Education & Family

Masked Crusaders

We go behind the costumes to discover the inner lives of Maryland’s favorite mascots.

“Did I really just say my beak?” It’s just past 6:30 on a Wednesday night in July, and Kailey Abbott sits in her Ripken Stadium dressing room—basically a glorified storage room with an industrial fan, mini fridge, and a clothing rack on each side—preparing to suit up as the Aberdeen IronBirds mascot, Ferrous, for the night’s game against the Brooklyn Cyclones. She’s joking with Tom Smith, who performs as the baseball team’s other mascot, Ripcord, about how they’ve come to see the costume as an extension of themselves. “Isn’t it funny how we’ll say my wings or my beak when telling stories?” she notes with a chuckle.

Transforming into Ferrous, whose name means “of or containing iron,” is a multistep process, but it’s become second nature for Abbott, a 25-year-old gym teacher in her fifth year performing as the primary mascot for the Orioles’ Class-A affiliate during the summers.

She starts by tying her blond hair up into a ponytail and pulling on a skintight headpiece that resembles a gray ski mask. She then puts on her “fat suit,” a furry one-piece lined around the midsection with several hula hoop-like plastic tubes and extra padding at the shoulders, over her athletic shorts and tank top.

“This is so no one can see my skin under the mask,” Abbott explains as she fastens a fluffy gray and blue fur bodysuit along her chest. Wings flap from her arms as she snaps on Ferrous’ bulky feet—orange and black shoe covers designed to clamp around athletic shoes. Next, she puts on a white jersey to match the team’s uniform tonight—Ferrous’ number is 7 3/8, combining the jersey numbers of Cal Ripken Sr., Billy Ripken, and Cal Ripken Jr.

At this point, Abbott’s body has been completely obscured by the fluffy costume, making her look nearly triple her actual size as she takes a few gulps of a lemon-lime Gatorade. After checking the time, she completes the final step: donning Ferrous’ head and securing it with a chin strap. As she walks down the hallway into the stadium, her 5-foot-5-inch frame looks at least a foot taller, but that’s not the only difference.

“Now is when you’re going to see the change,” she says before flinging open the door to the stadium’s main concourse. With those final words, Abbott’s reserved personality disappears. Ferrous playfully steps into the path of some children, blocking their route before throwing out high-fives and sliding down the railing to make his way to the field for the first pitch.

Ask any mascot where the widespread popularity of their industry began, and you’ll likely get one of two answers: The Famous Chicken or the Phillie Phanatic. Both emerged in the 1970s as improvised comedic entertainment during Major League Baseball games. The Chicken gained fame from independent appearances at San Diego Padres games, while the Phanatic was created by the Philadelphia Phillies to offer an extra boost of spirit. (In fact, the term mascot comes from the French term “mascotte,” meaning lucky charm.)

“Everyone knows the name Dave Raymond, who used to be the Phillie Phanatic,” says Cara Dekelbaum, the former—and sometimes current—performer under the suit of University of Maryland, Baltimore County’s Chesapeake Bay Retriever mascot, True Grit. “Even outside the mascot world, in the sports world, people know the legendary mascots by name.”

Today, nearly all major league teams have official mascots—27 of 30 in the MLB, 28 of 32 in the NFL, and 26 of 30 in the NBA—and several teams are home to more than one.

“Some people think it’s not a real job,” says Brandon Williams, who has played Poe for the Ravens since 2004—and happens to share a name with the defensive tackle who joined the team in 2013. Along with game day performances, Williams makes nearly 300 additional appearances as the mascot each year, from weddings to parades and even a trip to Bahrain and Djibouti on an Armed Forces Entertainment tour. His job falls under the marketing department and includes enough out-of-costume work—think scheduling and invoicing—to make it full-time.

A journalism major at the University of Delaware who played football and basketball in high school, Williams aspired to be a sports writer, not a mascot. But when a friend involved in Delaware’s award-winning mascot program pushed him to attend tryouts his sophomore year, Williams took a chance and made the cut.

Since then, Williams has perfected his craft with stints as the Wilmington Blue Rocks’ Rocky Bluewinkle and several seasons as a backup for the Oriole Bird before joining the Ravens. Today, he’s one of the longest-running and most established mascots in the Baltimore area, making him a role model to many high school, college, and semi-pro teams around town.

At 5’10” with an athletic build, shaved head, and neatly groomed beard, the 38-year-old looks no different from any other young professional with a desk job—today he’s dressed in slacks and a polo shirt—until he starts talking about performing as a mascot. When asked what characteristics the best in the industry have in common, he begins explaining a practice called “breaking the bubble.”

“You can’t just walk like you normally do,” he says. He jumps out of his seat and mimes walking, pumping his arms with gusto and lifting his legs several feet off the ground. “Pretend there’s a bubble around you. You want to reach the edge of that bubble and break that bubble with each step.” Williams says the best mascots are conscious of every movement, from a wave to a quick walk from one spot in the stadium to the next. “When you have a costume on, it swallows up a lot of your movements. To walk like this, you’ve really got to get the arms moving and over-emphasize.”

