HAMPTON — Only the brave few who have inhabited a mascot suit understand the life.
Inside Slyder, the popular seagull-pelican hybrid that cheers for the Peninsula Pilots, is a man named Mike who prefers not to reveal too much about his identity.
He’s 35 years old, 5 feet 10 inches tall, has a day job in local government and — as the team kicks off another summer of baseball this week — is happy to share a few secrets about playing a tall white bird with an orange pilots’ hat, a pot belly and giant sneakers.
Such as: while it’s stifling hot inside the costume at Hampton’s War Memorial Stadium, Mike is generally so damp from sweat that as soon as he takes it off, he’s shivering from cold and craving a hot shower.
Peripheral vision is non-existent, so Mike bobs his head a lot both to stay in character and score some extra glimpses of what’s around him (such as small children he could knock over). Unfortunately, those moves can’t help him pinpoint the direction of sounds.
Breathing isn’t easy, yet Mike often has to quiet his puffing to calmly pose for pictures and sign autographs before he can race to the clubhouse, rip Slyder’s head off and gulp in some air, along with a whole lot of water. He doesn’t use the restroom unless he really, really has to.
“That suit is hard to get off, especially once it’s soaked,” Mike says. “It’s hard to express the excitement that comes with being a mascot, but the reality is it’s also a lot of hard work.”
An immediate hit
Mike, who is paid a small per-game fee, had zero mascot experience when he went to a hot Pilots game as a fan about 12 years ago and bumped into Hank Morgan, then the organization’s general manager, at the top of the stands.
“He said, ‘Hey, man, who’s your mascot? You ought to go down and wake him up,’” recalls Morgan, now the team’s head coach. “And I said, ‘If you think you can do any better, the job’s all yours.’ And he was like, ‘Really?’”
With no training, Mike simply learned on the fly.
“I like to clown around and be a goofball,” he notes.
He experimented with acts, ditched those that didn’t get a good crowd response and analyzed videos of himself and other mascots, including personal favorites such as the Phillie Phanatic and the Washington Capitals’ Slapshot.
“He’s got a real passion for it,” Morgan says.
Eventually, Mike also began working as a mascot for other local organizations, including the Norfolk Admirals.
He travels frequently to charity events and joins national gatherings of mascots trying to break world records. The Pilots gig, meanwhile, has become a family affair, with Mike’s 11-year-old son playing mini-me Slyder Jr., and his wife watching from the stands.
While Mike is naturally high-energy, Slyder makes him fearless: “I won’t dance at a club, but if I put that suit on and hear a beat? I’m gone.”
Covering the bases
Mascot work takes a surprising amount of physical and mental strength, especially in the summer.
“It’s not hot, it’s miserably hot,” Mike says. “All you can do is stay hydrated and talk yourself through it.”
He retreats to the players’ locker room for a few breaks during games, starts pounding water the day before a gig and avoids spicy and greasy foods. Eggs and rice energize him.
While most fans love him, Mike has learned to walk away from those that get too rowdy. As for the exaggerated motions required to dance, run or even walk as Slyder, he reports, “I still stress muscles I never even knew I had.”
And inevitably, Slyder picks up some unpleasant odors toward the end of games. As soon as Mike gets home at night, he washes and disinfects the costume’s body, head and padding, typically a 90-minute process.
Yet overall, playing Slyder is a joy.
“Getting the big laughs drives me,” Mike says. “I get so much out of it. It’s not for everyone, but it’s definitely for me.”