Jonathan Carey sinks deeper into the couch, cradling a longneck, drinking away a dream deferred. There are the things in life you imagine, and the things you end up doing in the meantime, and if you're very lucky, the two sometimes overlap.
But mostly not.
"You know the cast show they have at Disney?" Carey says. "Mickey [Mouse], Donald [Duck], Minnie [Mouse], Goofy? I've just always wanted to be Goofy."
"Only I couldn’t make the height requirement."
I want to laugh. It sounds like Carey is joking. After all, I came to Dave Raymond’s Mascot Boot Camp expecting as much -- silliness beneath the warm winter sun, here at the Los Angeles Dodgers' former spring training complex in Vero Beach, Florida, a long weekend of goofing off alongside a half-dozen minor league baseball mascots under the tutelage of a man best known as the original Phillie Phanatic.
I've even rented a matted, dilapidated panda costume for the occasion, specifically because it:
(a) Looks ridiculous;
(b) Fits neatly into an overhead bin;
(c) See (a).
Thing is, Carey's serious. Earnest, even. Endearingly so. As such, laughing would be cruel. We’re sitting in Raymond's hotel suite, which used to be Tommy Lasorda's digs, which in itself is somewhat amusing, if not amazing, given that the former Dodgers manager feuded with Raymond and once tried to beat the Phanatic into a black-blue-and-green pulp, right there on the Veterans Stadium artificial turf. Occupational hazard and all. But never mind that. Carey would do just about anything for the chance to get beaten up by a portly hardball sourpuss.
Well, provided he was taking said blows inside a furry suit.
Instead, Carey is wearing a polo shirt embroidered with a fast food chicken logo. His work uniform. A former college mascot, he moved to Orlando after graduation to audition at Disney World, a place he previously had visited all of twice. The theme park told him he was too short. (Who knew?) Still, they liked his energy. Said they’d be in touch. Maybe. And so he waits, hoping, clocking in and out of the chicken joint, his future hanging on a phone call.
"All of my friends are cast members at the park," Carey says. "And there I am, stuck at home."
What does it take to be a mascot? Why would anyone want to be a mascot? I'm here to find out. As for Carey? He's simply here. He isn't actually participating in the camp. He drove an hour and a half from Orlando just to ... hang out.
I ask Carey if he has a backup plan -- something else to shoot for, in case the call never comes.
"No," he says. "I should think about it."
Another sip. Actually, this one is more of a gulp.
"I guess they wouldn't allow you to be Goofy for the rest of your life."
DO NOT SET SELF ON FIRE WITH LIGHTER FLUID. I write this down. Sounds reasonable. It's the first day of camp. The minor league mascots and I have gathered in a meeting room with the blinds drawn, the better to watch Dave Raymond operate a digital projector. Our costumes are stored in a nearby locker room, across the hall from a hanging portrait of Lasorda, which Raymond will later desecrate with a series of increasingly funny pantomimes that cannot adequately be described on a family-friendly website.
"Always remember," Raymond says, "that sliding on a wooden floor can melt your costume's knees."
Earlier, we had a cup-stacking contest. Pretty fun. What I expected. Now, a lecture. Not so much. We sit behind a long desk, armed with notepads. This is school. Raymond wears khaki shorts and a brown T-shirt. He left his pointy-topped WWI army helmet at home. He spent more than a decade as the Phanatic. He currently owns and runs a mascot design and consulting business. For teams and performers in need, he's something of a mascot whisperer.
"The mascot can work at a funeral," he says. "A Catholic church service. In front of rocket scientists. It's not just for kids."
Raymond's official title is Emperor of Fun and Games. It says so on his business cards. He is surprisingly adept with Power Point.
"Your job is more revenue for your boss," he says. "That's basically what it is."
Everyone nods. The room is quiet, serious. Clowning around takes work. Much of it out of costume. Mascots have business plans to write. Sponsorships to secure. They have to stay fit. Stay hydrated. Know how to patch a torn knee with a sewing kit and electrical tape.
Raymond hands us a mascot manual. Just the basics. It's 83 pages long.
"A lot of performers who are around for a while become complacent and think they don't need to learn anything," says Chris Bruce, a professional mascot and Raymond's co-instructor for the camp. "I challenge all of you not to do that."
"That’s an epidemic I see with baseball performers today," Raymond adds.
In costume, performing is 50 percent perspiration -- it only feels like 150 percent -- and 50 percent preparation. Raymond discusses core competencies. As in: He uses the term core competencies. Clicking through slides, he urges us to take professional dance lessons. Conduct practice sessions in front of a mirror. Record and review our performances. Hone skits and bits until they're second nature.
