My life as a dog

The Monitor's Seth Stern dons a dog suit at mascot boot camp, where he learns to play charades and make his belly roll.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Scampering down the street, I lower my snout to the ground and sniff a fire hydrant.

No, I'm not looking for a bathroom - though it wouldn't be out of character, given that I am dressed as a dalmatian.

As Scoop, the Monitor newshound, I'd reported for training at Mascot Boot Camp at the University of Delaware two days earlier, my tail wagging and paws held high.

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I'm a big baseball fan with a photo album full of pictures of me posing with mascots at stadiums nationwide. This is my chance to prove I, too, can make it in the big leagues.

It isn't quite like spring training. Instead of push-ups and batting practice, I'm playing charades with large stuffed animals. But for someone with the dance moves of a wooden board, the thought of performing at a halftime show seems as daunting as a 96-mile-an-hour fastball.

Not to say mascots have it easy. The job is a mix of cheerleader, clown, cartoon character, and comedian. It's all physically taxing. A fellow trainee's dragon costume weighs 45 pounds. Aptly, his character's name is Heater.

Even in my lightweight costume, I'm sweating. Imagine a baseball stadium in August. Mascots say they can lose 10 pounds in a single game.

"People think you're just running around," says Michael Walsh, who portrays Rapidman for the Colorado Rapids soccer team. "They don't realize how hot it is, how much it can weigh, how ... in shape you have to be."

Victor Thomas, the dragon, says he'll hug 1,000 people and give 560 high-fives at a typical minor-league baseball game in Dayton, Ohio. Each season, fans spill an average of 35 beers on him and ask him to help with 16 marriage proposals.

Before arriving at boot camp, I rented a dog costume and practiced a few dance steps set to "Funkytown" in the newsroom. Sure, the editor-in-chief stared at me oddly. Writing with four paws proved nearly impossible. And looking down required scrunching up my shoulders like some sad hunchbacked puppy.

That's just a dog's life.

But my confidence really sinks as I suit up with my 15 fellow recruits, including Heater and Buddy, a purple bat from Louisville, Ky. They sport bigger heads and tails. Their muscles bulge and pot bellies roll. They bring signature moves like bouncing antlers and wormy head gyrations. All I have are a few faded spots and eyebrows drawn on with a magic marker.

It doesn't take long for me, the rookie, to earn my first demerit: going out in the hall half-dressed. "Never walk around in public without your head on," a veteran mascot warns. "It's either all in or all out."

In real life, the dragon is a special-education teacher, and the assorted other creatures include a professor, a mortgage broker, and a guy from Maine studying to be a funeral director. Only two are women.

Mr. Walsh has just graduated from the University of Colorado, where he was a mascot, and he now dreams of reaching the NBA. "My mom thinks it's crazy. My dad thought I'd grow out of it, but I still haven't," says Walsh, who fantasizes about parachuting in costume into a stadium on opening day.

I just want to make it through our first assignment: performing my skit in front of the class. I wag my tail. I do the robot. I hit my nose with a rolled up newspaper. The crowd claps politely.

Boot-camp organizer Dave Raymond, a former Philly Phanatic, gently tells me during the group critique that it's not easy choreographing a dance routine. On a scale from a high of 1 to a low of 5, one generous mascot gives me mostly 2s. Others are less kind. "Good work for a reporter," one writes.

Watching others strut, I realize a good routine is less about choosing the perfect dance step and more about what you do with your body. Most mascots don't speak - beyond an occasional "yo" - so they use their feet and hands to express emotions.

My Snoopy-like ears are my best asset. I can cover my eyes to express fear or hold them straight up when excited. Of course, it also helps to dance well. And as Raymond points out, I have no rhythm. Still, he says I can make it part of my shtick: the mascot everyone laughs at.

The real instruction begins on Day 2, a combination of lectures and bizarre exercises. In pairs, we run at each other until we're barely a nose apart, scream, and then stare at each other without flinching.

It's supposed to get us used to having people in our personal space. We do improvisational moves. A skilled mascot can switch instantly from imitating a machine-gunner to dancing the macarena.

Each mascot also needs a distinct personality. So we're ordered to write a biography for our characters. Jeff Byrd, who plays Buck the deer for an Iowa minor-league baseball team, talked about his Aunt Bambi and a visit to Buckingham Palace.

He's less talkative about his role as a deer around his students at University of Northern Iowa, where he teaches performance art and photography. "My work is really serious ... stuff," Mr. Byrd says.

A distinctive walk is key. I work out a cute dog walk, little steps paced with exaggerated arm motions. I practice my walk during my public debut, when Raymond asks us to amuse the crowd at a children's swim meet nearby. I'm nervous, but a padded belly improves my looks. Kids pet my belly. They scratch behind my ears.

By now, I'm getting better in the role. I can write normally with my paws. When someone asks me a question, I shake my head rather than speak.

There's definitely an appeal to donning a fuzzy suit and clowning around in public. "It's your chance to let loose, your chance to perform and no one knows who you are," says Pat McNamara, a YoUDee mascot for the University of Delaware.

We begin intense preparations for our evening performance at a women's volleyball game - a dance routine involving Frank Sinatra's "Strangers in the Night" and "Get Down Tonight." For a finale, we'll spray party string all over Raymond.

Even under ideal conditions, my feet and hands don't want to move together. Add the costume, and it's a disaster. I'm taken aside for some remedial lessons and still relegated to the end of the line.

When halftime comes, I hit my head on the door and am completely out of step. But I manage to bounce and move my arms more like a cartoon. At the end, the crowd cheers, but I know it's not for me.

"Everyone has critiques of themselves, but that doesn't matter," Cincinnati Reds mascot Nick St. Pierre says. "It's what the crowd thinks."

The next day, we wrap up boot camp by marching in Newark's Halloween parade. Little Harry Potters, SpongeBobs, and their parents line the main street as I cram into the back of a pickup truck with eight mascots and a giant inflatable monkey.

When we get the signal to jump out and work the crowd, I waddle along, slapping hands, patting heads. A few really young kids burst into tears at the sight of me.

I stare down a few real dogs. One barks back. Adults laugh when I sniff the fire hydrant. By the end of the parade, I'm actually disappointed that there's no one else to entertain. There are worse jobs to have than one where kids are (mostly) glad to see you. People even seem more pleasant when interviewed by a guy in a fat dog suit.

Before I'm dismissed from boot camp, Raymond tells me he is impressed by my improvement. "A couple more years of solid work and we'll have you on the front lines," he says. The truth is, I probably don't have what it takes to inspire a stadium full of fans. But if you need someone to entertain at a child's birthday party, I might just be the right dog for the job.

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