Like the players themselves, Williams takes his game day prep seriously, working out four days a week to maintain his stamina in a suit that weighs 25 pounds dry and up to 45 pounds wet—yes, from sweat—due to temperatures that can rise to 20-30 degrees higher than outside.

“The most important part of preparing is hydrating before game day,” Williams says, noting that about eight years ago he added energy gels used by marathon runners to his game day intake. “It keeps me from feeling completely dead when games are over.”

In addition to pumping up the crowd and offering entertainment, mascots can be powerful tools for the brands they represent. “When I was with the Hershey Bears, they didn’t fully recognize the power that the mascot program had as far as branding and marketing, so I was booking my own appearances. I was helping run the kids club at the time,” says Erin Blank, career mascot and founder of Pennsylvania-based Keystone Mascots, which hosts training camps and creates and maintains costumes for clients throughout the Mid-Atlantic.

As a nonathletic child from a sports-loving family, Blank says performing as a mascot allowed her to still show her team spirit. She donned her first costume—Cookie Monster—for her elementary school at age 10 and went on to perform for many teams including the Washington Capitals and Detroit Tigers.

Over the past 20 years, Blank’s Baltimore-area clients have included the Orioles, University of Maryland, Towson University, UMBC, the Bowie Baysox, and the IronBirds, and she’s actually been able to shape some mascot concepts.

“With iconic characters like Testudo, we don’t want to change what’s on the outside. We may suggest things to make it more ergonomic for the performers on the inside,” Blank says. “But with smaller schools, like Anne Arundel Community College, we were actually able to help them develop a brand new character—we came up with a little backstory for him, did some basic training, and now we’re doing repairs and maintenance for them.”

The project was part of a larger rebrand that began in 2014 in an effort to increase awareness of the school’s athletic identity. After students voted to change the team’s name to the Riverhawks, Blank set to work creating the new mascot, Swoop.

“We chose design elements from characters around the area,” she explains. “His wings are inspired by Slapshot of the Washington Capitals. He’s muscular in the chest—that comes from the Oriole Bird. He has legs and talons similar to Poe. So we tried to think of what fans in the area might relate to as really great mascots, and we made sure that those design elements were infused to the overall look of the character.”

“Now is when you’re going to see the change,” she says before flinging open the door.

There’s more to good costume design than its fan appeal, though. “The main challenges really come down to humidity and the disbursement of weight,” Blank explains. “It’s important to be able to release the hot, moist air that’s being built up around you. We’ve come up with ways of using wicking fabric, [and] our costumes are as fully washable as possible.” The safety of the performer is Blank’s first priority. “We’ve seen some performers in the long term develop back problems, arthritis in the back of their head, and tendonitis in their feet because the feet or head were not balanced correctly.”

Despite the challenges, performers say they feel lucky to be part of a tight-knit community doing what they love. In a job that can be isolating at times because of its secretive nature, mascots from the greater Baltimore area rely on one another for support. “One of the first mascot pow-wows I had was at the birthday party for Louie of the Bowie Baysox,” recalls Dekelbaum, who has performed as True Grit at UMBC since 2012. “You’re all sitting around with your heads off, and it’s like sitting around the campfire and sharing all the jokes and stories. And [you] get to know the people behind the masks, which is amazing.”

Plus, there are plenty of activities that mascots do outside of the stadium. This year, Williams as Poe partnered with the Baltimore County Public Library to pioneer a new summer reading program. “A mascot really speaks to that elementary-age student,” he says. “And it also does a lot for building what I call the next-generation fan.” He points out that with the ability of social media to open a window into the lives of players across the country, kids are less likely to automatically root for their home team.

“The Oriole Bird, or any mascot, is the bridge between the team and the fans,” says Bromley Lowe, a career mascot who performed as the Bird from 1994 to 2005 and now operates the educational program, The YoJo Show. “He’s the number one ambassador of the organization and adds a little Disney-like magic to the whole game day experience.”

Since the Oriole Bird debuted at Memorial Stadium on Opening Day in 1979, he has become an integral part of the fan experience, making an appearance at every home game since, along with thousands of community events. The Bird’s costume has evolved—the beak has been made softer and more movable, and the size of the tail has been reduced—but many of the traditions, including dancing on the dugout and spelling out O-R-I-O-L-E-S, remain.

“I love being able to sort of be a superhero,” Dekelbaum says. “You put on this costume and have a whole new identity, and it allows you to get away with things and have fun—and be somebody different. It’s like the ultimate acting role.”

About five minutes before the IronBirds’ first pitch at Ripken Stadium, members of the Hickory Lady Hornets, a youth travel softball league from Bel Air, have gathered on the field. Ferrous sneaks up behind them, tapping one young girl on her right shoulder, then quickly ducking to the left. The girls erupt in smiles and giggles, surrounding the larger-than-life character for hugs and high-fives.

“Ferrous, you’re my best friend,” exclaims one.

“No, you’re my best friend,” counters another.

It’s moments like these that keep Abbott coming back to the sweaty costume night after night. “I love making those fan connections,” she reflects. “That way, they can tell you notice them, and it makes them feel special.”

And, Abbott notes, being a mascot makes her feel special, too.

“Ferrous is like 180 degrees from what I’m like as a person,” she says with a laugh. “I guess you could say it’s my alter ego.”