Players come and players go, but mascots are forever.
This is the reality in Minor League Baseball, making the foremost face of the franchise a furry one. From the Rookie leagues to Triple-A, one finds almost universal agreement that the mascot is and will always be a key piece of the marketing puzzle. Many fans might not be able to name a single player on the roster, but chances are that they know exactly who the mascot is.
But here arises a contradictory, yet common, scenario. The job of mascot is often handed to an enthusiastic yet wholly inexperienced intern or high school gameday employee, inhabiting a beat-up (and quite possibly malodorous) costume. Isn't this akin to buying a Rolls Royce and then parking it in a dingy and unsupervised municipal lot?
The Tulsa Drillers certainly think so, and this offseason they have embarked on an ambitious plan to totally overhaul their mascot, Hornsby the Bull. These efforts have required the help of a renowned expert in the field, resulting in a 2011 campaign in which Hornsby will be played by an accomplished performer who also plays a key role on the front-office staff. Such efforts point to a future in which the respect and responsibilities given to the mascot are commensurate with his or her (or its) value to the operation as a whole.
Is there a doctor in the house?
The Drillers are in the midst of a renaissance, having established a franchise attendance in 2010 during their first season at ONEOK Field in downtown Tulsa. The new facility, with its brand new scoreboard and open concourse, allowed the team to heighten its gameday experience and overall operation. Within this context, the club soon realized that Hornsby himself was in need of an upgrade.
"The turning point was when we had a 'Mascot Mania' promotion last August, and the mascot from our local WNBA team, the Tulsa Shock, just showed us up in our own house," said Mike Taranto, the Drillers' manager of promotions. "Everybody was paying attention to him, so we were saying to ourselves, 'If we can't even be the best in Tulsa then there's definitely work to be done.'"
"We wanted somebody who would be great inside of the suit and out," said Taranto.
This means that, in addition to being an accomplished performer with the ability to write on-field skits, procure props and work the crowd, the new hire also would have to be a customer-minded individual capable of booking his own community appearances and developing marketing initiatives.
In order to find the best individual for the job, the Drillers sought assistance from a true mascot legend: Dave Raymond, the original Phillie Phanatic and now the "Emperor of Fun and Games" of the Raymond Entertainment Group. Raymond brands himself as a "Mascot Doctor" (even wearing a white coat at his Baseball Winter Meetings Trade Show booth), and the Drillers would be his latest patient.
Raymond's experience in the mascot world dates back to 1978, when he first donned the now-iconic Phanatic costume while working as an intern for the Phillies. His decades of experience within the industry have led to a rarified level of mascot expertise, even if his "Doctor" status isn't officially recognized by the AMA.
"I think that, industry-wide, there's a shared pain within mascot programs," said Raymond. "Teams have trouble finding good performers, and often the costume doesn't look or smell right. They also might not know how to use the mascot as a way to drive revenue. ... The Mascot Doctor came about because of frustration, that we weren't doing enough to combat these problems and that we weren't doing enough that was fun."
Several services are offered under the "Mascot Doctor" banner, from phone consultations to "Fur Rehab" costume cleaning and makeovers to a full-on "Mascot Intervention." The Drillers opted for this last option, hiring Raymond to not only redesign the Hornsby costume, but also to recruit mascot applicants and run an on-site audition in Tulsa.
Raymond stresses that a team needs more than "just a nutty clown who is only good in a costume," but someone who emphasizes and understands the safety issues associated with performing. Equally important is the individual's ability to represent the team while outside of the costume. Through online job postings and his many contacts within the industry, Raymond conducted a nationwide search before presenting the Drillers with eight potential candidates. That list was narrowed down to four by the team, with the finalists called in for the all-important audition.
In front of a panel consisting of Raymond and five members of the Drillers' front-office staff, the candidates submitted to out-of-costume interviews before suiting up and exhibiting the range of their mascot skills (including prop work, dancing, character acting and communicating emotion). This portion of the audition was done anonymously, with the panel unaware of who was in the suit at any given time. Raymond says this technique helps to "alleviate bias at any level," keeping the panel from reaching foregone conclusions and always leading to "one or two surprises."
The winner of the drama-packed audition process turned out to be 20-year-old Vincent Pace, a self-professed class clown who had been "mascotting" (a verb that really should be added to the American sporting lexicon) since the sixth grade. Most recently, he served as Rally the Mustang for the collegiate league St. Joe Mustangs.
"This was my first audition, and I'm real happy I made it through," said Pace, currently finishing up his second week of work as the Drillers' Mascot Coordinator. "It was intense, but fun at the same time."
On the path to wellness
Pace will spend a large portion of his day outside of the suit, booking paid appearances while also helping to coordinate the team's birthday packages and community initiatives. Success in such endeavors should result in heretofore untapped revenue streams, a concept that Raymond champions.
"Most [team] leaders can see paying a mascot for games and appearances, but have a difficult time understanding why anyone should get a salary plus benefits for doing this," he said. "But we say don't look at it like you're just hiring a performer; you're hiring an integrated marketing coordinator who's out there selling everything you have to sell. ... Teach him what selling corporate suites entails, season ticket packages, group sales, individual sales, school programs and community efforts. ... Once you have the performer thinking that way, then you have a way to generate tremendous sales leads.
"It's a higher-level thought process, but a lot of teams are really starting to get it."
The Drillers certainly do, as they're now equipped with a mascot coordinator ready to take the bull by the horns.
"My feet are getting real wet, that's for sure," said Pace. "The people who work here all call themselves members of the Drillers family, and they've done a great job of adopting me."