Competing at Nationals Park requires raw talent. But for a select group of athletes, it requires something more: a sense of balance and an even better sense of humor.
On a cloudless Saturday morning over Presidents Day weekend, 57 men and women vied to join the elite ranks of the Racing Presidents, the Washington Nationals’ famous mascot squad.
Dressed head-to-toe in athletic gear — running tights, baggy shorts, college sweatshirts — the competitors stretched their quads and hamstrings as they waited for their turn to show the Nationals entertainment staff what they’re made of.
“It’s all psychological, right?” said one guy, waiting anxiously for his turn to get in costume.
The mild February morning was, as one staff member described, “mascot weather.” The sun glared from white tarps covering the field’s new grass.
The group gathered below the center-field scoreboard. Facing an empty announcer’s box, surrounded by tiers of unfilled seats, many got the sense that, at least for baseball fans, they were standing on sacred ground.
“I don’t want to say this is a dream come true or anything, but, you know ...” said Danny, a Georgetown University student.
Let Teddy Win
The Racing Presidents, as any Nats fan will tell you, aren’t your typical mascots. In the middle of the fourth inning of each home game, the four oversized Mount Rushmore bobbleheads — George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt — run about 200 yards in a race that fans across the country have come to adore.
It’s a comedy skit based around Teddy’s inability to win. He’s tried zip-lining to the finish line. He’s used a Segway. But, after six seasons on the field, he just hasn’t caught a break.
The star mascot didn’t even show up for tryouts. According to Tom Davis, the team’s entertainment manager, Teddy was “taking his annual Presidents Day vacation.”
The focus, instead, was on the contestants. Davis said he was looking for athletes who clearly “like to have fun” and can “exaggerate and make big moves.”
Sounds simple enough. But competing for a piece of the presidential glory is no easy task.
The finalists on the field were selected from a pool of about 300 applicants. All had to submit résumés, cover letters, pictures and answers to “six mascot-related questions.”
The Saturday morning tryouts included a 40-yard dash, two races from center field to the home dugout, a freestyle dance and a victory pose — all while wearing a 12-foot-tall, 45-pound costume. On top of that, the contestants each faced a panel interview with members of the Nationals game operation staff.
Despite the high stakes, the contestants appeared calm and confident as they waited for their turn to suit up. They cheered on their fellow competitors.
“Dig deep,” yelled a man from the crowd as the first contestant, dressed as Washington, got in place for the 40-yard dash. “You gotta want it.”
“Hey, T.J., are you going to need mouth-to-mouth?” Davis said as a contestant, dressed as Jefferson, kneeled from exhaustion after crossing the finish line.
Even the most talented runners had trouble staying upright in the top-heavy costumes. To avoid face-planting in the outfield dirt, many of them ran with their arms swinging from side to side, just trying to keep their balance.
Bill, director of a homeless shelter in Southeast D.C., said the best way to avoid falling was to “lean back” while sprinting.
But Patrick, who had just taken off his Abe costume, had a different strategy. “I could only see a couple steps in front of me,” he said. He let the other mascots step in front of him at the beginning to help guide his way to the finish line.
And for the freestyle dance portion of the competition? “I just used what worked out on the dance floor last night,” he said.
‘The Best Job in the World’
But the tryouts didn’t end there. After the finalists removed their costumes, they were led across the field, through a tunnel and into the visiting team’s clubhouse for their personal interviews.
Empty lockers lined the room where A.J., a recent college graduate, sat in front of a panel of Nationals staff members. It’s a setting most sports fans know from watching post-game interviews.
To begin the interview, the panel members asked a few easy questions, such as why the contestant wanted the job.
“There’s just something about being on the ball field,” A.J. said, describing how he loves “seeing the lights” and feeling the energy.
The Racing Presidents, he said, “bring a different level of performance” than other mascots in Major League Baseball.
The panel tested his aptitude for improv comedy by asking him to respond to a hypothetical situation: Imagine you’re at the club, and some guy walks up to you and starts a dance-off. How would you react?
“Oh, I’d start with the grocery cart, and then maybe throw in a dishwasher,” he said, leaping up from his seat and performing each of the dance moves. If prompted, he said, he’d toss in a few “hater blockers.”
The entertainment crew laughed. Then they directed him to pick an object from a junk pile that, among other items, included a shovel, a jump rope and a green feather boa.
He chose an orange traffic cone. The challenge: Use it as a prop.
A.J. began by tipping the cone upright and spinning it as a top. And then, with the room erupting in laughter, he placed the cone on his body in a way not fit to fully report in a family newspaper.
Before the interview ended, the panel gave A.J. an opportunity to ask questions.
“What’s it like?” he asked earnestly.
“It’s the best job in the world,” one of the crew members said. He wore a bright red blazer and had a tall can of Red Bull within reach. “All of the attention is on you,” he added. “It’s an adrenaline rush.”
But the guy sitting next to him offered a dose of reality. “There are glamorous parts, and there are unglamorous parts,” he said, noting that the mascots are required to run, fully costumed, in the brutal summer heat.
And then A.J. asked the question that he had clearly been dying to ask: “Do the presidents ever make Not Top Ten [video highlights] on ESPN Sports Center?”
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.