Another slide. NON-VERBAL COMMUNICATION. Mascots can't talk, he says. Which means you have to come up with 50 emotions for your character. Five ways to walk. Ten ways to cry.
"This takes a ton of practice,” Raymond says. "Robin Williams has a gigantic bag of tricks in his brain. He pulls stuff out. People think it was just stuff pulled out on the fly."
Look spontaneous. Leave nothing to chance. Welcome to boot camp.
So much for goofing around.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but wearing a mascot costume stinks. Literally. The closest olfactory neighborhood comps? Eau de basement gym locker. Or maybe game-worn hockey pads, stored in the trunk of a used car parked in an outdoor lot at the Phoenix airport. Raymond's T-shirt reads, "Old mascots never die. They just smell that way." This is funny -- not because it's true, but because it actually understates matters, achieving a ironic effect.
So: Inside the fur. My panda helmet is a creepy pastiche of soulless mesh eyes, a leering, red felt tongue and interior duct tape. Wearing it induces low-level claustrophobia, an experience akin to taping two pillows over your ears while looking at the world through hand binoculars. Also, my headgear lacks a chin strap, which means it keeps falling off, thereby violating the cardinal rule of the mascot game: never, ever lose your head in public, lest a child spot you and eventually end up with bloated adult psychotherapy bills.
Of course, I don't mind that my helmet keeps falling off. Helps me breathe. Because the outfit is stifling. Itchy. Hot. Somehow, wearing it makes the back of my throat burn. The first time I don the whole thing -- shoe flaps to fingerless gloves -- I want to take a cold shower, then submerge myself in a bathtub filled with hand sanitizer. Even in an air-conditioned conference room, I'm acutely aware of my own sweat, streaming from my body in the manner of a broken lawn sprinkler system flooding the entire block.
Apparently, this is normal.
"I passed out during a photo and autograph session once," Raymond says. "I was being giddy and silly on the field, and then blacked out in the tunnel. They threw me in a shower with ice. On really hot days, I would take a gallon Ziploc bag, fill it with ice and strap it to my stomach."
I didn't bring bags. Or ice. Shuffling off to a side room to practice body movement, I’m also aware that I'm a guy in a panda suit, in a way that I'm never aware of being, say, a guy in a polo shirt and jeans. This is a problem. It’s a problem because a good mascot can’t appear self-conscious. You have to look convincing. Be convincing. Achieve a kind of unthinking Zen. Act and move the way a bipedal Chinese bear wearing high top basketball sneakers would. Even though no such creature, you know, exists.
"The first thing I do with a new costume is animal research," says Bruce. "How they move. How they attack a predator. Say you're a shark. You might always circle people. Or a gopher. Maybe you get scared easily."
Bruce pulls me aside. We discuss possible signature moves. I live in Washington, D.C. Home to the National Zoo, which in turn is home to real live panda bears. They sleep a lot, I say. And eat bamboo. And sleep some more. How about I lie down in a corner and nibble my paws? Animal research!
Bruce suggests I work on a kung-fu chop.
Across the hall, Raymond is taking the mascots through practice auditions, one by one, barking directions and videotaping the results. Derrick Crump, who works for a minor league team in West Virginia, ambles back into our room. (In costume, mascots do a lot more ambling than walking). He takes off his helmet, a giant, neon-yellow mass of matted fur, outfitted with an eye patch and a bowler hat. (The character's name is Chuck; he's a pirate, not a hipster).
Crump is sweaty. He looks distraught.
"Acting like a sexy woman caught me off guard,” he says.
"You have to be wiling to push boundaries," Bruce says. "Take risks. To be a mascot is to be someone you can’t be otherwise. You might not normally walk down the street pretending to be a sexy woman ... "
I try to write this down, only it's hard, because my gloves make it difficult to hold a pen, or see the notepad I'm scribbling on.
" ... but this isn't normal."
The mascots are eating dinner. Not in costume. That would pose all sorts of problems. Way more than trying to take notes. We're sitting in the same cafeteria that used to serve the Dodgers -- Lasorda and Kirk Gibson and the rest -- and everyone is wolfing down huge, athlete-portioned plates of food, fried fish and turkey sandwiches and meatballs and ice cream with cookies. As it turns out, running around in a furry suit burns mucho calories. More than enough to be the hook for a best-selling diet book.
Well, except for the chapter where dieters subsequently collapse from dehydration and exhaustion, then need intravenous fluids while lying in the back of an ambulance.
