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The Wacky World of Minor League Mascots Arrives at the Winter Meetings

Think it's all just trades and free agents at MLB's Winter Meetings? Think again!

LAS VEGAS — Baseball’s Winter Meetings run on the language of commerce. The conversation is fixed on shopping, bargain hunting, acquiring key assets—and almost all of it is figurative. But Winter Meetings do have a space for the literal purchase of tangible items. Beyond the hypothetical bazaar of free agents, there’s a physical bazaar of … everything else. The event’s accompanying annual baseball trade show is an expo for relevant products and services; it’s a rare spotlight for baseball’s little background practicalities, material as unglamorous as it is necessary. In a hotel ballroom packed with vendors, a team can find equipment for essentially every part of its daily operations: ballpark seats, stadium lighting, giant promotional inflatables, laundry supplies, ticketing software, lemonade.

And, of course, mascot costumes.

The mascot business is competitive, with a slew of companies aiming to provide a perfect balance of form and function. (It’s not enough for a furry suit to be cute, after all; it’s got to have quality ventilation, too.) While major league clubs are the most visible part of the market, it’s minor league organizations that provide the real action. That’s always been true, to a certain extent: MiLB teams regularly switch names and affiliations, creating frequent opportunities for new mascot design. But there’s a contributing factor from a new trend, too. As minor league teams have opted for increasingly wacky names to generate publicity over the last decade or so—hello, Amarillo Sod Poodles and Binghamton Rumble Ponies—they’ve had to grapple with the question of how to design a mascot for a creature that isn’t easily anthropomorphized.

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“I think a lot of it comes from just not wanting to have the same thing that everybody else has,” says Brittany Allen of Alinco Costumes. “And then, you know, another part of it is that they name the team and don’t think, ‘What are we going to use for a mascot now?’ Sometimes, they have something that’s completely unrelated to their name, and everybody’s going, ‘How did they come up with that?’”

Allen points to Alinco’s work for the Hillsboro Hops. The Northwest League club moved cities and changed its name from the Yakima Bears in 2013. Hops—yes, the key ingredient used to brew beer—weren’t exactly easy to represent as a cuddly figure that would go around hugging children and throwing t-shirts. Finally, Allen’s team settled on an answer: Barley the Hop, a green fellow who vaguely resembles his namesake plant and wears a blue baseball cap. “I was going, ‘How in the world are we going to make that? What’s it going to look like when it’s done?’ But it turned out really cute!”

For some teams with unorthodox names, though, there isn’t even an attempt to capture the brand’s spirit in the mascot. Instead, they go with a… thing. Baseball has had ambiguous mascots of unidentified species since the 1978 birth of the Phillie Phanatic, of course, but lately, there’s been a noticeable uptick in the minor leagues—led by organizations whose quirky names would otherwise make mascot design tricky.

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“You’re seeing all these fantasy characters that you don’t really know exactly what they are—they’re just kind of goofy muppets, with a belly that might be moveable. That’s a big trend, and I only see it growing,” says Vanessa Walcott of Olympus Group, whose display featured recent costume work for the Double-A Richmond Flying Squirrels, which picked their flashy team name in 2010. (Mascot Nutsy is designed to be a flying squirrel and a superhero; he has a female partner, and a “top-secret” addition to the family is in the works.)

A team and mascot company typically collaborate on design, and the process can last for months. There’s plenty to consider beyond aesthetics. While mascot work can be difficult in any sport, there are some particular challenges in baseball—outside, in the middle of the summer, in an extremely long season. A costume has to be as cool as possible. Here’s the research and development of the mascot business, and each company approaches it slightly differently. There are internal cooling vests, discreetly placed fans, mesh pouches, moisture-wicking fabric, and more. Beyond that, designers have to anticipate and accommodate the performer’s activity. There was a time when big physical hijinks and stunts were chiefly done by basketball mascots. Not anymore.  

“Even in baseball, they do a lot of flips,” says Asif Saherwala of Loonie Times Custom Mascots & Plush. “When we’re designing the head, we have to make sure that it’s safe.”

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A foam-lined interior helmet is often the key for Loonie Times, whose recent portfolio includes a redesign of the mascot for the High-A Inland Empire 66ers. (Now, he has googly eyes—another big trend right now.) But a company can take every precaution in the book, and the suit will often still have to endure quite a lot.

“You’ll be watching the game on TV, and you’ll see the performer slide headfirst down the stairs, and you’re just like oh my gosh, or they’ll jump in the pool in their costume,” says Allen, whose company is responsible for the Arizona Diamondbacks’ D. Baxter the Bobcat.

An outgoing performer is essential to a mascot’s appeal, but even the most active entertainer can’t overcome an off-putting costume. A crucial part of the design process, then, is making sure that the suit is approachable and doesn’t do anything to stoke potential mascot fears—there are already enough kids who might be afraid. (And a decent number of adults, too, vendors pointed out.)

 “It’s a fine line between fierce and friendly,” says Aubrey Fishman of Street Characters, which has designed the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Pirate Parrot and Texas Rangers’ Captain Horse. “It’s amazing how just a slight change in the eyes and the eyebrows can make a distinctive difference.”

Really, a mascot isn’t too different from any other signing that a team might make at Winter Meetings. Everyone’s looking for the right fit, good physicality, multiple tools, versatility. Just add googly eyes—well, for now. After all, the game’s trendlines are moving all the time.