Surprise! Yes, for two years, I was a Washington Nationals Racing President

It is true. For the 2018 and 2019 baseball seasons, I was a member of the Washington Nationals entertainment staff, specifically one of the people who wore the famous Racing Presidents costumes. I am no longer on the staff, so I felt I could share my story of how and why I joined the Racing Presidents and some of the experiences I had as a mascot. It is the story of some incredible experiences—many things I will never forget and an incredible group of people, most of whom remain secret to this day.

Prior to this, I hadn’t publicly admitted my status as a Racing President for two reasons. First, my original employment agreement stated that my employment was governed by various rules and procedures, one of which concerned my obligation to keep confidential the proprietary, non-public, and confidential information that I was given as Nationals employee. As I am no longer an employee, I am no longer bound by that agreement (nor did I sign a nondisclosure agreement). Second, the world of mascoting has an unwritten code of secrecy. While it’s no secret to anyone above the age of an elementary school child that there is a human being behind the costume, there is still a clandestineness to it that should be kept sacred.

As a former mascot, I will continue to respect the secrecy of mascoting, and in my story I neither identify the names of anyone involved with the Racing Presidents or entertainment staff nor disclose the inner workings of the Racing Presidents or the races. Those are secrets that should be kept to protect the future work of my former teammates and keep alive the mystery of mascoting. What I describe is only my perspective of what fans could witness by watching the races.

This story has not been reviewed by the Nationals organization or any of my former teammates from the entertainment staff. The first time they read it—if they do read it—will be because they viewed this page.

Trying out for the Racing Presidents

Following the move to Nationals Park for the 2008 season, my grandparents purchased a partial season ticket plan and I would regularly go to games with them. My family grew attached—to some degree—to the Nationals and we were all upset when the Nationals seemed to lose every playoff series they had. I personally had been to all three game five losses by the Nationals in the National League Division Series (2012, 2016, and 2017).

Despite the playoff blunders, I really enjoyed going to games, my favorite part of which was the Presidents Race. In the middle of the fourth inning, four larger-than-life mascots who resembled the four presidents engraved in Mount Rushmore darted out from behind the center field gate and raced around the warning track to the finish line near first base. Sometimes it was an all-out race, other times they would put on a skit, or one of the Racing Presidents would get taken out by another.

In late 2017, I was waiting for my wife Abby to return home from a night out with friends, when I saw a posting on a popular DC blog that said the Nationals were accepting applications to join the Racing Presidents. Applications were due by midnight. When Abby got home, I asked for her thoughts. “You’d be perfect,” she said. I thought I would be, too. I submitted my online application before the deadline was eventually invited to the Racing Presidents tryout in January 2018.

The morning of the tryout was one of the coldest days of the year, with the temperature in the single digits upon my arrival to the site of the tryout at around 8 a.m. Nevertheless, I was determined to see what would happen and hoped that the bitter cold my body was sustaining would be worth it. Every few minutes, groups of three would be taken behind a curtain and soon after would emerge wearing the costumes. Each person had to complete a 40-yard dash and two simulated races, as well as showing off their dance moves and a victory pose.

I waited almost three hours before my name was finally called. I was put in the Thomas “Tom” Jefferson costume and somehow made it through all of the races and poses without falling. After I took off the costume, my three-person group was directed to wait in line inside the training center for an in-person interview. I waited another three hours until finally, around 3 p.m., I had my opportunity. My group of five interviewees were asked questions about our motivations, our availability for games and events, and some ideas that we had for potential race skits. I was honest in my answers and hoped that they would be good enough for the staff to offer me a position.

A few days later, I received a phone call from the director of the entertainment staff, who had run the tryout and conducted the interviews, offering me a spot to join the entertainment staff as a Racing President. I wanted to burst with joy and excitement, but I was at work, surrounded by coworkers in cubicles next to mine and knew I needed to keep my news secret. As I had learned at the tryout, there was a secrecy involved in mascoting, and I wanted to respect that.

I told him how excited I was and that I was grateful for the opportunity.

Learning to mascot

During the next few months, between January and the start of the baseball season, I learned from veteran Racing Presidents about mascoting, including the rules, the dos and don’ts, the mannerisms, and the tricks of the trade. I received a tour of the inside of the stadium, the part underneath the stands that fans don’t get to see. I was shown our locker room, the center field area where the Racing Presidents started their races, and various other places that were necessary for me to know as a new employee.

