The start of baseball is the season of believing. For several weeks, something in every fan awakens and promises that believing brings ultimate victory. It is an intangible tasted in every hot dog, felt in every bleacher seat, heard in every organ charge, and embodied in the most unbelievable of ways: the team mascot.

With the Trenton Thunder’s first home game set this Thursday, April 11, at 7:05 p.m. and the return of its mascot (reappearing like an oversized groundhog), it is time to recognize that these imaginary creatures are part of baseball reality. And while the Trenton Thunder management declined to provide mascot information, noting, “while we recognize that everyone knows that Boomer is a guy in a costume, we try not to call attention to the fact in any way,” the proof is there for the finding.

Of the 30 major league baseball teams, only four do not have mascots: Chicago Clubs, Los Angeles Angels, Los Angeles Dodgers, and the New York Yankees (more on that later). Yet the true believers are the 240 minor league teams throughout the United States.

An article by Turner Broadcasting’s Bleacher Report shares the widely known secret that “the first thing to know about minor league baseball is this: it’s not about baseball.” It is about having fun, even for the clueless folk who do not know or do not care about what the article calls “the finer aspects of the game.”

With minor league teams on minor budgets, however, there are no major league luxury perks or over- the-top attractions (a fountain in Dodger Stadium, a pool at Chase Field, Arizona). Minor league teams also attract followers unwilling to pay premium dollar to watch high-paid prima-sluggers. So what to do?

Minor league “teams use more old-fashioned methods to build excitement,” says the report. “Creative promotions, T-shirt cannons, and bratwurst catapults are more common than in big-league parks. So, too, are mascots. often the heart and soul of a franchise.”

While major and minor leagues differ on the money, they come together on their approach to getting a mascot. Dave Raymond heads the Pennsylvania-based Raymond Entertainment — a sort of Mascots-R-Us — and has mythic authority on the subject. He was, after all, the original guy in the Phillie Phanatic — dubbed by the Mascot Hall of Fame as “one of the most popular and most easily recognized mascots in all of sports.”

Raymond, who founded that hall of fame, now heads a staff of four and an intern to create mascots and offer a variety of services related to “fan adoration, brand leadership, and sponsorship opportunities.”

With his unique experience, Raymond makes the distinction between having a mascot that is a “kid in a suit” and a “living breathing extension for your brand.”

There are, he argues, three mascot success factors: image and awareness, revenue potential, and performance quality. The character should be identifiable and performer-friendly, a “recognizable personality that your target audience will love.”

Raymond’s thoughts about personality and love jive with a 2012 Forbes Magazine article on the baseball’s most beloved mascots. That article uses the results of the Marketing Arm’s Davie Brown Index (DBI), a company that measures the effectiveness of brands and the public sentiment toward celebrities.

According to a DBI representative, “at the request of Forbes, we simply added the mascots to our Celebrity DBI, an independent index that quantifies consumer perceptions of about 3,000 celebrities. The DBI is powered by a domestic consumer research panel. From a national sample, 1,000 respondents are presented with the name and face of a celebrity and asked if they are aware of the mascot. Respondents who indicate that they are aware of the mascot are then asked a standard set of questions about that mascot, using a 6-point scale to record their responses. These questions form the basis for the scores.”

Included in the criteria were public awareness and likability. The results? The New York Mets’ Mr. Met — who appeared in 1964 as the first major league mascot — came in first. The Phillie Phanatic took second place.

Raymond Entertainment seems to use the same knowledge and mixes it with know-how and experience to help clients realize the full potential for creating an effective mascot. It is a process that includes casting the right personality (one of the staff members is a former professional actor), an organizational plan for support, established performance elements, and special events.

They also assure quality performers through a mascot boot camp that involves practicing in costumes and attending information sharing sessions. Participants also get an 83-page manual that addresses topics ranging from “First Aid for Heat Exhaustion/Heat Stroke” to “Sample Profit/Loss Statement” to “Spotter/Security Assistant.”

According to sports writer Patrick Hruby, who attended the camp, Raymond urges participants to take professional dance lessons, conduct practice sessions in front of a mirror, record and review performances, and hone skits and bits until they’re second nature. Since mascots do not talk, nonverbal communication and body language are vital.

Hruby says he also learned such things as, “don’t set yourself on fire with lighter fluid” and that “sliding on a wooden floor can melt your costume’s knees.”

