May 18, 2007

The Mascot Diaries

On Saturday, I got to be Uncle Slam.

That's not a typo. Not Uncle Sam. Uncle Slam.

For the 95% of you reading who have no idea what I'm talking about, I will explain. Uncle Slam is the mascot of the Potomac Nationals, the Single-A affiliate of my beloved Nats, who play in nearby Woodbridge. Uncle Slam is a... well, he sort of defies description, kind of like the Phillie Phanatic. You can judge for yourself.

So how did I get to be Slam for a day? For that story, we'll have to go back a couple months.

Every spring, Arlington County has its Neighborhood Day, which is a community festival sort of event, an excuse for Arlingtonians to get out and enjoy the nice weather and each other's company. The highlight of this day is a parade, in which a variety of community groups and organizations march about a mile or so along Wilson Boulevard. One of the parade organizers is in the Fan Club, and he extended an invitation for us to march in the parade. I thought it sounded like fun, and a good opportunity for a little publicity, so I agreed to round up a group of our guys to march. I figured we'd carry a banner, maybe hand out some membership forms, no big deal.

Fast forward a month or so. I invited Potomac's GM, Bobby Holland, to speak at our monthly meeting. The parade organizer was there, and he asked Holland if the P-Nats wanted to march in the parade. Bobby replied that he was interested, but he'd have to check their schedule. That was all, I thought.

Then, about a week before the parade, I got an e-mail from Holland. There was no one from the P-Nats who could march in the parade, but if we had an extra body, he'd be willing to lend us the Uncle Slam costume to wear.

Suddenly, I heard opportunity knocking.

I've always liked mascots. Maybe not as much as the Big Fool, but I'm a fan. And to actually get to be a mascot... I'd never even dreamed I'd have the chance. There is a side of my personality, usually kept hidden, that enjoys the sort of outlandish behavior that is the mascot's stock-in-trade. Sure, if you saw me on the street, you'd find me unassuming and mild-mannered. But deep down, I yearn to stick out my tongue at strangers, or to wiggle my backside at passersby, and have that be considered cute and amusing, rather than rude and possibly grounds for arrest. Mascots have free license to mug for the cameras, flirt shamelessly with women, hug random kids, dance like an idiot... all things that I generally avoid.

Naturally, I jumped at the chance.

Once I agreed to do it, I mentioned it to a friend of mine. She said, "How'd you get stuck doing that."


"Don't tell me you wanted to do it." She then proceeded to tell me of her experience. During the summers in high school, she worked at an amusement park, and occasionally played the role of the park's mascot. "It was so damn hot in that costume, I wanted to kill myself," she said. She went on to talk about the kids who, in their eagerness to greet this mascot, had punched her, head-butted her, and almost knocked her over.

I began to have some second thoughts. But I was already committed.

The day before the parade, I went down to Woodbridge to pick up the costume. I talked to a charming young woman named Jen, who offered some advice. "Drink lots of water and take lots of breaks. It gets hot in there."

"Oh, so you've been Uncle Slam before?" I asked.

She smirked a bit. "No, they haven't suckered me into it yet. The employees take turns in the costume. I've been avoiding it as long as I can."


Once I got home, I decided to unpack the outfit and try it on, so I'd be prepared for the parade. It's a good thing I did this, since it turned out that it was different than I expected. For some reason, I envisioned a one-piece costume with a zipper in the back, with the head as a separate piece. As it turned out, there were about ten separate pieces, which had to be put on in a specific order or it wouldn't work. First, I had to put on the fake stirrup socks, which were more like leggings. Then I had to put on the fake stomach, which was sort of a barrel with shoulder straps (much like what bankrupt people wore in old cartoons). Then I had to put on the pants, which had a mesh vest to keep them up. Then I had to put on the big floppy red shoes. Then I had to put on the P-Nats jersey/fuzzy blue arms. Then I had to put on the head and fasten the strap (so my head wouldn't fall off when I looked down). Then I had to put on the fuzzy blue hands. It took me six or seven tries to get it all right.

Then I went to the bathroom, so I could look myself in the mirror. Or I tried to, but I ran into the low-hanging light fixture in my living room. Uncle Slam is at least 7 feet tall, which created certain problems getting around. Eventually, I managed to squeeze into the bathroom to get a look at myself. Wow, I was big! And blue! And fuzzy! I practiced waving. I practiced a thumbs-up. I was ready to go.