The underbelly of Nationals Park. I’m eating a sandwich on the way to the locker room.

Within a few weeks, I attended practice sessions where I donned one of the costumes and ran simulated races over and over again. The more practice I had with the 50-pound monstrosity that was attached to my body, the better I would be when the season started.

My grandmother’s last wish: watching me race

In mid-March, a few weeks before opening day, I received an email indicating that I was going to be racing in the preseason exhibition game between the Nationals and the Minnesota Twins. I put it on my calendar and eagerly awaited the day.

At the same time I spent February and March learning to be a mascot, my grandmother was slowly dying of stomach and colon cancer, and her condition was deteriorating each day, and we didn’t know how long she had to live. As her body shut down, her memory became worse and worse, although she never forgot that I was one of the Racing Presidents and continued to ask me when she could watch me in a game. When I told her that I would be racing in the exhibition game, she wanted to be there.

Normally, my grandparents took the metro from Gaithersburg to Nationals Park, but with my grandmother doing so poorly, I decided to spend whatever money was necessary to get them to the park as easily and carefree as possible. I pre-ordered a private car service to pick up my grandparents from their condo and drive them directly to the game. Upon their arrival, Abby would be waiting for them at the center field entrance. She would escort them to their seats and be with them until my grandmother needed to go home.

The morning of the exhibition game I emailed my boss and confirmed that my grandparents would be in the stands. He knew that my grandmother was dying, so when I requested that he allow me to take pictures with them in costume during the game, he immediately agreed.

A few hours later, Abby drove to the game and arrived about 30 minutes before the 4:05 start time so she could take pictures of me as I interacted with fans at the center field gate plaza while she waited for my grandparents to arrive.

While I didn’t know she was there, I was roaming the plaza entertaining the few fans who entered the stadium. Little children lit up when they saw me and ran up to me asking for a high five or a picture or even a hug. I had the opportunity to entertain people, make them laugh and feel good, from young babies to the elderly, and that was an incredible feeling.

After about 45 minutes, the four of us in the Racing Presidents costumes returned to the locker room a few minutes before the game started. After I took off the costume, I looked at my phone and saw a message from Abby saying that she and my grandparents were in their seats. I reconfirmed the plan with Tom, and he assigned one of the Secret Service handlers to help me get to their section in the sixth inning. I texted Abby letting her know when and where I would be.

In the middle of the second inning, we put the costumes back on and made our way through the bowels of the stadium to the grounds crew area where we waited for the race to begin.

Our boss gave us a pep talk and reminded us of the four rules of the Racing Presidents: run fast, don’t fall, stay off the grass, and get off the field.

He then walked from the grounds crew area toward the center field gate, which he would open for us to use as the entrance onto the warning track. “Three to go!” he yelled, indicating the fourth inning had started. We lined up with Teddy first, Abe second, me in the Tom costume in third, and George fourth. My heart started pounding. I was about to run a 200-yard dash with a 50-pound costume attached to my body, where the center of gravity was six feet above my head. I had carried heavy military backpacks before, but they were nothing compared to this.

“Two to go!” I once more ensured the costume was tight, ensuring I had as much control over it as possible. But I made it so tight it was difficult to breathe. I’d be fine, I thought, I would breathe when the race was over.

“One to go!” This was it. Only a few more moments to go. Then, we heard the crowd cheer as the Nationals got the last out of the top of the inning. “Get ready!” he yelled as he looked up at the jumbotron waiting for the Racing Presidents intro video to finish.

Then, we heard the signal:

“GO! GO! GO! GO! GO!”

One by one, we all started running toward the gate. There wasn’t a lot of room for us to fit through, so we had to be careful. If I clipped the side of the wall, I’d definitely fall and might even trip George who was right behind me. But I made it through still standing, making a quick turn to the left so I could start my sprint. Teddy and Abe were already ahead of me, but I soon caught up and passed them. Then, I saw George run past me, taking the inside lane. As we turned the corner from the warning track to the first base line, I could see the finish line ahead. George and I were neck and neck. I wanted to win for Grandma! As I gave all my energy and crossed the finish line, I heard the PA announcer:

“And the winner is….George!”

Disappointed and out of breath, I joined the other Racing Presidents and clapped and cheered for George while he waved the checkered flag.

