I've had good jobs and bad jobs over the years. When I was a kid, I was a paperboy, a janitor, and had a blackmarket pornography ring (that's a whole other story). But far and away the WORST job I've ever had were the two seasons I spent as the mascot for our local minor-league ball club, the Duluth Superior Dukes.
This is the story of my first season in the suit.
For the 35 home games that summer in 1996, I was the kid inside “Homer Hound,” a dog dressed in a baseball uniform. The crowds loved Homer. He was big, furry and goofy, and he always had a pen handy for autographs. Adults thought it was fun to offer him sips of their beer, babies screamed in terror anytime he approached, and little kids loved kicking him in the balls.
This last part was not listed in the job description. I know because I double-checked one day while I was taking a break, an ice-cold green Powerade pressed against my throbbing testicles. The job required me to participate in the dizzy-bat race, dance to every song on Jock Jams, and never, under any circumstances, remove my papier-mâché head in front of children. It did not say anything about standing still so little Timmy could line up his nut shot.
I don’t know what it is about people dressed up like giant stuffed animals that makes kids want to boot them in the junk. I had a bed full of actual stuffed animals as a kid, and never once did I flick them in the groin. All I wanted to do with my Care Bears was hug them. But, for some reason, no kid wanted to hug Homer Hound. They just wanted to turn him sterile.
I had been in the suit for only two weeks before I started wearing a nut cup. The final straw had been the previous night, when one 8-year-old followed me around the entire game, swinging his foot up into my crotch every time he could get off a clear kick. After the 7th inning stretch, as I left the field and headed back into the stands, I saw him waiting for me, one grubby hand gripping the chain link fence, the other holding a cone full of orange sherbet that was dripping down his arm. He was grinning.
I did my best to avoid him, heading up into the stands and signing every baseball I could find, hoping that I’d be safe in the crowd. But I couldn’t hide up there forever. I had already chugged five bottles of Powerade and if I didn’t pee soon I’d be in trouble. The opposing team’s pitcher had just loaded the bases, and I knew it wouldn’t be long before the coach brought in some relief from the bullpen and I would be forced to prance around the infield to keep the crowd entertained during this lull in the action.
I headed for the concessions area, dodging around families loaded down with nachos, sodas and beer, trying to keep some distance between myself and my tiny, testicle-obsessed pursuer. I darted into the break room mere steps ahead of him, slamming the door in his pudgy, dirty face. Once inside, I took off the head and undid the costume, wincing as I pulled it down past my waist. I stuffed a towel into my shorts to give myself some padding and got back into the suit. I settled the head back on my shoulders, giving my eyes a second to adjust to the tunnel vision created by staring out through two small ovals covered in black mesh. Then I opened the door, twisting my hips as I did so, causing the kid’s first nut shot to bounce harmlessly off the side of my thigh. I ruffled his hair a little rougher than I probably should’ve, knocking his head back and forth like a bobblehead doll, and headed for the stands.
I lost him for a little bit. The game headed into the 11th inning and I hadn’t seen him since the 9th. I was beginning to relax. Which was exactly what he wanted. As I rounded the corner heading into the concessions area, he hauled off and buried his foot into my crotch with every last ounce of strength. The towel did absolutely nothing to absorb the impact as the strength went out of my legs and I dropped to one knee, holding onto the railing to keep myself from face planting.
And then he laughed. He laughed hard. And he wasn’t alone. I looked up to find a small audience assembled around me. Young couples buried their faces in each other’s shoulders, trying to hide their smiles. A father spit out his soda and choked back chuckles, wiping bits of foam from his mustache. And there he was, standing in the center of them, laughing and pointing at me.
It was like they had forgotten there was a human being inside this suit. Not a single person chastised him for what he had done or even gave him so much as a disapproving look. They had all seen America’s Funniest Home Videos. They knew nut shots were funny stuff. If anything, they wanted to give the kid a high-five for entertaining them as the game continued to drag on well past the time they closed down the beer tent. Nobody was stepping up to let this kid know that it wasn’t okay to physically assault someone just because they’re wearing a dog costume.
