Aspiring mascots are aware of many of the occupational hazards associated with pulling on a costume for a professional sports team. Those include occasional abuse from rowdy fans, unintentional low blows from adoring children and, of course, the unrelenting heat of the gear. But there are, apparently, certain risks that no one can know about until they've seen the world through the mouth of an oversized plush baseball.
Count being informed about the circumstances in which one would become the target of a "kill shot" by a sniper working with the Secret Service as one of those unexpected parts of the job.
In this excerpt from "Yes, It's Hot in Here: Adventures in the Weird, Woolly World of Sports Mascots," AJ Mass recounts President Bill Clinton's visit to Shea Stadium on April 15, 1997 to commemorate the first Jackie Robinson Day held by Major League Baseball. Currently a professional fantasy sports analyst for ESPN.com, Mass was employed as Mr. Met at the time. It was made quite clear to him by a very serious man in a very dark suit that not even Mr. Met can get too close to the president.
What makes April 15, 1997, so special is that it's the fiftieth anniversary of Jackie Robinson's first major league baseball game. Even someone with only a passing interest in the sport can understand the importance of Robinson's debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers, which marked the end of segregation in major league baseball. Baseball's acting commissioner, Bud Selig, is scheduled to make a presentation to Rachel Robinson, Jackie's widow, on the field after the fifth inning of the game. Recognizing Jackie's importance to the history of not only the sport, but also the country, President Clinton had requested that he, too, be allowed to say a few words in remembrance of Jackie and his achievements.
But even though the commander in chief is in attendance, and the Mets-Dodgers game is in many ways playing second fiddle to the pomp and circumstance surrounding his visit, for the New York Mets' beloved mascot, Mr. Met, the show must go on! As on any other day, I get dressed in my costume and head out to the field for my usual pregame shenanigans. The only problem is that between me and the green grass of the baseball diamond there's one of those newly installed checkpoints, and Mr. Met's head is not only too big to fit through the metal detector, but also has just enough screws and washers and other tiny metal fragments inside of it to trigger the handheld wand that the operator uses to make sure I am "safe" to allow passage.
Of course, once the wand starts beeping, the police officers alongside the machine can't resist taking the opportunity to have a little fun. They ask me to "assume the position" and pretend to treat me as though I have just been caught robbing a bank. They laugh and proceed to vigorously pat me down, then take out their handcuffs and brandish their batons before eventually tiring of the charade, patting me on the rear, and allowing me to go on my way. After taking only a few steps, I hear a young child call my name and turn to wave. It is then that I notice the man in the dark suit looking in my direction. He is clearly not amused by what has just taken place. Quite frankly, the way he's staring at me sends a chill down my spine, so I quickly move onto the field and away from his icy glare.
Prancing and dancing around, signing autographs by the dugout--no easy feat, given the bulky four-fingered mittens that pass for Mr. Met's hands, but it's a skill I've come to master over time--and posing for pictures, I lose myself in my work. This is always my favorite part of the job, interacting with the fans, particularly kids, and getting them to smile. I finish my fifteen minutes on the right-field line and make my way over to the third-base side of the field, where Jimmy Plummer intercepts me.
Jimmy Plummer is the Mets' director of promotions, and usually if he approaches me on the field it's because a corporate sponsor is standing nearby and wants a photo op, or he wants to let me know that he expects me to visit a particular luxury box as soon as possible. As is typical from a member of management, Jimmy never actually speaks to me as if he's talking to a college-educated co-worker who just happens to be dressed up in a mascot costume, but rather as though he's talking to a mentally challenged grade-schooler.
"Now, Mr. Met ... tonight is a special night, okay?" Plummer explains in an annoying singsong. "And we don't want to do anything to disrespect anyone. Now, Mrs. Robinson will be here soon. Do you know who that is?"
This is the start of my fourth season on the job, and I've just been given a desk in a shared office on the press level of the stadium. If Jimmy had any concerns, he had ample opportunity to stop on by or pick up the phone and leave me a voicemail. In a way, it's sort of a compliment. Even people who work alongside me on a daily basis don't see "AJ in a costume," but rather the childlike personality of Mr. Met.
"She's a very important lady, and we don't want to do anything to embarrass her," Jimmy says. "Don't you bother her! You understand, Mr. Met?"
I'm not sure what Jimmy fears I might do. It's not like I have a track record of over-the-line mischief and mayhem. I'm not hiding a whipped cream pie behind my back, waiting for my golden opportunity to show Rachel Robinson who's boss.
Jimmy Plummer has clearly fallen into the trap of forgetting that there's an actual "Mister" inside of Mr. Met. Since I fail to make any wild gesticulations in his direction, I guess he considers my response to be one of agreement that I won't do anything to bother our esteemed guest. But no sooner does Jimmy move on than a female voice rings out from the stands.