After resting in the bottom of the fourth inning and taking pictures with other families in the fifth, the four Racing Presidents split up in groups of two and went to each baseline to wait for the seventh inning stretch. During this break, along with a Secret Service mascot handler, I crammed myself and costume into an elevator which took us from the belly of the stadium to the concourse right outside section 113 where my family was sitting.

I came out of the elevator and saw Abby waiting for me. I ran up to her giving her a hug for the first time while in costume. Then, I saw my grandmother walking up the steps of the aisle, one by one, to the concourse. She paused at the top, looked at me, and smiled wide. She shuffled her feet as she walked up to me, then gave me a hug. “Hi, Grandma,” I said softly so no passersby would hear me speaking in costume. “Hi, Parker,” she whispered back. I began to cry as I embraced her. A few moments later, my grandfather was walked up from the seats and joined me, Abby, and my grandmother for a few quick pictures. Before I knew it, I was back in the elevator heading down to prepare for the seventh inning stretch.

My grandparents and Abby left shortly after and didn’t stay to watch me in the seventh inning. Abby drove them to Maryland before returning to our home in Washington, DC. Later that night, Abby told me how all my grandmother could do on the ride home was talk about the race and how I almost won.

While we didn’t know it at the time, that baseball game was the last thing my grandmother did outside of her apartment community. Three weeks later, she was on her deathbed.

My first game results in an injury that plagues me the rest of the season

My first real game, as timing would have it, was a Sunday, and my grandmother had spent the last two days gasping for air as her body continued to shut down. The hospice staff we hired to take care of her informed us that she probably would be dead before the weekend was over. As a result of that news, family had begun to fly in from across the country, and we began congregating at my grandparents’ condo, doing our best to support my grandfather, as he was about to lose his spouse of 61 years.

My family knew that I was a Racing President and they all tuned into watch the game from the condo living room, as it might be a nice distraction from the terrible inevitability that was coming at any moment. We knew that MASN, the network that broadcasts Nationals games, usually showed highlights of the Presidents Race as the network returned from the mid-4th inning commercial break. If the race was good, perhaps my family could see highlights and be entertained for a respite, however brief.

As I rode a bicycle from my home to Nationals Park, I joined up with another Racing President also working the game for the ride down. “I think I have a good chance of winning,” I told her.

“Yeah, could be,” she responded.

“I think it would be great if I could win this one for my grandmother.”

In the locker room, I suited up in the Tom costume and began to stretch and mentally prepare for the race.

“Presidents!” Our boss yelled to us in the locker room before the game started. “Another thing. NOBODY FALLS TODAY. The warning track is crappy because of the rain and falling and it will ruin the costumes. Okay? Nobody falls!” His direction seemed clear. While I knew not falling was one of the major four rules, it seemed especially important today.

“Three to go!”

As the top of the fourth inning came, we lined up in our pre-race position, directly under the center field seats. Teddy was first, George was second, Abe was third, and I was coming out last.

“Two to go!” our boss yelled.

I started to get excited. My heart started to beat faster as I realized that I was about to run my first real race in front of thousands of people. I thought about my grandmother and how much she would have loved to have been at the game, eating chicken tenders and fries, eating ice cream, and watching me run, yelling “Go, Tom! Go!”

“One to go!”

The race could start at any moment. The next pitch could be it. A few moments later, the crowd, albeit a small one because of the dreary and misty weather, cheered as the Nationals made the last out.

“Get ready!”

The introduction video played on the jumbotron. This was it. Run fast. Don’t fall. Stay off the grass. Get off the field.

“GO! GO! GO! GO!”

Here is the video to watch the race.

As you can tell from the video, as we were approaching the turn to head down to the third base line, I made my move outside George and tried to increase my speed and pass the others before we crossed the finish line.

Then I felt something. One of the other Racing Presidents had run into me. My costume started to jostle. I started to stumble and felt like I was going to fall. The momentum of the costume moved my body to the right and sent me into the wall. The costume bounced off the wall and I began to lose my footing and again I thought I was going to fall. Then, our boss’s direction flashed in my mind.

“NOBODY FALLS TODAY!”