This happens to mascots. I learned that at dinner. I learned a lot at dinner. Such as: Costumes go over great at weddings. A glue gun is your best friend. Gaffers' tape will stick to anything. Seamstress shears will cut your fingers. If you get drunk after a game, it’s better to sleep it off in a luxury box than attempt to drive yourself home. The Denver Broncos mascot is a god among men, because he kicks field goals. In costume. Also, clean your costume after every performance, field goal-kicking or ortherwise. Otherwise, you could end up with MRSA, an antibiotic-resistant strain of flesh-eating bacteria. Only don't use Lysol. It can cause allergic skin reactions. Instead, try vodka: Two parts water, one part booze, a formula borrowed from 18th century minstrel shows.
What else? If you're playing hockey against small children, it's OK to knock them down. In fact, it's kind of fun. On the other hand, if you're playing Pee Wee football at Chicago's Solider Field and you tackle a small boy at the two-yard line on the final play of your mascots-versus-tykes game instead of letting the kid score, it's definitely not okay, and you'll probably get in trouble with your boss, even though lowering the boom on a grade-school Walter Payton wannabe is also pretty fun.
"I was at a gas station appearance once," says Jonathan Nation, a Class-AAA baseball mascot. "A woman came up to me and said, 'I hope you look as good inside that costume as you do on the outside. Can you bring the head home with me?'"
A few weeks earlier, Vanderbilt University's mascot, Mr. C, crowd-surfed the student section at a men's basketball game. He then punched a fan in the nose, drawing blood.
I ask: What the heck happened?
"He's probably an inexperienced performer," Bruce says. "A college kid who hasn't done it before."
Crump shakes his head.
"They're going to have to ban crowd surfing," he says.
"The NCAA has banned everything," Raymond says. “They won’t let you go near the officials or players. And there’s always an officious [expletive] with every team, someone who looks at mascots as uncontrollable idiots with no judgment running around like a maniac, who needs to be kept from hurting someone or spontaneously combusting."
"The first thing our new marketing guy at South Carolina wanted was to get me a trampoline,” Carey says. "But that's not allowed."
"We got around that by having two cheerleaders just throw us from the foul line," Bruce says. "And we didn't have mats."
"Looking back, I'm not sure that was safer."
Why be a mascot? I put the question to Nation.
"It's fun,” he says.
Jimi Nunez, a minor league baseball mascot from Indiana, has a slightly more philosophical take.
"Why not?" he says.
"Walk like a sexy woman! Be a cute little boy! Be a wild, caged animal!" Off camera, Raymond is barking orders; on camera, I'm in my panda suit, trying to keep up.
Mostly, I'm failing.
I lack rhythm. I lack moves. I'm already a terrible dancer when no one is watching; perhaps unsurprisingly, I'm even worse when wearing a furry costume and placed before a tripod. With the entire class watching, Raymond is going over my mock mascot audition tape -- essentially, a practice job interview. Things are not going well. Between my inability to convey non-verbal emotion and my general lack of grace, I'm to the venerable art of physical acting – think Charlie Chaplin -- what Megan Fox is to the equally venerable art of acting acting.
"Give me happy!" Raymond says on the tape. "On a scale of one to five, show me a five!"
On screen, I spin around with my arms outstretched, aping the scene in "The Shawshank Redemption" where Andy emerges from his escape-from-prison tunnel. Somehow, I thought this would be a good idea.
Naturally, my helmet falls off.
"You have no preconceived notions of how to be a mascot," Deas says, encouragingly. “You have total freedom."
"This is like an Andy Kaufman audition," Raymond says.
"He's sabotaging comedy," Bruce says.
The problem, Raymond explains, isn't that I'm clumsy. It's that I don't know my character. I lack motivation. I'm not immersed. Every mascot needs a back story. No detail is too small, too unimportant.
I look at Raymond like he's pulling my leg. He’s not. He gives us all homework: Write your character's biography.
The next day, we present to the class. Deas is up. He has a shark costume, a mascot named "Phinley." Phinley trusts everyone, except old men with hooks. He's an orphan, longing for friends and -- ahem -- chums. He loves the movies "Splash" and "Finding Nemo." For some unexplained reason, he is only shy around elegant women. He wants to learn more about his fellow sharks, to make sure no species becomes extinct.
"That's great!” Raymond says. "Maybe Phinley can become about conservation."
