In any given October, Minor League mascots find themselves free of the demands of the past season and turn their attention to a more serious matter. They raise research funds and awareness for a disease that affects well over 250,000 families in the United States annually, harnessing the support of their communities throughout Breast Cancer Awareness Month. From coast to coast, teams and their mascots have participated in the American Cancer Society's Making Strides Against Breast Cancer walk, made appearances around town or promoted ACS events via social media.
Of course, October 2020 isn't any given October. This year, teams have had to find new ways to pitch in. For the Daytona Tortugas, Class A Advanced affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds, it's meant a costume change for mascot Shelldon.
“During this time, we had to think, ‘What can we do differently? How can we continue to still be involved?’" Tortugas general manager Jim Jaworski said. "We did our research and learned about a couple other teams throughout the country and we knew we’d have to get creative. It’s all about being creative anyway, but even more so during these times.”
For the past three years, Jaworski had personally participated in the ACS's Real Men Wear Pink campaign, which was designed to give men an active role in fighting breast cancer. This month, the Tortugas tabbed Shelldon to focus his fundraising efforts on that outlet.
"This year, we were looking for more of a community figure," Jaworski said. "I’ve been with the organization for 11 years, and when you think of the face of the organization, you think of Shelldon. There’s nothing better than a mascot. That’s what it came down to, and we said, ‘Let’s get him out there.’”
Although Breast Cancer Awareness Month ends Saturday, the Tortugas have never confined their support for the ACS to October. The team is in the process of scheduling a movie night at Jackie Robinson Ballpark with proceeds going to Shelldon's Real Men Wear Pink campaign. During ordinary seasons, Tuesday home games are Survivors Nights, with cancer survivors throwing out first pitches and celebrating the joy of being healthy enough to attend ballgames.
"We’ve been partnering with [the Tortugas] for quite a few years, specifically through the Making Strides Against Breast Cancer program," said Leslie Castillo, the ACS' senior manager of community development in Daytona Beach, referring to the annual walk that's usually a cornerstone of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. "[In the past], we’ve used their ballpark for the event -- the Strides walk is the largest community event in area -- but the relationship goes further than that.
"On a national level, we work very closely with Minor League Baseball teams in terms of awareness for the cancer community. Different teams support us different ways, and it’s different in every community. But the No. 1 thing is collectively, on the awareness side, to [provide] that educational piece to communities and to tie into fundraisers too.”
The Fort Wayne TinCaps are one of those different teams. The Class A affiliate of the San Diego Padres had plans to ramp up the relationship with their local American Cancer Society office throughout the 2020 season, which, of course, never happened. When the ACS' Ashley Wellman, a community development manager based in Fort Wayne, reached out to the team about getting mascot Johnny TinCap involved in Real Men Wear Pink, the front office jumped.
“Breast cancer awareness and treatment and research is important all the time," said Brenda Feasby, community and fan engagement manager for the TinCaps. "You throw COVID into the mix, it’s even more important, because there are certain restrictions [and difficulties for screening]. We knew we wanted to take part."
The Fort Wayne club got to work, with the production staff creating a series of graphics and videos with Johnny TinCap decked out in pink. The TinCaps share the content on social media, driving donations to Johnny's Real Men Wear Pink page. Meanwhile, across the Midwest League, the South Bend Cubs were busy taking a different tact with the same goal of raising awareness and research funds for breast cancer.
“With the fundraiser aspect, we knew it might be tough this year," said South Bend director of media and promotions Chris Hagstrom-Jones, citing the possibility that during a time of widespread economic and social hardship, many people are likely to feel that they've already given all they can to a variety of worthy organizations from food banks to hospital foundations and beyond.
That notion inspired an approach that put an emphasis on fan fun. As a result, the South Bend team store features a Real Men Wear Pink section, and during two socially distanced outdoor events, fans met mascot Stu D. Baker and purchased bobbleheads celebrating the Cubs' 2019 Midwest League title, with proceeds going to the ACS. They also hosted a drive-thru event in the parking lot, with the mascot on hand for the celebration.
