It’s not every night that a mascot from Major League Baseball calls you, but at 8:45 on Wednesday, that’s exactly what happened. An unknown number popped up on my phone as I lay on my couch watching the Great British Bake Off. I almost didn’t answer it because a) I was enthralled by a collapsing cake and b) a telemarketer out in Arizona keeps reaching out to tell me that I’ve qualified for a small business loan. But for some reason—fate, destiny, divine intervention—I picked up.
“I’m Sluggerrr,” said the voice on the other end of the line. “The mascot for the Kansas City Royals.”
I almost fainted. I’d spent the whole day reaching out to various people Major League Baseball to get the scoop on some top secret, very important meetings. All I knew was that something called the “MLB Mascot Conference” in Kansas City was underway, based on a tweet from Houston Astros’ mascot Orbit that said, “The @MLB Mascot Conference in Kansas City is underway!”
There was no other information online. I could find no clues as to what a Mascot Conference is or what goes on there. All I had were two photos that accompanied Orbit’s tweet. They showed about half of baseball’s biggest—literally largest, save for maybe Giancarlo Stanton or Aaron Judge—characters gathered at Kauffman Stadium. The attendees were 13 of the 30 creatures who’ve clawed their way past high school mascots, college mascots, and mascots in the minors to get to the big leagues and have a seat at the table.
This table was not metaphorical. This table was very real. It was one of those U-shaped, white formica setups native to soulless conference rooms and college classrooms that remind you of being bored to death and freezing cold. But the mascots sitting around it appeared to be having a very productive and enjoyable meeting. Laptops were strewn about, as were pens, pads of paper, and mugs full of coffee (or whatever mascots drink, probably apple juice or whiskey).
The first thing I asked Sluggerrr was how he uses a computer when he only has four fingers and they’re the size of hot dogs.
“I’ve got a very large keypad,” he said. “It’s the Zach Morris phone of laptops.”
Sluggerrr then handed the phone to Brad Collins, who works for the mascot program in Kansas City. Collins explained that the conference began five years ago as a way to bring mascots from all the teams together for a few days so they can learn from each other.
Being a mascot seems simple from the outside—you dance around, move your belly, toss T-shirts into the stands, pose with fans. But it’s actually a deliberate process that involves years of training and development of best practices. It’s also a lonely business; besides mascots from other major sports leagues (the Kansas City Chiefs’ K.C. Wolf is Sluggerrr’s best friend), baseball’s fuzziest guys work alone. They only see their fellow performers once a year during the long season.
“We all get together during All-Star Weekend,” Sluggerr said. “But we’re working two, three, four events a day and we’re spread out all over the host city. We don’t have time to sit down and talk shop or develop ideas that come along in an organic fashion. During the conference we’re talking and shooting videos together without someone looking over our shoulder. We’re not on a time constraint, so we can create content unrestricted.”
Collins said he hopes that more clubs send their mascots to the conference next year. He believes that a well-run mascot program is integral to a team’s success and, ultimately, its profitability.
“It means getting to fans at young age,” he said. “It’s someone to look up to and look out for at games. When you’re between the ages of two and six, you connect to the mascot. You create fans for life at that age, and what’s the value in creating a fan as a kid rest of their life? You can’t put a number on that. On what they’ll spend on tickets, merch. The mascot’s brand is so valuable for a team.”
Sluggerrr explained that at the conference, mascots share dance moves, strategies for interacting with fans, and trade secrets about the most useful technology. He does a lot of events at elementary schools around the greater Kansas City area, and said that this week he learned about the kinds of speaker systems and remote controls other mascots use during assemblies.
Besides live appearance, making high-quality videos and managing social media has become a huge part of the mascot job as well over the past decade. Giving these characters personalities that translate to the internet is as important as consistency in the ballpark itself. Gritty, the Philadelphia Flyers’ new amorphous monster, has put on a masterclass in using Twitter and Instagram to stir up interest and put on a show. Collins has been impressed by the amount of coverage that the Flyers team has been able to drum up.
“They’ve done a tremendous job in getting earned media,” he said. “They’re not paying for any of it. The Flyers have never gotten as much coverage as Gritty’s gotten. They’ve played the social media side of Gritty better than any other team. But now it comes down to making it a viable mascot program and factoring in the community. It has to go beyond being a social media phenomenon and establish something long term.”
Collins and Sluggerrr both hope that the mascot conference grows in the next few years. They believe it’s crucial for new performers to learn from the veterans who’ve been doing this for decades, and for the older guard to pick up some of the younger performers’ enthusiasm and fresh ideas.
“It’s grown each year, and this is the biggest ever,” Collins said. “Hopefully all the teams read your article and send their mascots. The whole point is to have fun—at the end of the day it’s about making people smile, making people laugh, and trying to make a difference.”
I hope so too. The only thing funnier than a pictures of 13 mascots sitting around a table doing very serious work in a conference room is a picture of 27 of them in there. And maybe one day the Dodgers, Yankees, and Angels will wise up and create their own iconic characters. They are delightful and—at least according to mascots themselves—invaluable.