The most telling part of the story, though, is Hruby’s experience in costume. “Wearing a mascot costume stinks. Literally. Wearing it induces low-level claustrophobia. My headgear lacks a chin strap, which means it keeps falling off, thereby violating the cardinal rule of the mascot game: never, ever lose your head in public. Of course, I don’t mind that my helmet keeps falling off. Helps me breathe. Because the outfit is stifling. Itchy. Hot. Even in an air-conditioned conference room, I’m acutely aware of my own sweat, streaming from my body in the manner of a broken lawn sprinkler system flooding the entire block,” he writes.

The reasons for paying the $299 for a recent Raymond Enterprise boot camp weekend at Kutztown University (the price does not include accommodations and transportation) and embracing the mascot lifestyle reflect a variety of interests, including a financial one.

Raymond says that “playing an NBA mascot is the most coveted job in the sports-mascot industry because of the creative, high-flying showmanship and the corresponding higher salaries that come with the NBA gigs.” He adds that starting salaries for NBA mascots are in the $40,000 to $45,000 range and that 80 percent of the NBA teams hire full-time mascots.

Others in the sports field, however, dispute Raymond’s figures, and in 2011 various articles and websites put mascot pay scales at $23,000 for full-time work and between $65 and $40 per game. College mascots may get a stipend.

A CNN Money report adds that the few baseball teams that do pay well recognize the value of a mascot as a personality that can generate revenues by attracting sponsors and helping build the team brand.

Teams and companies seem willing to pay just for that, and in 2011 Raymond says that the mascot industry brought in between $150 to $200 million. While his website states that his company can provide mascot services starting at $300, the costs for higher-end costumes range from $7,000 to $18,000, not including design and copyright fees. Researching, drawing, designing, and constructing a costume can take a year.

A major league tale about a mascot’s worth involves the Phillie Phanatic (a 35-pound suit of green fur and rubber named in honor of Philadelphia’s infamous fanatical fans). The mascot’s 1978 creation is connected to two impulses that had nothing to do with a ball or bat. Phillies promotions director Dennis Lehman wanted the team to have a mascot similar to the popular and attention-grabbing San Diego Chicken. Current part-owner and then team vice president Bill Giles wanted to attract less belligerent drunks and more merchandise-purchasing families. To meet these needs the team contracted the Brooklyn-based mascot company Harrison/Erickson (now Acme Mascots), a company that employed individuals who had worked with Muppets designer Jim Hensen.

When the bill for Phanatic services was offered to Giles, he had a choice: pay either $5,200 for both costume and copyright ownership or $3,900 for just the costume. The pennywise Giles chose the latter. In 1983 when investors brought the Phillies and wanted the copyright to the Phanatic, they paid Harrison/Erickson $250,000. The popular mascot now boasts a pedigree that includes “best mascot ever” by Sports Illustrated, potentially putting the fantastic creature into the fantastic payscale of major league stars.

However, mascots attract the opposite of good will and money. Several Native American-themed mascots have produced controversy and charges of racism, resulting in negative brand attention. Then a mascot’s good-natured fun can go awry, such as the 2010 instance when the Phillie Phanatic tossed a woman into a swimming pool and found itself tossed into a courtroom to face an unresolved lawsuit. The Phanatic (to the probable dismay of former performer Raymond) also has a record of hugging a person too hard, sitting on the legs of an arthritic woman, and other obnoxious behavior that some would say is consistent with a Philadelphia sports fan.

Then there are the cases where the mascot is at the mercy of irate players, owners, and fans, exemplified by the short, unhappy, and generally unknown life of the New York Yankees’ mascot, Dandy.

In 1978 Yankee management contracted the same team that created the Phanatic to recreate that mascot’s excitement and revenues in the Big Apple. Owner George Steinbrenner approved the figure that was described by a Wall Street Journal writer as “blessed with a pear-shaped physique that was almost Ruth-ian. He had a hat that spun, a cartoon-size baseball bat, and a big, bushy mustache that evoked Thurman Munson, the team’s star catcher — which was no coincidence.” The team paid $30,000 for a three-year lease.

Just days before Dandy’s appearance in 1979, however, the Yankees’ famed sense of forethought and composure created a new chapter of mascot history. During a Yankee out-of-towner, the San Diego Chicken publicly cast a hex on Yankee pitcher Ron Guidry. That in turn infuriated outfielder Lou Piniella, who decided that the chicken’s action was in poor taste and, in what he must have assumed to be good taste, charged after the mascot.