So I took matters into my own hands.
I got up, grabbed the kid by his shirt collar and lifted him into the air. I’m ashamed to admit I smiled as he let out a terrified yelp when he realized he was several feet off the ground, dangling by his J.C Penny poly-blend. I leaned in close, ignoring the protests from the people whom moments ago had been laughing at my testicles being banged about, and whispered in his ear.
“You ever kick me in the balls again, and you’ll regret it. Maybe not right away, but someday soon. Just remember this: You have no idea what I look like.”
I’m not proud of this. Not at all. I mean, the kid was 8 years old. But he had kicked Homer Hound in the neuter spot one too many times, and I sort of lost my mind.
I set him back down and went right into the general manager’s office. He would hear what had happened soon enough, and I figured it would be better if it came from me. To his credit, he didn’t fire me. He didn’t even punish me. He just laughed.
“Andy, I probably would’ve done the same thing,” he said, wiping tears from his eyes. “Now, I’m not saying I want this to become a habit, but the good thing about this job is very few people actually know who you are. So if there are any complaints about what you did, I’ll tell them I fired the guy who did it and got a replacement. And they’ll never know that it’s still you in the suit. That said ...”
He reached over, plucked a new jock strap from a pile of team equipment, and tossed it to me. I may just name my first-born after that man, as he’ll probably be largely responsible for keeping me fertile.
Now that my testicles were safe, the job sucked less. But it still sucked plenty. The costume I wore was not made of any type of material that breathed or wicked moisture. The head was papier-mâché and the body was a baseball uniform lined with faux fur. It was like wrapping myself up in aluminum foil and standing under a heat lamp.
And the material also couldn’t be cleaned. They had tried dry cleaning it once, and the fur had come back matted and dreadlocked. I spent an entire afternoon picking at it with a comb and had gotten it to a point where it at least looked presentable, but Homer Hound was no longer the fluffy fun dog he once was. Now he looked like he should be staring at you from a cage while Sarah McLachlan sang in the background.
By mid-July Homer Hound had started to stink. The head sweat and moisture from my breath had started to seep into the papier-mâché, and tell-tale spots of mold were beginning to appear inside the head, where I spent a good portion of my breathing time. The rest of the suit had developed a sweet sour milk smell that the slightest breeze would amplify, setting noses all around me to crinkling. Thankfully, most people assumed it was their seat neighbor or their own kid who stunk, since nobody wanted to believe that funny dog who had just kicked dirt on the umpire could smell so much like death.
I should also confess that I made things worse. See, it was my responsibility to take care of Homer Hound when the team was out of town. What that meant to me was balling up the sweat-soaked costume, stuffing it into a black garbage bag and leaving it in my trunk all week. By August I couldn’t put it on without gagging.
But I kept putting it on, because the money was good. And not just the money I got for performing at home games. No, the really good mascot money comes from special appearances. For some reason, lots of organizations in town thought that the only thing that would ensure their event’s success was a visit from the matted, stinky dog from the ballpark. I got sent out for a lot of these. Sometimes it was a birthday party, others a ribbon-cutting ceremony, but they paid triple what I made on game nights and I was only too happy to oblige. Plus, since Homer lived in a garbage bag in my trunk he was easily transportable.
The biggest special appearance Homer and I ever booked was for the annual Home Show. Once a year the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center (or DECC if you’re awesome), hosted this massive event. The entire complex was packed with exhibitors showcasing the latest and greatest products for your home. I was supposed to plant myself by the main entrance, waving and smiling and posing for pictures. I would be paid more for this one gig than I would make in a month of home games. So I took Homer out of the trunk and stepped into the DECC bathrooms to change.