I had to do whatever I could to stay upright but having a 50-pound costume with much of the weight five or six feet above my head was making it quite difficult. Out of the small area I used to see, I noticed there was the railing that prevented fans from coming (or falling) on to the field. It had thin metal bars that ran vertically between the wall and the top of the railing, so I grabbed at them, thinking that if I could hold on, maybe I could stay upright, and most importantly, not fall.

As I grabbed at the bars, the fingers on my right hand got caught between the rails, and I felt a sharp pain in my hand. Despite the pain, I continued to grab at the bars until I was able to regain my balance and continue running through the finish line. After the post-race celebration, we exited the field and made our way up the tunnel and into the underbelly of the stadium.

Once we were underneath the stadium, we pulled our heads out of the costumes to take a breath and talk about the race.

“I told George to take you out!” our boss yelled. “You were supposed to fall!”

“You told us today,” I responded, “‘under no circumstances does anybody fall,’ so when I got hit, I was doing everything I possibly could to stay up. That’s why my hand is in pain. I might have broken a finger trying to grab ahold of the railing to not fall. All I kept thinking was, don’t fall or you’ll get fired!”

We all had a good laugh as I eventually realized my fingers weren”t broken, but sprained.

Doing my best, while broken

As I worked more games, the entertainment staff director and the other veteran Racing Presidents would secretly talk behind my back, giving me the impression that I was going to be taken out again and that I would surely fall because of it.

“Parker, if you fall, you’re fired,” he would joke with me each race.

I was nervous about being taken out by surprise, especially because of the pain that I felt in my left shoulder. In addition to the pain in my fingers, I damaged my shoulder in that fateful Sunday race and was in a lot of pain. My primary care physician suggested a shoulder brace and Advil, but that did no good as the pain continued. After a visit to an orthopedic surgeon and a few x-rays, he determined that I had sprained my AC joint. He sent me to eight weeks of physical therapy, which helped, albeit only a little. I fought through the pain and continued to race in games and work external events.

But every time I did, my shoulder would throb. My teammates watched me don a special t-shirt with sewn-in foam padding that I wore to take some of the pressure off my shoulder. It didn’t work much, and the pain persisted.

Sitting in the locker room with my padded shirt, which many football players use underneath their shoulder pads.

Each game I worked through the spring and summer, I was nervous about further injuring myself, perhaps even suffering a permanent injury, either by getting taken out by another Racing President or just tripping on something and falling. I ran as Tom in the May 3rd race, which was a lot of fun because we had a very elaborate skit related to the Washington Capitals playoff series against the Pittsburgh Penguins and the game on May 6th. In June, I raced as Tom again on the 6th and had my first win as a Racing President. I raced again on the 22nd, again as Tom.

I continued to be the brunt of lots of jokes in July and August, but I never complained and always played along. I had pretty thick skin for those sorts of things, and I’m confident that they only singled me out because I played along with it. I’m sure if I had said something, they would have stopped. Nevertheless, I was lucky to be assigned as the GEICO Gecko for some of the All-Star festivities, which I very much appreciated being a part of. Then I raced again as Tom on July 20th earning my second victory, then on August 1st and August 23rd.

As the season wound down, the Nationals weren’t in the hunt for the playoffs and the excitement for the season started to fade. I worked the games on September 2nd and the double header on the 8th. My body was hurting. The physical therapy wasn’t doing much, so I had resorted to getting bi-weekly full-body massages and attending yoga classes to try to stretch out the muscles around my shoulder so the entire joint would loosen up and eventually heal.

As 2018 ended, I reflected on the games and the other events I had worked, including the White House Easter Egg Roll, an Air Force retirement ceremony, a company softball game in the outfield of Nationals Park, the Nationals Dream gala, and the new intro video for the Racing Presidents. It was a good year and I knew that if I could heal up, completely, that I’d be set to go for 2019. I just hoped they would bring me back.

Invited to return, I’m ready for a great 2019 season

In January 2019, I once again tried out for the Racing Presidents and was offered a spot back on the squad. During the phone call in which I was offered to return, my boss told me that he expected me to work more external events as I had not done my fair share the previous year. I shared, for the first time in detail, my injuries that lingered throughout 2018, and that I was now fully healed and would be ready to exceed the minimum expectations for games and external events.

I was now a veteran Racing President, and I felt infinitely more comfortable in the costume and running races. I wasn’t overcome with nervousness and I could actually take in the moments as I was in them. The race skits I was a part of went well and according to plan, and my boss always seemed happy with my performance.

