If you read last week's blog, you'll remember that I spent TWO seasons as a mascot for the Duluth Superior Dukes. I've already told you how year one went. Here's the story of year two, and the story of the single most embarrassing thing that has ever happened to me ... so far.
When the next summer rolled around I decided against my better judgement that - rather than work in a movie theater or at the local K-Mart - I should endure another season as Homer Hound: The Dog Who Smells Like Barf.
In early April I put a call in to the general manager of the Duluth-Superior Dukes, asking him if I could come down and try on the suit again, just to get a feel for him. That weekend, I had my dad drop me off at the Holiday Center in downtown Duluth and headed into the Dukes offices. There, in a back room, tucked between boxes of plastic nacho trays and jugs of popcorn oil, was Homer Hound.
And he looked good. Whatever they had done to clean him during the off-season had worked. His furry arms and legs were no longer fluffy and tangled. His permanently wagging tongue had been painted a lovely fresh shade of pink, and the tear in his big, floppy ear had been patched up. I couldn’t wait to get back in the suit.
Only problem was, whatever they had done to clean the suit had also shrunk the suit. Homer didn’t fit all that well. I mean, I could zip and button everything, but it was a little ... bulgy. I pointed this out to my boss and he said something about how dry cleaning doesn’t shrink fabric, but I was too busy licking Cheetos dust of my fingers and wondering about what I was going to have for second dinner to hear him.
I assured him everything would stretch out in the next month or so between opening day, and changed back into my street clothes. On my way out I asked him if our arrangement was still the same: $40 a game and free concessions. He paused for a moment, his eyes darting down to my stomach and back to the costume.
“Well, let’s start out with just free Powerade, and go from there. We’re trying to keep food costs down this season.”
Hardball. Okay, well two can play that game. I would just have to show off the new tricks I'd been working on in the off-season to get those pretzels and hot dogs back on the bargaining table. No problem there. It was setting up to be another lovely summer at the ballpark.
And then it happened.
I got the call one typical Tuesday afternoon. It was a little over two weeks away from opening day, and I was in my room, practicing out a new routine I called “The Pre-game Pump Up” when the phone rang. It was my boss, the general manager. I could hear something was off in his voice as soon as I picked up. But I was wholly unprepared for the news.
Homer Hound was dead.
My boss spun me a yarn about how Homer was loaded into the back of a pickup truck and was being transported to the field when the pickup truck hit a pothole, Homer flew out of the truck bed and was run over by a car. He described in detail the gory mass of papier-mâché littering the highway. And I didn’t buy any of it. I kept flashing back to the way the costume bulged when I had tried it on. At the way my boss’ eyes had flicked down to my gut before telling me that I couldn’t have free food anymore.
They had killed Homer Hound because I was too fat to wear him.
A brand-new mascot had been ordered and would be at the stadium for opening day. They were planning a big unveiling involving a go-kart and some sparklers. They were very excited about the new mascot and wanted me to be excited too. But I couldn’t help but feel that Homer would still be with us if I had taken it easy on the nachos last season.
I saw the new mascot costume for the first time on opening day, mere hours before the big reveal. They had let me in the stadium early to try it on and break it in. It was a monkey made of foam and cotton. It breathed well and kept me a lot cooler than Homer. It also had some serious space in the gut area, so much so that I had to add a fake foam stomach just to fill it out. I had room to grow in this costume. Which is why it didn’t surprise me when they told me I could have free food again.
But, he was tubby and goofy where Homer had been athletic and cool. I couldn't help but feel the mascot was what made the man, and this big monkey only served to remind me that I'd had to move up a jeans size this year.
“What’s his name?” I asked. I felt a lot like I did that time my mom brought Stan, her new ‘friend’ over for dinner. I hated this monkey, no matter how nice he was.
And the worst part? The monkey didn’t even have a name. They were planning on having a contest to name him, with the winner getting season tickets. So I had gone from being Homer Hound, the athletic dog that all the kids loved, to a fat, anonymous monkey.
“What am I supposed to write on the baseballs?” I asked. Signing autographs was a huge part of my job, and the naming contest wasn’t ending until the 4th of July weekend, so I’d be spending nearly two months nameless.
“Why don’t you sign it spank?” said the concessions manager, who liked beer and monster trucks way too much.
