My high school cross country coach was a big believer in visualization. The day before an important meet, he’d have the entire team lie down on the grass or the gym floor, and he’d tell each of us to picture how the race would unfold. Two weeks ago, lying in my friends’ basement the night before the most significant race of my adult life, I remembered what my coach told me. That night, I imagined myself in a bright-green fish costume, waddling to glory.
This was one of the least ridiculous things I did in the days after learning I’d get the chance to run in a mascot race at a Major League Baseball game. For the uninitiated, these in-game stunts typically involve a handful of people—sometimes fans, sometimes ballpark personnel—dressed in cartoonish costumes sprinting from the outfield to a finish line somewhere near home plate. It’s a way to inject a little local (and promotional) flare into the downtime between innings, that time when most fans are looking for the bathroom or another beer. The Milwaukee Brewers have a sausage race. In Washington, D.C., the Nationals have the racing presidents. In Minnesota, where I’d be suiting up, the Twins stage a mascot race that features a bunch of anthropomorphized animals at every home game. Hey, it’s better than being a Pepsi bottle or a hot sauce packet.
My friend, who works for one of the Twins’ corporate sponsors, had managed to snag two of the five spots in the race in anticipation of my visit to Minneapolis. After I confirmed that this wasn’t some kind of joke, I got down to work.
My first step was to scout the competition. The woman who’d secured our tickets was pregnant—I could almost certainly smoke her in a sprint. Another was my partner, and I suspected she’d let me win given how much winning this mascot race had come to mean to me in the two minutes since I learned that it existed. That left just one wild card in our foursome: a friend who I’d never seen break into a gallop. I immediately sent an email to someone who’d lived with him in college. “HIGH IMPORTANCE,” my subject line blared, “How fast is Dustin?”
My scouting complete, I moved on to selecting my equipment. Since I’d never seen the race before, I started exploring the video archive at MLB.com in search of an edge. I also reached out to a few friends for their thoughts on the particular strengths and weakness of each mascot costume. “Louie looks most irreverent,” one respondent told me, referring to the giant purple loon with a beak so big it might as well have been a blindfold for any racer unlucky enough to find himself trapped inside. Clearly my friends failed to grasp the stakes—or, worse still, were trying to sabotage me. I would have to make this call myself.
I quickly eliminated Skeeta the Mosquito, whose dangling proboscis appeared to achieve much the same result as Louie the Loon’s field-of-vision-blocking beak. Babe the Blue Ox was undeniably the coolest-looking mascot of the bunch, but there was little doubt the mythical bovine’s gargantuan head would slow me down. Bullseye, the Target dog—the Twins play at Target Field—had a similar problem, although I did wonder whether Big Retail would rig the game in favor of one of its own. There was just one mascot that didn’t have a glaring flaw: Wanda the Walleye, a fish dressed in a flowing purple ball gown and pearls. She was beautiful.
The day of the game, the group decided that my girlfriend would take our second slot in the mascot race. This was fantastic news, since it meant I could still be friends with the guy who failed to provide me with a scouting report on Dustin’s sprinting ability. At the end of the second inning, we met our fellow competitors at the pre-arranged spot on the concourse and descended into the bowels of the stadium. Two of the three other contestants were roughly my age, but they seemed more interested in taking selfies than limbering up—they wouldn’t be a problem. The third, however, was a twentysomething man who seemed like the type who’d know the words interval training and split times. I hadn’t seen this guy in my pre-race visualization.
Next, we stepped into the dressing room. With the costumes arrayed before us, one of the other racers nodded in the direction of my girlfriend and offered, “Well, she’s a girl, she should probably be the girl fish, right?” I had feared this might happen, which is another way of saying I’d prepared for it. Moments after launching into a semi-rehearsed rant about oppressively rigid gender roles, I was strapping on Wanda the Walleye’s flowing purple gown.
On the way to the field, a team employee reminded us of the rules. “There’s really only one: just don’t go on the grass,” she said. “If you do, they’re going to yell at me.”
This is where my film study proved invaluable. While the Target Field groundskeepers might yell at her if Wanda the Walleye wandered off the dirt, they wouldn’t disqualify a gigantic fish for straying on to the grass. I played the clips back in my head. There, on April 30, 2015, was Babe cutting the corner in left field on his way toward the finish line. And there, on Sept. 16, 2014, were Bullseye, Skeeta, and Louie doing the same thing. The more video I’d watched, the more examples I’d spotted, and the more confident I’d become in my game plan. If I found myself trailing at the first—OK, the only—turn, I’d cut the corner in left field and head straight for the finish line.
Before the race began, I made a nearly unforgivable mistake. As we stepped onto the field for the pre-race intros, I struck one Usain Bolt pose after another for what I could only assume was the worshipful crowd. I had lost all control of my body and, worse, complete track of the scoreboard countdown clock. Three, two, one, and the former track star in the loon costume was off and running while I was somehow facing the wrong way. I had to run around my girlfriend—she was busy doing her best impression of Simone Biles sticking the landing on an imaginary dismount—to even get back to the start line.
I was in second place as I neared the turn, trailing Louie the Loon badly. I had no other choice but to execute Plan: I Dare You to DQ Me.
It worked to perfection. No doubt blinded by his obnoxiously large beak, the loon didn’t see Wanda pass him by as he swung out wide to high five fans in the front row. What he thought was an easy victory had turned into a scramble to the finish line. The loon surged late, forcing an uncomfortably close photo finish. When I broke the tape, I was savvy enough to mug for the cameraman and raise my arm in victory to give the control booth a little extra incentive to call the outcome in my favor. “And it goes to,” the PA announcer declared, “Wanda the Walleye! By a fin.”
As I reveled in my victory, the nondeafening applause of approximately two people rang in my ears. I then went to the equipment room, removed my costume, collected my prize—a big wad of nothing—and walked back to my seat. Nobody in the stadium realized the victorious walleye was in their midst, but I knew I’d reeled in the biggest prize of all. I had won the Minnesota Twins’ mascot race, and I’d done it thanks to hours of preparation, intensive scouting, and the fact that nobody else cared.