When the irate Piniella could not catch the bird, he did the next reasonable thing and hurled his glove at it. Predictably, the outfielder’s attempted assault on a chicken costume resulted in public ridicule of the players and the Yankees. A defensive Steinbrenner then stepped into the fray and declared that mascots had no business in professional baseball and set the stage for an unhearty welcome for Dandy. The mascot’s unfortunately timed debut was followed several days later by misfortune and a tragic event. Dandy’s physical inspiration — catcher Munson — was killed in a plane crash, now making the unwelcomed mascot more macabre than merry.

With conflicting reports that Dandy disappeared from the stadium after being beaten by fans or just banished by management, it is known that the mascot was relegated to making special appearances, including the one that ended Dandy for good. That occasion was a Citibank corporate pep rally at Madison Square Garden, where, according to a Wall Street Journal article, “the libations had been flowing for hours.”

Of that fateful event, the Dandy performer says, “As soon as the spotlight hit my face, I was completely blinded, I had no idea where I was, and these bankers were just crazy. Thousands of crazy bankers screaming at me, grabbing hold of me, almost ripping me apart. I felt like an escaped convict.” The event resulted in Dandy’s number and suit being permanently retired.

Although it is easy to make a jump and say New Yorkers are just too New York to accept a mascot — even though Dandy’s makers claimed that he had a Yankee’s swagger — the reality is that in another part of the city, Mr. Met had consistently gotten thumbs up from New Yorkers.

Whatever conjectures on the matter, the reality is that there are different expectations of mascots at major and minor league games.

Brad Collins, former mascot and head of mascot relations for the Fresno Grizzlies, a AAA affiliate of the San Francisco Giants, explains the difference by noting that “a major league game is produced like a TV show. You also have less time to perform during major league games, so you have to make sure when you’re performing that you’re perfect.”

But regarding the minor leagues, he says, “I would do more creative things in one or two years in the minors than some (major league) performers might do in 10 or 15 years or even their entire careers. Being in the minors doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re not as good a performer as some of the major league guys or some of the NFL or NBA guys. They’re just guys — and girls — who work for a team that has more fans, but that doesn’t mean that they’re better mascots. Some of the best performers and best mascots are in minor league sports, because they have the freedom to do what they want to do.”

That freedom is only free if the mascots deliver the fun that helps deliver the bottom line. A five-year-old Forbes Magazine report on minor leagues says that the top 20 teams were worth $21.2 million and pulled in $9.8 million in revenue per team, of which 49 percent came from tickets. It notes that “player costs — typically between $10 million and $15 million a season for scouting, salaries, and bonuses — are paid by the big league affiliates. As a result, margins for clubs that draw well are often fat, and these 20 clubs generated average operating income (earnings before interest, taxes and depreciation) of $3 million.”

The prospect for making money seems positive, and another Forbes report notes that billionaires Warren Buffett (Berkshire Hathaway), Robert E. Rich Jr. (Rich Products), and Herb Simon (Simon Property) have put their money in minor league baseball teams because “it’s smart business.”

To support that claim, the article says, “Of the 160 minor league teams with player development contracts with an MLB team, not one pays a single player, coach, manager, or trainer. While the majority of MLB teams’ expenses go towards player costs, they are paid in full for minor league teams. The minor league squads don’t even pay the full cost for bats and balls; it’s split with the major league affiliate. It’s a sweet deal made even sweeter by the cities and counties that are willing to finance minor league stadiums in order to help stimulate their local economies.”

In a recent and brief interview with U.S. 1 writer Ron Shapella, Trenton Thunder general manager Will Smith provided some similar statistics. The Thunder, he says, is in the top 25 of minor league teams for souvenir sales, with Thunder gear leading the way and Yankee and Phillies merchandise also contributing. Additionally, he says, “It’s great to have a ticket sold, but if that person doesn’t show up and buy souvenirs we’re missing out on about 50 percent. It’s much more than just tickets.”

It does not take a physicist mascot to realize that minor league fun is equal to bringing in those dollars to keep the good times going and mascots are part of the equation.

So as baseball season starts and the Chicago Cubs talk of introducing a mascot to develop the “right opportunities for kids to connect with the team and grow as the next generation” of fans, it is time to consider what the minor leagues have known for a long time ago. Instead of shouting, “Play ball!” the umpire should just call out, “Let’s believe.”

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