“Spank? Why that?” I asked.
“You know, ‘Spank the Monkey,’” he replied, barely getting it out before erupting into fits of laughter that shook the hot dog bun crumbs down the slope of his beer gut.
I put the costume on then, largely to drown out the sounds of laughter, and headed out to my go-kart. Tucked safely under the stands, I waited for the announcer to introduce me to the fans. When the moment finally came, I fired up the engine and putt-putted my way around the warning track, waving one giant furry monkey paw. The fans loved the new monkey, even if he wasn’t as cool as Homer Hound.
The opening day game was a doozy. The Dukes were taking on the St. Paul Saints, the reigning champions of our league. And in the off-season, they had added one very powerful player: Darryl Strawberry.
Darryl Strawberry was one of the most dominant players in Major League Baseball in the 80s and early 90s. He had already won a World Series when the league suspended him for cocaine use. He had signed with the Saints to rehabilitate, and his appearance on our field had caused quite a stir in our little city.
He was stretching and joking with his teammates as I made my lap around the field in my go-kart. I parked near them and hopped out, jogging over to get some high-fives from the Saints players. I knew the crowd was watching and I sensed an opportunity. I collected the high-fives, and then, when I got to Darryl Strawberry, I pulled my hand back at the last second.
It was what us kids called a ‘psyche!’
I could hear the crowd laughing from my spot in the outfield. But Darryl wasn’t laughing. He just starred at me for a second, then turned to his teammates.
“Looks like the monkey put on a few pounds in the off-season, huh?” he joked, making them all crack up.
I stood there for a moment, too stunned to move. A future hall of famer had just called me fat. So I did the only thing I could think of. I fought back by mumbling a retort through my fat, foam head.
“I may be fat, but you have a cocaine addiction, and I can go on a diet.”
He froze then and turned back to me, getting out a single, “What?” before I was back in the go-kart and heading for the friendly confines of the stands.
It was going to be a long season.
And it was. July 4th came and went and the best name anyone had come up with was “Duke Ape.” That brilliant bit of brainstorming got someone season tickets, and did little to stem the tide that was sweeping through the stands. Word had gotten out about my other name. The season ticket holders had heard about it from the concessions manager, who had then slowly started passing it around. It spread like a virus, radiating out from their spot behind home plate. Soon, teenagers were clamoring for my autograph, but demanding I sign it “Spank the Monkey,” not “Duke Ape.”
I combated this with the same technique I had been employing since elementary school: I ate my feelings. Ballpark concessions are not known for their nutritional value and it wasn’t long before I found myself increasingly glad that there was substantial room in the costume for my substantial gut. By the time August rolled around, and with it an oppressive heat wave, I was up 10 pounds.
The weather that August was hot and humid, alternating between powerful thunderstorms and blistering days of cloudless sun. It was the kind of weather that made you feel like you were breathing through a damp sweater all the time. And this combination of rain and sun meant we had a lot of home games rained-out. Which meant we had to re-schedule them. Which meant a lot of double-headers.
Normally, I loved double-headers. I made twice as much money, got to eat twice as much food, and since it was a longer shift, they let me take longer breaks. Normally, this was all excellent news to me. But that August, with temperatures in the mid-90s with humidity levels to match, all a double-header meant was the opportunity to sweat through three pairs of boxer shorts while flirting with heat exhaustion.
The morning of my final shift as the Duluth-Superior Dukes’ fat monkey was a scorcher. By 9:00 a.m. the needle on the thermometer outside my mom’s kitchen window was already at 90 degrees. I filled up a water bottle and pulled my bike out of the garage, dreading the 8 hours between now and when I would tuck it back in for the night. By the time I got to the field house I had already sweat through my t-shirt. I uncapped what I was sure would be the first of many Powerades, headed into the supply closet where the fat monkey was stored ... and transformed.
I got through the first game well enough. It was a textbook pitching duel and the innings flew by. I barely had time to sign a few baseballs, dodge a nut punch and slam a tray of nachos before the next obnoxious mid-inning promotion required my fat monkey dancing. But it was immediately following the first game that things took a turn for the worse.
Suddenly, the heavens opened in a spectacular summer sun shower. Where all this rain was coming from I had no clue, but it was quickly soaking the field. As the grounds crew raced to cover the infield, they ordered me out on to home plate. The weather forecast predicted this would be over quickly and they were still going to try and get the second game of the double-header in. But my boss was worried about losing fans during the downpour, so he put Jock Jams on repeat and made me go shake my fat foam ass.