Came Saturday, and I decided to drive into Arlington for the parade. Even if I could manage to drag the bag containing the Uncle Slam suit onto the Metro, I figured it would draw too many stares. ("What's he got in there, a body?" "Nah, it's bigger than that. Two bodies, at least.") As I pulled into the parking garage, I figured that it would be easier to put the suit on in the garage and walk to the gathering place, rather than trying to carry the bag around Arlington. So I suited up next to the car and started walking toward the elevator. Three young women got out of the car next to me, started walking, then did a truly amazing double-take and stopped dead in their tracks. I understood their feeling here. When you go out for a day of shopping, you have a certain expectation of what you'll see. That expectation does not include seeing a giant fuzzy blue thing in the garage. I gave them a little wave.

"What are you?" they said. I turned around and pointed to the "UNCLE SLAM" name on the back of my jersey.

"What are you doing here?" they said. This posed a dilemma; mascots aren't supposed to talk. But we were in a relatively secluded area, and the only people around were the women and I. So I decided it was safe. "I'm here for the parade," I said.

"What parade?" I explained a bit about Neighborhood Day, as they held the elevator for me (I had to duck to get in). As we rode up, one of the women pulled out her cell phone. "Oh, I just have to get a picture of this!" I smiled (a pointless reflex, since no one could see my face), and she snapped the picture. We high-fived, and I went out into the street.

This turned out to be more of a challenge than I anticipated. I am not in Arlington very often, and I believe that Arlington's street grid was designed solely to punish people for getting lost there. There is little rhyme or reason to the layout of the roads, and streets that have the same name can be blocks apart. Add to this my very limited visibility (I could only see out of the mouth of the costume, which is maybe a foot square, plus I wasn't wearing my glasses, so I couldn't read the street signs), and it's no surprise that I made at least half a dozen wrong turns, despite the fact that I was only four blocks from the gathering point.

I arrived, and I was already bathed in sweat; they weren't kidding about the costume being hot. I removed the head and the jersey/arms, pulled down the leggings, and tried to cool off. The rest of the Fan Club group had already arrived: Don, Allen, Chris, and Barb. They were all duly impressed by the sight of me in the costume.

Don suggested that I wear the costume out to a bar that night to pick up women. Barb took a look at me and said, "No way are you getting any action in that costume." (Considering the fact that I smelled like the Nationals' locker room at that point, she probably had a point.)

We got lined up. I discovered that we were marching directly behind a Dixieland jazz band, and directly in front of a group of Bolivian dancers, who brought their own music. The contrast of styles was, to say the least, interesting.

Kids kept coming up, some bold, some shy, several more than once, but they all wanted the same thing: to touch Uncle Slam. They hugged me, they held my hand, they high-fived me, they posed for photographs. I patted them on the head and put my arms around their shoulders. I'd never been the center of attention this way before; it was a heady feeling.

Just after I finished posing with two young Bolivian dancers, I heard Barb (who was acting as my spotter, since I couldn't see anything that wasn't right in front of me) say, "Behind you, Uncle Slam." I turned, and there were two winsome and attractive young women, perhaps 19 or 20 years old. They said, "Can we have a hug, Uncle Slam?"

Naturally, I was happy to oblige my fans.

I was feeling good at this point, so I began to boogie to the Bolivian music behind. "Tio Slam!" my compatriots shouted. At this point, I discovered another major upside to being a mascot: bad dancing is not only allowed, it's encouraged. As some of you may have guessed, my sense of rhythm is extremely Caucasian, and my dancing skills leave much to be desired. But when you're dressed as a giant fuzzy blue guy, it's okay! Dorky white guy dancing = awkward, unsightly nightmare. Mascot dancing like a dorky white guy = fun for the whole family.

"Come on, Uncle Slam," Barb said, "let's go find you some more honeys." I flashed a double thumbs-up. Maybe wearing the costume to the bar that night would be a good idea, after all...

We swung onto Wilson Boulevard, the official beginning of the parade route, and I kicked my mascot mugging into high gear: waving, flashing the thumbs-up, blowing kisses, dancing and high-stepping. And the kids lining the parade route ate it up! They waved, shouted hello, cheered. I was even more popular than the people throwing candy into the crowd in front of me. Some of them even ran onto the parade route for a hug or a picture. "You're the hit of the parade!" one of the organizers said as I danced past him. Ah, I love the mascot life, I said to myself.

My love of the mascot life lasted about halfway up the parade route. At that point, the temperature inside the costume hit sauna levels, and I started to hit the wall. (Maybe I should have made time to eat lunch, after all.) I cut back a good deal on the dancing, and stuck to waving and blowing kisses, with a little jumping up and down thrown in. Someone mentioned that it was starting to rain, but I couldn't feel a thing. There was a hair tickling my nose, but I couldn't reach it.

A fugitive breeze reached through the mouth of the costume, and I savored it. Invigorated, I broke into another little jig. Bad idea. It used up what little energy I had left. I soldiered on.

