportunity to see things from the mascot perspective was a unique and educational experience. The evening started at 6 p.m., when the campers hauled their bags of disconnected body parts into the Senators mascot changing room. Well, not a "room" so much as an area of the concourse sectioned off with chain link fence and obscured with strips of dark green rubber. There was very little ventilation and no electrical outlets. This was especially disheartening because Metro Bank Park underwent an extensive $45 million renovation over the past two seasons, resulting in improvements to virtually every square inch of the facility.
Won't someone please think of the mascots?
But we weren't there to luxuriate in our surroundings -- we were there to entertain! I was ready to do so, especially with the latest additions to my wardrobe: a shirt and shorts. The former was a "MiLB.com" t-shirt (size 4XL) provided by camp instructor Karen Simmons, bright yellow and adorned with American Flag iron-ons. The latter article of clothing -- the shorts -- had once been part of a horse uniform, and as such included a large tail-accommodating hole in the rear. That was fine with me; I was just glad to have some lower body covering.
No one wants to be charged with indecent exposure on their first night as a mascot -- or any night, come to think of it.
At about 10 minutes to seven we were ushered from our dank lair and onto the field. We didn't have much to do, specifically, so I somewhat self-consciously strutted around the perimeter of the infield. I soon drew the attention of a group of young boys sitting behind home plate, who yelled at me to give them a high-five. I was happy to oblige, jumping up and systematically slapping each hand through the protective netting.
After the fourth such jump, I was winded. It was a lesson that I was really going to have to pace myself that evening -- wearing a mascot suit in mid-July in Pennsylvania humidity is an exceedingly energy-draining experience. A brief respite soon came in the form of the National Anthem, with the assorted mascots joining Sgt. Slaughter in a solemn line, removing their caps if applicable and possible.
(Nearly) everyone is your friend
In short order, the evening developed its own rhythm. On-field performance was followed by much-needed headless (or "decapitated") rests in the sweltering break room, with our journeys to and from the field containing ample mingling with the fans.
I felt very self-conscious when the evening began (self-consciousness being self-defeating for a mascot), but as the game wore on I began to really enjoy working the crowd. It is a truly liberating experience to be a mascot -- you are immediately the center of attention, the life of the party ,and everyone is your friend. I freely dispensed with high-fives, posed for photos with fans of all ages and gave out a whole lot of autographs.
Yes, autographs. Before attending camp, I had not been aware that this was an expected mascot job duty, but it most certainly is. Throughout the night, I was asked for my John Hancock on hats, balls and (especially) the wooden bats that had been given to kids as they entered the ballpark. I have horrible penmanship to begin with, and it's even worse when wearing thick gloves with fingers the width of Kielbasa links. After each sub-par scrawling of "Giorgio," I expected the youthful recipient to incredulously ask "That's your autograph?" Instead, I got enthusiastic thank yous, pats on the back and requests for yet another picture.
That's how it was all night, at least in terms of fan interaction. Though every veteran mascot has a litany of stories regarding the disrespectful (and sometimes even criminal) behavior of fans, I was fortunate enough to be spared such treatment. The kids, on this night, were all right.
And, in many cases, better than all right. One young boy, about 10 years old and wearing a maroon T-shirt and Senators cap, approached me again and again throughout the evening. I signed multiple autographs for him, posed for multiple pictures, and we quickly developed a signature greeting (getting into a boxer's crouch and then bumping fists). I have no idea what he found so appealing about Giorgio the Bloggerman, but his devotion made me feel extra-accountable. It was my duty to entertain him.
The only fan interactions fraught with anything resembling tension were those with young children who might not yet be able to grasp the concept of a mascot. The reactions are all over the map when dealing with youngsters in the 2-5-age range, some race over for a hug, and others cower in fear behind the leg of a parent. Remembering my training regarding how to deal with these situations, I would simply get on my knees (eye level with the child) and let them come to me. Or not.
Either way, I was going to keep on moving. The evening had a nice sense of flow throughout, with the on-field performances (including a slow-motion dizzy bat race refereed by Giorgio) giving way to mingling with the fans, giving way to much-needed breaks in the desolate mascot changing area.
I called it a night after the fifth inning, absolutely exhausted. While decompressing in a folding chair, soaked with sweat, I was reminded just how dangerous the mascot job can be. Quinn Dillon, an area college student who regularly suits up as the lovable monster "Rascal" for the Senators, returned to the changing area in an agitated state. He had taken a tumble off the dugout roof during the seventh-inning stretch, hurting his shoulder and shaking him up considerably.
Fortunately he wasn't too badly hurt, and upon regaining his composure, he had one question: "Is that going to end up on YouTube?"
Pros and cons
Mascots take on the risks of the job voluntarily, because the rewards are considerable. Who wouldn't welcome the opportunity to put aside daily stresses in order to become a highly-popular life-of-the-party alter ego?
I received a lesson on the power of the suit at the end of the evening, though no longer in costume. I was wandering in a sweat-soaked daze around the concourse area beneath the third-base stands when I saw Giorgio's No. 1 fan!
The young boy in the maroon shirt and Senators cap was walking toward me as he and his family made their way to the exits. I instinctively flashed a big smile and got ready for a high five before realizing that I was now nothing more than a disheveled stranger in gym shorts and an oversized t-shirt. I quickly averted my eyes and kept walking, aware that acting like a mascot while not in the costume would be disconcerting and borderline inappropriate.
And that's the trade-off. Discomfort, fatigue, disrespect and other hazards of the mascot profession are all worth it in the end, as what the suit offers above all else is a clean slate. The insecurities and self-consciousness of everyday existence immediately disappear, willingly discarded in favor of a larger-than-life and far-more-confident alter-ego.
Just watch out for Sgt. Slaughter.