I'm next. I read from prepared notes:
My panda is a classically trained Chinese calligraphist. He came to America via an import-export mix-up -- he was confused for an outgoing container of iPhones and flat-screen televisions and an incoming shipment of United States treasury bills. He is disappointed in his new home, which lacks appreciation for his skills. He sees other mascots -- especially bears -- running around at American sporting events, acting like undignified trained monkeys. Believing that he is above that, he is a conflicted and reluctant performer. He refuses to eat with chopsticks, simply because people expect him to. However, he secretly envies his American peers, because they seem uninhibited in a way he is not. He also secretly thinks the food at P.F. Chang's is tasty, even though it's as authentically Chinese as Applebee's.
Raymond laughs. At me, I think.
Being a mascot is hard. And often as boring as an office job, because in many ways, it is an office job. You have draw up detailed marketing plans, with charts and graphs and bullet points. You have to order and track merchandise. Wrangle with health insurance. Work the phones with sponsors, ticket buyers, potential side gig and public appearance clients. You have to sit through front office meetings, making your case to managers and stuffed shirts who generally view you as a furry clown, an unskilled, expendable nuisance. You will never have job security. And unless you make it to the NBA -- where a handful of mascots earn six-figure salaries, and no, that's not a typo -- you're not going to get rich, or even live in comfort. (The guy who plays the Kansas City Chiefs' wolf mascot supposedly married a cheerleader; on the other hand, Rick Ocasek ended up with Paulina Porizkova. Stuff happens).
Then there are the groin punches.
Another mascot dinner. After, a few beers. I ask about the job. Off the record, what is it really like?
This is what the mascots tell me:
"Little kids. Approaching you. This tall. And then hitting you in the [expletive]."
"Knock on wood, that never happened to me. In the gut, but not in the [expletive]."
"Getting hit in the [expletive] is a rite of passage."
"I barreled into a kid once, 3 years old. I was busy looking at two hot women."
"I just about killed a kid one night. I was a mascot for a summer baseball team in the Coastal League. A big, huge blowfish. Blowy. No vision whatsoever in the helmet. I'm running the bases. I feel something under my feet. Oh, [expletive]! It's a little kid. So I grabbed him and started rolling around, trying to play it off. There's a picture where you can just see his arm coming out. And all the fans are booing Blowy."
"Kids are so unpredictable."
"I hate when you get 16-year-old kids punching you in the side of the head."
"I get revenge. I offer to shake their hand, and then just crush them with my grip."
"You have to use common sense. You need a sixth sense. A little voice in your head. Listen to it. Of course, I never did. I made every mistake in the book. I would grab popcorn and trade it for someone’s beer. I wouldn't give the beer back. When I saw a women with a baby, I would pick up the baby, dance around, and then give the baby to some random dude and just leave. I'd be in my changing room thinking, 'whoa.'"
"They didn't have liability back then, did they?"
Why would anyone want to be a mascot? I still don't know. It's a sunny afternoon, bright and hazy, and all of us are in costume, walking to nearby Holman Stadium, where a couple dozen French Canadian parents and fans are watching their sons play baseball.
The big leagues, this ain't.
We enter the ballpark, a lovely -- if not lyrical -- little bandbox built for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1953, with open-air dugouts and 6,500 mostly empty seats. The other mascots fan out, dancing and cavorting, moving down the aisles and into the stands. I stand on the concourse, confused, longing for an air-conditioned press box, unsure what to do.
And then it hits me: As a mascot, you can do anything.
I polish a bald man's head. He laughs. I play tag with a group of young children. They giggle and scramble away, then come back for more. I sneak up behind an attractive woman, follow her to her seat, tap her on the shoulder, throw up my arms and act innocent when she turns around. She laughs, too. No one arrests me for stalking. I walk atop the seats, along the railing, wander into the dugout, pantomime swinging a bat, pretend to call balls and strikes. Again, nobody stops me.
I don't even notice how much I'm sweating. Or that I'm just a guy in a panda suit.
After the game, we head back to the cafeteria, still in costume. Some players are there, more French Canadian teenagers, eating lunch. We clown on them as well, steal their plates, act like fools. It's all very abnormal. And very, very fun. I feel for Carey. He's right: None of us can be Goofy for the rest of our lives. But there’s something to be said for trying.
Why be a mascot?
Later, at dinner, an older woman approaches our table. Her name is Mary. She works at the cafeteria. Has worked here for a decade. She still remembers the Dodgers, throwing balls and swinging sticks, screwing around for a living, another group of uniformed performers in no particular hurry to grow up.
Mary puts one hand on Nunez's shoulder, the other on mine.
"I just wanted to tell all of you that you were really obnoxious in your costumes," she says. “And I mean that as a compliment."
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