The funk was pretty strong by this time. Confined in the bathroom, it was concentrated and acrid, and my eyes watered as put the head on. I hoped, however, that out in the massive DECC complex the smell would dissipate and I would be able to do this one last job and then figure out some way to clean it.
I took my post near the front entrance, smiling and waving at the crowd. The merchants from the stalls behind me came up and shook my hand, some of them posing for pictures. I noticed some of them crinkling their noses, but I tried to put the thought out of my head.
I wandered around my area, coming up with witty silent bits to perform with the various products being offered for sale. I gave myself a vigorous back massage with a feather duster. I ‘squirted’ a bottle of some orange-colored liquid in Homer’s mouth to freshen his breath. I was pretty good at this stuff by now, and the crowd was eating it up. There was only one stand where I couldn’t come up with a bit.
The table closest to my position at the entrance was showcasing a new product that sucked smells out of rooms. To demonstrate the product, they had a canister with their product inside next to some moldy, rotten cheese. They had a fan blowing the smell out toward the visitors, and they were supposed to marvel at how clean the air smelled. But they hadn't planned on being stationed next to Homer Hound: The Dog Who Smelled Like Barf.
They hadn’t sold a single thing. Over the course of the afternoon, I could see them growing increasingly frustrated and angry. They couldn’t figure out what was going on. A heavy-set guy in his 50’s hunched over the display, sniffing the air and fiddling with the wires. Still the people kept coming. They’d shake my hand or give me a high-five, wrinkle up their noses, and then point at the giant hunk of moldy cheese, identifying it as the culprit. When I finally realized what was happening, I decided it was best to beat a hasty retreat.
I was just about to dart back into the bathroom to transform back into mild-mannered Andy when the heavy-set guy figured it out too. He stood, grabbed me by the arm and pulled me in close, taking a big whiff.
“It’s you!” he shouted, waving at his co-workers. “It’s the dog! The dog’s the thing that smells so damn bad!”
I peered out through my tiny mesh eye-holes and saw mothers pulling their kids back from me in horror. The crowd was parting around me, leaving me and the heavy-set dude alone in our own little private circle of DECC floor space.
“What’s your name?” he demanded.
I pointed at the embroidery on my uniform that read “Homer Hound.”
“Who’s your supervisor?” he asked.
I shrugged my shoulders and pretended to look in my pockets for my supervisor.
“Okay smart-ass, you need to step away from my stand, before I call the office of your little ball club there and report you.”
I nodded, gave him a furry thumbs-up, and grabbed my bag full of clothes, not even bothering to change. At that moment I was cherishing the cloak of anonymity provided by my costume.
I climbed into my car with Homer’s head still on, fired up the engine and peeled out of the DECC parking lot. Once I’d waved at the confused parking lot attendant and had been swallowed up by traffic, I took the head off. At least now nobody could see who was inside the suit.
My boss did hear about this incident, and he made me bring Homer in for a sniff test. He sniffed, he gagged and he told me that Homer should retire for the rest of the season, since there was only a week left anyway. They’d figure out how to get the suit cleaned so it was ready for me next season.
Next season. I hadn’t even considered doing it for another summer. I told him I needed to think about it and he said he understood.
They let me keep my food discount for that final week, even though I wasn’t working. So I headed down to the stadium for the final game of the season. The concession workers knew my secret identity, and they piled the extra cheese and jalapenos on my nachos for me with a wink and a smile. I headed into the stands then, past the season ticket holders, the strange rag-tag group of fans who loved their minor league ball so much they came to every single home game. It was strange to walk past these people whom I knew so well, realizing they had no clue who I was without my furry costume.
I sat in the stands and cheered for my team, laughing with the crowd during the dizzy bat race, and singing my heart out during the 7th inning stretch. It was right before the final out of the season, that final Dukes win, that I realized I was coming back. There’s just something about outdoor baseball in the summertime.
Maybe it’s the fact that all that fresh air keeps the mold smell away.