My death-defying hour as Dinger
The day after I happily accepted an invitation to be Dinger, the River Cats’ mascot, during a night game at Raley Field, I got a memo—in alarming red text—about avoiding heatstroke in the cat suit. I’d only imagined hugging children and giving furry high-fives, completely forgetting the physical consequences of wearing an unventilated plush costume in triple-digit temperatures. I’d unwittingly signed on for the most dangerous Nothing Ever Happens to date.
Before last Friday’s game against the Colorado Springs Sky Sox, I downed Gatorade and bottled water until I was positively sloshing. I repeatedly checked Yahoo Weather, hoping for a sudden cold front. Instead, the temperature climbed to 106 degrees.
When I reached Dinger’s locker room, I was already sweating. Two costumes hung headless in a corner, reeking like a big-cat house at a zoo. In order to preserve the authentic mascot experience, they had not been cleaned. Two professional Dingers, Aaron McGavock and Andrew Ryan, were there to show me the ropes. They reminded me not to talk in the suit and showed me how to sign Dinger’s autograph and how to signal that I needed a break.
I zipped on Dinger’s heavy gray pelt, buttoned his baseball uniform and laced his overstuffed cleats. The pros helped me into the bulbous head, which contained a helmet and chin strap. My vision was limited to the fuzzy black square inside Dinger’s mouth. I could only see people standing directly in front of me, from the knees down.
“Dinger!” “Hey, River Cat!” Once outside, voices called from every direction. I couldn’t see a thing. My handler urged me to mingle, but I had no sense of orientation. I threw up my paws and shrugged my shoulders in the universal sign for “I don’t know. What do you want to do?”
He took the hint and began directing. “Hey Dinger, this kid wants your autograph!” A baseball and pen were thrust into my narrow field of vision. I fumbled the Sharpie in my plush paw and attempted a cursive signature. “Thanks, Dinger!” a child’s voice said.
For the next 20 minutes, I blindly gave high-fives; posed for pictures; and signed tickets, jerseys and anything else handed to me. I concentrated so hard on following voices and trying not to knock over the excited children crowding around me that I barely noticed I was sweating more than I ever had in my life. On my first break, I stripped off the suit and drank a 20-ounce bottle of Dasani in two gulps.
Back outside, I could tell from the red dirt under my feet that I’d been led to the field, but I had no idea where the bases or the stands were. A voice instructed me to follow “the balding man” to present a check to the Sacramento Food Bank before the start of the game. All I could see were shoes. Which pair belonged to the bald guy?
“Come on, Dinger!” someone yelled. I moved forward cautiously. Swinging my head wildly, I glimpsed one corner of a giant check. I seized it and prayed I was facing the right direction as flashbulbs went off. When the check moved off field, so did I.
I held my paw over my heart for the national anthem, and then it was back to the stands for more autographs. By now I’d learned how to hold out my arms so children could hug me and how to dance and wiggle my tail. Women were flirting with me, awestruck kids were beaming at my giant face, and I was having a blast. Then, without warning, breathing became difficult. I’d reached my limit.
Before I could signal for a break, someone said Dinger was needed on the field to help with a promotion. I knew there wouldn’t be time to switch performers. I decided to tough it out.
The next 10 minutes were the longest in baseball history. I felt dizzy. My head throbbed. I caught myself fumbling with the neck of my costume, unconsciously seeking fresh air. When the inning ended, I hustled to the field, did my best happy dance and then desperately signaled that I needed out.
Back in the locker room, I knew I’d pushed myself too far. This was confirmed by an escalating headache and eventual vomiting (at home after the game, thankfully).
Returning to the stands in my civvies, woozy from heat exhaustion, I watched McGavock—as Dinger—working the crowd. He did headstands, break-danced, climbed the dugout and got the whole audience cheering. It was truly amazing. An hour of his job had nearly killed me. When he bounced past my seat, I felt honored to shake his paw.