I confess: I am somewhat obsessed with mascots.
From T.C. Bear in Minnesota to Lou Seal in San Francisco, meeting team mascots on road trips has become as much a part of my ballpark experience as hot dogs and beer. I watch mascots during pregame introductions and festivities and always seek them out for photos. It has become a tradition I affectionately refer to as "mascot stalking."
When I made my first visit to Nationals Park in 2011, I made sure I was in my seat in the middle of the fourth inning. I didn't want to miss the team's famous Racing Presidents -- George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt -- as they sprinted from center field, along the warning track and down the first-base line to the finish line near the dugout.
Since the Racing Presidents made their debut during the 2006 season, the race has been a highlight for a struggling team. Even with the optimism surrounding the Nationals' team prospects this season (despite failing to land free-agent prize Prince Fielder), George, Abe, Tom and Teddy remain the franchise's most visible ambassadors within baseball and the community at large.
And on Saturday of Presidents Day weekend (naturally), the Nationals hosted their sixth year of auditions for presidential hopefuls. When a friend familiar with my mascot obsession forwarded me the news release, I knew I had to be there. The opportunity to actually wear one of those hallowed six-foot-high heads and show off my craziest dance moves seemed too good to pass up. After a few emails and phone calls, the team extended an invitation for an audition, and potential humiliation.
Yes, I was running for president.
The team received nearly 300 applications and culled the field to 58 based on written responses to a series of mascot-related questions (the details of those questions are confidential). The audition process consists of running a 40-yard dash in costume, two 200-yard Presidents Races (from center field to the home dugout and back again), performing a freestyle dance, showing off a victory pose and concluding with an interview with the game operations panel. The panel will fill a coveted 15-25 spots and each person selected needs to be available for 35 home games.
Nationals entertainment manager Tom Davis has overseen the auditions concept since their inception in 2007.
"Personality is a big one. We are looking for people who are ready to have a good time," Davis said. "No. 2 is big exaggeration of movement you need to think twice as tall as you actually are. No. 3 is a bonus, but speed always helps."
As I surveyed the competition along the warning track, many of the contenders looked to be in great shape ("Oh yeah, I'm training for a triathlon," one said to another), and several showed impressive speed in the 40-yard dash (the fastest time of the day was 6.2 seconds). Most candidates were male, although I saw a few brave young women in the crowd.
Before I knew it, Davis called my name and I went behind the bullpen to have a giant 45-pound head strapped to a framed backpack placed on my shoulders. I chose George Washington. Yes, George was the first president of the United States and the winner of the first Presidents Race, but I selected him because he is the shortest of the three presidents who raced Saturday.
(Why only three Racing Presidents at the auditions instead of the four who participate at the games? Conspiracy theorists like Scott Ableman of the Let Teddy Win website believe Roosevelt, who has lost 441 consecutive Presidents Races, isn't allowed to participate in the tryouts because the Nats want to ensure he remains winless, even in an audition. Davis' explanation? "Teddy is taking his annual vacation," he said. "I got a postcard from him. He was in Barbados.")
As several members of the Nationals staff strapped me into the pungent costume (yes, it smelled of stale sweat), I could immediately feel the head sway from side to side. A broken shoulder harness did not make the task any easier; staying on my feet would be difficult. But I managed to make my way to the starting line, gave a thumbs-up and started running the 40-yard dash while reciting a constant refrain in my head: "Don't face-plant. Damn this is heavy. Don't face-plant." I somehow crossed the finish line in 15.61 seconds. Yes, not exactly combine material; I admit, it was pathetic.
After a brief respite, Abe, Tom and I lined up to start the first of our two 200-yard test Presidents Races. Visibility proved to be as much of a challenge as speed and staying upright. I was running blind, both from the glaring sun and the mascot head netting falling down in front of my eyes. As soon as we stopped at the dugout, we had to run the same distance back to the original starting line in center field. I finished a distant third, but did stay upright. Mission accomplished.
Now it was time to get down to serious mascot business: showing off our best dance moves and victory poses. This is something I worked on and was ready to break off some sweet steps for the judges; but, of course, being winded and wearing a giant head interfered with my plans. I ended up doing some sort of cross between a really bad "running man" and "white man's overbite."
After the dancing, Davis asked us to strike our victory poses. I went with "Zaching," a bodybuilders' pose named for Maryland teenager Zach Lederer, who struck the move after brain surgery to show friends and family he was fine. I don't know whether others got the reference, but at least I knew what it signified. Surprisingly, I didn't see anybody Tebowing (perhaps because of the daunting logistics of having a six-foot-head on your shoulders?).
With the physical challenges over and George's costume mercifully off, I headed to the clubhouse to interview with the team's game operations panel. The crew grills each aspiring candidate on their knowledge of baseball and mascots. My years of mascot stalking had finally paid off! (I rocked this part of the audition.) I also had to come up with some creative uses for props, including a feather duster and a boa. (I'm most proud of using the feather duster as a pogo stick and the boa as a whip.)
Though I would not officially be one of the men and women selected to be a Racing President, you can bet I'll watch during the fourth-inning race that much more as I marvel at the mascots' ability to glide across the warning track (except for Teddy, of course). I'll stand up and cheer a little louder knowing the hard work (and sheer silliness) it takes to be a Racing President.