The longer I went, the hotter I got. Jen had advised me to take lots of breaks, but I couldn't really manage that in a parade; there was nowhere for me to rest. And I certainly couldn't take the head off. I was trapped. And I felt like I was about to faint.

In desperation, I tapped Chris's shoulder, and pointed to Uncle Slam's mouth. "You need water?" he said. I nodded. He had a bottle. "So, where's the hole I pour it into?" he said.

Alas, there was no such hole. Uncle Slam's mouth covered my entire face, and there was no opening for me to drink through. I tried throwing the water at the mouth, but it was all caught in the mesh that concealed my face. Not one drop made it through. Water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink.

Finally, Chris suggested that I lift the head just enough to fit the bottle underneath. It was a great idea, save for the strap. The higher I lifted the head, the more the strap dug into my windpipe. But I was in dire straits, so I went ahead and lifted. It nearly garroted me, but I was able to get a swallow of water. Never did a single lousy mouthful of water feel so good. I did not pass out.

The end of the parade route was in sight, but it was still three or four blocks off. I was almsot staggering by this point, but I had a duty to the kids, so I kept waving and blowing kisses. My body was on the verge of giving up, but I figured that if I conserved my energy, I could make it.

Suddenly, Chris tapped me on the shoulder. "The reviewing stand is up ahead," he said. "That's where they have the camera. This is where you really want to give it all you've got."

So much for conserving energy.

I saw the camera approaching on my right. I came over and did such dancing as I was still capable of. It's a good thing that there was a permanent smile frozen on Uncle Slam's face, because I certainly wasn't managing one. I kept waving, kept dancing, and waited for the blackout that seemed inevitable.

But then it was over. I'd planned to stay in costume for a bit after the parade was over, spend some more time entertaining the kids, but I couldn't help myself. The minute I finished, I ripped the head off and grabbed the nearest bottle of water. Then another bottle. I was finally free.

One of the groups in front of us had used a trolley in the parade, and they offered us a ride back to our cars. I accepted gratefully. Once inside, I removed the jersey, put the head down, took another drink of water, and accepted the compliments of my friends.

"I'm surprised that none of the kids were frightened," I said. "Some kids are scared of mascots."

"If you wanted to frighten 'em," Don said, "you should have taken off the head and shown them your actual face." I was tempted to make an un-kid-friendly gesture, but I didn't have the energy.

The Dixieland band was on the trolley with us, and they struck up "When the Saints Go Marching In." I started singing along. Pretty soon, the whole trolley was singing. It was a lovely ending to the day.

On Monday, I brought Uncle Slam back home to Woodbridge. Jen was there to receive him. "So, would you do it again, or is this your swan song as a mascot?" she asked.

I pondered for a while. I thought about the kids. I thought about the suffocating heat. I thought about the young women. I thought about the dehydration. I thought about all the people who smiled when they saw me coming. I thought about the muscles that were still sore, two days after the fact.

"Yeah, I'd do it again," I said.

And I would. I liked being Uncle Slam. For all the physical exhaustion, I loved the opportunity to inhabit that outsized personality for a while, to dance in the streets, to wiggle my backside at complete strangers. I wouldn't want to make a career of it, necessarily, but I'm not sorry I had the chance.

And who knows? Maybe next time, I will try going to a bar with the costume on.

Oh, here I am in the costume, in case you were curious:

big gang.jpg

Posted by Mediocre Fred at May 18, 2007 09:54 AM | TrackBack

**GASP** you NEVER take off the head in view of other people. You gotta do that in a back room somewhere.

Challenges and heat stroke notwithstanding, sounds like you had a good time. I take it no kids punched you in the privates?

Posted by: Carl at May 18, 2007 10:57 AM

A girl I once worked with used to work for the Potomac Cannons back in the late '90s, and happened to have been the mascot, Big Shot, a couple of times. She said the exact same thing - it's hot, sweaty and miserable on even a moderately warm day. I can attest to this as well from my own lone mascot experience. The only difference was that she was ready to run screaming from mascot work, whereas I (like you) would do it again.

Oh, and personally I think Big Shot needs to make a return trip and duke it out with Uncle Slam. Best of three falls, no biting, kicking or headbutting.

Posted by: PapaShaft at May 21, 2007 05:24 AM

Carl, point taken. But I had no back room in which to do this, and I was indeed desperate at that point.

PS - I'm totally game for an Uncle Slam/Big Shot rumble. Winner gets to wrestle Screech for mascot duties with the big club.

Posted by: Mediocre Fred at May 22, 2007 01:37 PM

PS: Yes, Carl, my privates remained unpunched, for which I am thankful.

Posted by: Mediocre Fred at May 22, 2007 01:38 PM
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