"Yoo-hoo, Mr. Met! Over here!"
It's Rachel Robinson, sitting in the front row of the VIP section of box seats, and she beckons me over. With great glee, I run to her and she gives me a big bear hug of an embrace. "There's the man I've been waiting to see," she proclaims, the smile on her face rivaling the size of Mr. Met's own monstrously large grin. "I simply have to have a picture!"
She looks around for someone on the field who can take her photo and finally spots someone she recognizes. "Mr. Plummer! Could you take my picture with this handsome gentleman?"
"Absolutely, Mrs. Robinson. Whatever you need."
Jimmy takes her camera and snaps a few pictures of the two of us, taking extreme care not to make eye contact with me when he's done. Mrs. Robinson gives me a big kiss and we hug again before I continue on my way. Put that in the pantry with your cupcakes, Jimmy!
ONCE THE NATIONAL ANTHEM IS OVER, I join up with the cameraman and a pair of my "bodyguards"--two cute college gals who are doing their best to get through a summer internship by exerting as little effort as possible--and head toward the elevator that will take us to the upper deck.
As we walk, I prepare a revised route in my head: upper deck, down the ramp to the press level and through the Diamond Club, with the cover that we have to check in with Vito Vitiello, the head honcho of the scoreboard control room, who's responsible for directing all of the in-game video and entertainment. We have no need, in reality, to go that way, but our story is plausible and the route just so happens to lead us right past President Clinton's box, where we can easily ask whoever's guarding the door if we can come in for a quick visit. The goal, of course, being the holy grail for all mascots--a photo op and meet and greet with a sitting president. I have no illusion that this will actually work, but buoyed by my experience with Rachel Robinson, I figure it's worth a try. What do I have to lose?
We pass through two more checkpoints, and the comedy routine "Mr. Met is a fugitive from justice" plays itself out again both times. However, at the second checkpoint, there's a fairly long line that stretches out longer and longer as our extended pantomime progresses. While the crowd is highly amused by the antics, there's one person who fails to see the humor. The man in the dark suit is there. I notice this time that he's talking to someone via a tiny microphone on his lapel and listening through an earpiece neatly camouflaged to blend in with his hair. There's no doubt in my mind that he's Secret Service.
His back turned to us, the man in the dark suit extends his arm in our path, and we pause while he finishes up his conversation. He then wheels around and speaks to us in a very businesslike fashion. "Mr. Met," he says, "here's the deal. You do whatever it is you normally do and go about your business as usual. We won't bother you anymore. I've made it clear that you no longer need to be searched at the checkpoints. Okay?"
I slowly nod my head, though not because of any mascot code of silence--no mascot worth his salt is going to be heard talking while in costume--but rather because this man exudes such an aura of authority when he speaks that I simply can't muster up the courage to make even the slightest sound.
"Now listen to me very carefully," he goes on, and as he continues to speak, he does something that nobody else has ever done in all my years as Mr. Met. He isn't looking up, as everyone automatically does when talking to me. Most people, out of habit, make eye contact with the person they are talking to, even if the person appears to be a giant living baseball. I've gotten used to seeing people's necks when they address me, as they crane to meet what appears to be my gaze.
But the man in the dark suit is staring directly into the recess of Mr. Met's mouth, knowing full well that even though he isn't able to see inside, it's exactly where I am looking out from. It's hard to explain how utterly creeped out I am by this. The closest thing I can compare it to is the opening scene of the movie Scream, in which Drew Barrymore's character answers what she thinks is a harmless crank call and the strange voice on the other end innocently asks her what her name is. When she playfully asks why he wants to know, the voice says menacingly, "Because I want to know who I'm looking at!" In an instant, Drew knows she's in a whole lot of trouble. That's exactly the vibe I'm starting to get from the man in the dark suit. Needless to say, he has my full attention.
"We have snipers all around the stadium, just in case something were to happen," he says. "Like I said, do whatever it is you normally do. Nobody will bother you. But approach the president, and we go for the kill shot. Are we clear?"
He pauses for a moment to let the words sink in, and it feels like he isn't only looking into my eyes, but also into my very soul with his blank, unblinking stare. Then he says the same thing again, only a little bit slower this time, making sure I know his warning is not in any way to be misconstrued as some sort of gag. He's dead serious, and if I don't believe him, then I'll be dead--seriously.
"Approach the president, and we go for the kill shot," he repeats. "ARE--WE--CLEAR?"
Reprinted from “Yes, It’s Hot in Here” by AJ Mass. Copyright (c) 2014 by AJ Mass. By permission of Rodale Books. Available wherever books are sold.