"That way, it’s not just, ’Hey, donate!’ but, ‘Do something fun, get an item and donate that way,’" Hagstrom-Jones said. "We wanted to find ways that people felt it was to their benefit as well.”
The TinCaps' Feasby reached out to Hagstrom-Jones and the Cubs with the idea of bringing the fun component to a whole other level.
"We were informed Stu was doing it," Feasby said. "I’d met Chris briefly, and I reached out and said, ‘Hey, since we’re both doing this, why not make it a fun competition, and whichever mascot loses has to post on social wearing the other team’s apparel?’ I thought it would be fun to add a competitive vibe to it.”
Mascots, of course, have never been known to back down from a challenge.
"We loved the idea,” Hagstrom-Jones said. “Here’s the fun part about that: Johnny has raised a lot of theirs just through that [Real Men Wear Pink page], but ours are not calculated through that, for the most part. By my estimation, it’s neck and neck. We’re going to make a big final push, but it’s going to come down to the wire before we can make a determination.”
Although one of the mascots will be the winner, in a competition like this, there is no loser.
“No matter how it turns out, the money is being raised for a great cause, and I think of the families and friends and loved ones impacted [by cancer]," Feasby said. "If Stu has to wear TinCaps stuff or if Johnny has to wear Cubs stuff, it’s all in good fun during a time when we really need to help each other and lift each other up. No matter what the outcome, I’m glad Chris and South Bend and Stu took part in it with us. Hopefully, next year there will be others.”
The Jackie Robinson Ballpark movie night, likely to transpire in early December, is the Tortugas' "signature event" for this year's ACS-fundraising efforts, said Daytona community relations and outside events manager Josh McCann. The club is working with the ACS to host a pre-picture-show Pink Parking Lot Party featuring Shelldon and a survivor speaker, as well as gift bags, prizes for pink costumes and a car-decorating contest. Inside the park, the team plans on displaying a luminaria as part of the ACS's Lights of Hope initiative. Pulling off the multi-faceted event safely and on the scale the Tortugas are aiming for requires significant planning, but at this point, the staff has a lot of ACS-related experience to draw upon.
With the regular big-crowd-oriented Making Strides Against Breast Cancer walk impractical in the face of coronavirus concerns, the ACS rotated to a virtual model called Strides Your Way for 2020. Supporters could participate in the event in the neighborhoods, on their treadmills, or in Shelldon's case, right at home. The turtle donned a pink tutu and did a lap around the ballpark. As far as the Tortugas were concerned, there was never a possibility that they'd be denied the chance to partake in Breast Cancer Awareness Month this year.
“We all knew and agreed what we’d done previously wasn’t going to happen this year, but there was little to no doubt that we would be able to figure out, with the proper guidelines and the proper rules and regulations, and put something together," Jaworski said. "There was no doubt. It was just a matter of our group figuring out what that was going to be.”
And so, in addition to the forthcoming movie night and Shelldon's tutu-bedecked ballpark trot, the club was involved -- with Shelldon an enthusiastic draw -- in other ACS events throughout the month. They took part in a Hope In Motion survivor car parade on Oct. 16, and Shelldon spread cheer during a neighborhood Strides Your Way event the next day.
"But the thing is, it’s not just this month," emphasized Castillo, the ACS senior manager of community development. "It’s a year-round relationship and partnership, and we're very fortunate to have the Daytona Tortugas as that partner.
“Shelldon was one of the first to step up and say, ‘I want to create awareness.’ Cancer is a scary thing, and it’s awesome that there’s a mascot out there walking alongside us however we’re doing it. He’s coming out and bringing out smiles, giving his virtual high-fives, wearing his mask. It shows that together we’re better.”
Josh Jackson is an editor for MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter @JoshJacksonMiLB.