This place is going to the dogs, and rabbits, and . . .
And off they go, eight of the 11 mascots of this plush toy of a baseball team, a mid-inning race across the outfield, a menagerie of madness.
“Outta the way!” the ice cream cup shouts.
“Somebody’s going down!” the lobster shouts.
The banana takes the lead, the lobster runs a close second, then here comes the gorilla, waving his arms and bulldozing his buddies.
Down goes the sunglasses-wearing rabbit. Down goes the giant green dog. Down goes the gangling blue sea creature.
The race ends with the gorilla leaping across the left-field line while the sweating, swearing mascot carnage piles up on the field behind him.
“You knocked off my freaking head,” the rabbit shouts.
“Dude,” the sea creature shouts. “You just ran over me.”
But nobody is injured worse than the dog, who is dragged to his feet and pulled gently to the locker room, where he collapses on a folding chair in severe pain.
“I’m hurting, man,” he whispers, nodding to his right shoulder. “I’m hurting big time.”
The dog’s huge green head is removed, the enormous high-top tennis shoes are unlaced, the furry green body is peeled off, and the soaked man inside is driven to a nearby hospital where he is diagnosed with a broken collarbone.
“We go all out here,” Pat Gardenier says before leaving. “This is the price you pay.”
His fellow creatures nod their cumbersome heads and shake their elongated snouts in resilience and remorse.
Except for the offensive ape, who can be found happily break dancing behind the plate.
“I feel terrible about what happened, but what am I supposed to do?” Robby Gillett says. “I’m a gorilla.”
Welcome to a veritable Baseball Country Jamboree, the Class-A Lake Elsinore Storm, the mascot capital of the sports world, a place where the characters are complex but the motto is simple.
“When our fans leave here, most of them don’t remember the final score,” says Allan Benavides, assistant general manager. “But they all remember the fun.”
The mascots indeed go all out here, far out, way out, and the return is truly priceless.
A summer evening at this charming Riverside County field known as the Diamond is like a walk through a motley, magical park.
Between every inning, it seems, a different type of creature runs on to the field to run, jump, dance or just hit someone. Sometimes they toy with fans, other times they taunt opposing team, often they just spend the 90 seconds humiliating each other.
At various points on this weekday night in a game against the Stockton Ports, the field was filled with male strippers, thuggish cats, a monkey pounding players with pool noodles, and a cardboard robot who so furiously danced, his duct-taped head fell off.
And, of course, there was that strange, scary race.
“Sometimes we wonder if anybody is even watching the actual game,” Gillett says.
Virtually every minor league team in baseball employs characters like this. What makes Lake Elsinore unique is the scope of their zoo.
They have 11 mascots, more than the number of players in their team’s lineup.
They have an actual director of mascot operations, a college graduate with a budget and a mandate.
They have a real locker room for the mascots, complete with air conditioning and closet space.
They even employ mascots to perform normal club duties while in uniform, having them serve as both mascot and stadium worker at the same time.
Thus, the rabbit scoreboard operator.
I am not making this up.
Every game at the Diamond, a kid sits on a rickety lawn chair behind the scoreboard, behind a tarp, working the numbers while wearing a rabbit costume.
When Lake Elsinore scores, Jackpot the Rabbit throws on his head, runs through a door and dances in the outfield until the celebration music ends, then returns to change the runs and hits.
“When I tell my friends what I do, they laugh,” Robert Cervantes says. “I guess I can’t blame them.”
But the last laugh belongs to the Storm fans, particularly the children, who fill the stands each night to cheer their favorite athletes, er, animals.
“Because we have different players every year, nobody knows the name of number 21,” Benavides says. “But ask any kid, any year, and he knows the name of all the mascots.”
Beginning with Thunder, the leader of the Lake Elsinore mascots, the giant green dog who is clearly the most popular person in the organization.
He growls, he barks, he giggles, he even breaks wind, for which the human inside will not apologize.
The first universal rule of all mascots is that they never speak, but the Lake Elsinore folks believe there are important exceptions.
“We all understand that kids love [flatulent] sounds,” says Gardenier, the team’s director of mascot operations who doubles as Thunder.
When Gardenier broke his collarbone last week in the mid-fourth inning mascot race, it possibly sidelined him for the rest of the season and ended the most fun part of his job.
Earlier in the evening, Thunder was so swarmed by fans during a walk through the stands, less than half the crowd was even watching the game.
“My three kids are more interested in him than the players,” says Monica Sandberg, who followed her young children as they danced by Thunder’s side. “He’s silly, and kids love silly.”
When Thunder disappeared after the race, there was unrest in the stands until it was announced that he had been injured. Leaving no subtlety unturned, the Lake Elsinore folks then played a video montage of Thunder accompanied by the sort of sentimental music that made you think he was dead.
Of course, this only set up the cheers for the next night, when Thunder made a triumphant return while being played by another employee.
“We’re entertainers, and isn’t sports all about entertainment?” says Gillett, who plays several characters.
Sports is also about the luck, which is pretty much how Lake Elsinore came to acquire all these mascots in the first place.
Last year, a local costume shop went out of business and offered costumes for $50 apiece. Thus, the Lobster, the June Cat and the Grounds Crew Gorilla were born.
Jackpot the Rabbit was a costume left behind by a former sponsor.
Scoop is a human ice cream cup given to them by an ice cream store.
Hamlet, the light blue sea creature, is an old Storm mascot that is supposed to be some sort of dragon from the nearby lake.
“The Loch Ness monster of Lake Elsinore?” Gardenier says. “Works for me.”
The banana was purchased this year as a dance partner for -- surprise -- the Gorilla.
Then there is the Robot, which was something that Gillett built this year for ‘80s Night. Great idea, but not very practical, as he learned earlier when he lost his head.
Then there is Rally Cop and Party Boy, two truly human mascots who race on to the field at odd times and act racy.
Rally Cop, who is Gillett dressed like an officer, runs out in the ninth inning of a close game and throws foam baseballs inscribed with insults into the opposing team’s dugout.
Party Boy is an intern who runs out and does a male strip tease whenever the skit requires that one of the mascots be distracted.
Various employees play the characters, with the only requirement being that they must be willing to go through several shirts and lose several pounds each night in the 100-degree heat.
“You drink a lot of water,” Gardenier says. “And you hope the kids don’t hit you where it hurts.”
The most appreciative kids are Storm players, who howl nightly at the antics.
“Face it, baseball can be boring; we love our mascots,” says Jeremy Hefner, the Storm’s pitching ace. “It’s the other teams that get bothered.”
On this summer evening, the other team doesn’t seem bothered, plays hard, Lake Elsinore and Stockton battling pitch for pitch until the very end, when the game reaches its climax.
This occurs, of course, when Jackpot the Rabbit finishes his scoreboard work and walks across the field to return to the locker room.
Kids line the railings to wave and scream and ask for his autograph. He stops for every child, poses for every photo, and by the time he drags his overheated, exhausted body into the tunnel, the stadium is empty, leaving many with only one unanswered question.
Follow Plaschke on twitter.com/plaschke
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