But the weather forecast was wrong. It rained – and rained hard. At one point, having already run through my limited dance moves – the twist, the cabbage patch and the Macarena – several times, I decided to turn the tarp covering the infield into a giant Slip ‘N’ Slide. This was easily the most fun I ever had in the mascot suit. It was also an incredibly stupid idea.
As soon as the rain stopped the sun returned with a vengeance, burning off the moisture in the air. By the time they were getting ready to throw out the first pitch for the second game of the double-header, my suit was smoking. And inside, I was roasting.
And it was time for the “Pre-game Pump Up.” My new routine was a big hit and it had come to be an anticipated way to kick off the game. All it consisted of was me jumping up on the dugouts and rattling the chain link fences before heading to home plate to pump my fist to the beat of whatever Jock Jams song currently blaring through the speakers. I had just hopped down from the second dugout and was heading for home plate when it happened. All that rain had turned the area behind home plate into mud quicksand. And I stepped in it and twisted my knee nearly 180 degrees. The pain was intense and immediate. And through a combination of that pain and my heat exhaustion, I blacked out. On home plate. In front of 5,000 fans.
I’m not certain how long I was out, but I woke up to the pungent aroma of smelling salts. I fluttered my eyelids open and saw the home plate umpire staring down at me, concerned.
“You okay, kid?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I muttered. “Yeah, I think so.”
I sat up then, my back facing the stands. The entire ball field was splayed out in front of me. Well, what I could see of it anyway. Most of the field was obscured from view by the ball players. Both benches had cleared and come to my aid. This was not good.
“How long was I out?” I asked.
“Well, at first I think we all thought it was a bit or something,” the umpire said. “But then you didn’t get up.”
My face flushed with embarrassment, and I realized to my horror that my fat monkey head had fallen off at some point. Careful to keep my face turned away from the stands, I felt around for it.
“I need my head,” I told the umpire.
“Uh-uh. No way. Too damn hot in that thing.”
“The kids. They can’t see me without my head.” This wasn’t the real reason I wanted my head, of course. I just didn’t want to face the fans without my comfortable shroud of anonymity.
A couple of the players lifted me up then, and spun me around. All 2,000 fans were on their feet. A good number of kids were either crying or burying their faces into their parents’ legs. When the players stood me up and turned me to face them, they took a collective breath in. After a moment, I waved a fat monkey paw to signal that I was okay.
And then, all 2,000 fans began to clap. Slowly. But building in intensity until it was a full-out standing ovation. As they carried me off the field, my fat monkey arms draped around the shoulders of a player from each team, I locked eyes with the season ticket holders, who were all giving me the thumbs up. A few of their eyes were still wet with tears.
A more self-confident person would have found this endearing and more than a little silly. I, however, found this incredibly depressing. Now everyone knew the face of the kid who danced like a jackass for $40 and some nachos. I’d never again get to sit in the stands after the 7th inning stretch, enjoying a cold soda and the end of the game without anyone knowing my secret identity.
As I lay on the trainer’s table in the Dukes locker room, my knee being examined by their team doctor, I realized that maybe things weren’t that bad. Only the people at this game had seen this incredibly embarrassing moment in my incredibly embarrassing life. And those who had seen me without my fat monkey head hadn’t gotten that good of a look. None of my family or friends ever had to know.
The next morning, I woke up and grabbed the paper to see if the Dukes had pulled off a victory or not. They were close to earning a playoff birth, which meant more money and hot dogs for me. I opened the sports section and saw they had, indeed, pulled out the victory. That was good.
The smile vanished from my face, however, when I continued reading the box score and saw that the team mascot had been added to the injured player’s list. And now the mascot had a name beyond “Duke Ape” or “Spank the Monkey.” A name that everyone would no doubt quickly adopt as the official name for the mascot, asking me to sign that on the baseballs from now on.
I closed the sports section and opened to the want ads. It was time to find a new job.
SPECIAL BLOG BONUS: I made this guys' list of the 5 worst sports injuries he's ever seen in person. And while he gets a few details wrong (I WAS TRAINED!), it's nice to know I made an impression...