I worked as many games and external events as I could, everything from weddings to trade shows, from elementary school events to summer camps, from public appearances to private parties. I even worked a Congressional event and was one of the Racing Presidents in the NBC4 “Hand it to Handly” video featured on the local NBC affiliate. (And yes, I wore the George costume and won the race.)

I raced in the games on April 14, April 18 (as George), April 27 (as Tom…and a victory), May 2 (as Teddy), May 16 (as Tom), June 19 (as George), June 20 (as Tom), July 4 (as Tom), July 26 (as George), July 31 (as Tom), August 13 (as George), and August 14 (as Teddy).

The most exciting race I participated in was the Sunday Night Baseball game on May 19th. That night’s game, was featured on ESPN and the only baseball game to be played on Sunday night, which meant every baseball fan had the game on.

Because of that, the Presidents Race was going to be huge and shown on live television. Usually, MASN would broadcast a few seconds of highlights as they returned from a commercial break. But our boss told us that for this game, it would be live on television, and it was going to be a relay race between the Racing Presidents and four new mascots resembling the four announcers for ESPN’s Sunday night baseball crew.

I was in the caricature-like bobble-head mascot of Matt Vasgersian, the play-by-play announcer. Some of my teammates were in the others, Jessica Mendoza, Alex Rodriquez, and Buster Olney.

Here is the video of the race, in which you can see that my Racing President teammate, Abe got to me late, but I did everything I could to catch up to Buster. I needed just a few more feet and I would have made it.

That was definitely the fastest I have ever run in my life.

This is a screenshot from Alex Rodriguez’ Twitter account. Technically, I got to meet him, though I was wearing a costume.

I was trying to do as much as I could that season, not only to meet my requirements and expectations, but also because my wife was pregnant, and we were expecting our first child in late August or early September. I knew the first few weeks (or even months) would be hectic.

But within a few weeks after my daughter’s birth, I was racing again, working the game on September 4 and another one on September 24.

I was doing my part to help the team as best I could, keeping the fans engaged, and maybe bringing some vigor to the team so they stayed energized, and maybe that might help them pull off a much-needed late-season victory.

Suddenly, the Nationals won eight games in a row to end the season and secured a spot in the National League Wild Card Game. Then, in front of 43,000 fans, the Nationals scored three runs in the bottom of the eighth inning to secure the victory and move on to the NL Division Series.

Then the entertainment staff got an email asking for a Racing President who was available for four hours the next morning to do a local television circuit the next morning. As I was on paternity leave from work, I was available for the whole morning and was selected for the shift. On Thursday, October 3rd, the day the series against the Dodgers started, I donned the Teddy costume and joined the Nationals mascot Screech for three television appearances at the local ABC, Fox, and NBC affiliates. Bouncing from studio to studio, I found myself in the middle of weather updates, sports reports, and general broadcasts…on live television. Once again, I was doing my part, as best I could.

Screech is helping deliver the weather report, and yes, it appears as if I’m brushing his feathers…

I was excited, as the rest of the entertainment staff was, but the Nationals had never won that series before. The Dodgers won. They always had.

Later that night, the entertainment staff reserved a bar in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington, DC to watch the game. Despite the newborn at home, I still managed to watch the game with the crew for a few innings before relieving my wife and giving her a break. The Nationals lost that first game in Los Angeles, but won the second game, tying the series as it returned to Washington, DC.

The series went to five games and the Nationals, miraculously, beat the Dodgers to move on to the National League Championship Series. Then, the Nationals kept winning and swept the Cardinals in game four of the series to win the pennant and head to the World Series for the first time since 1928.

As the Nationals never had home field advantage, the games the entertainment staff worked were limited, and I didn’t get an opportunity to race in any of the games.

Instead, my wife and I drove to New Jersey to give her parents some time with our daughter. We were watching game seven of the World Series with the Astros up 2-0 as my father-in-law turned to me: “I think the Astros will pull it out.” In the top of the seventh inning, the Nationals scored three runs, adding another in the eighth, and two more in the ninth. The Astros were down by four runs in the bottom of the ninth, and that was how it ended. The Nationals had won the World Series!

The Washington Capitals had won the Stanley Cup in 2018, the Washington Mystics won their first WNBA Championship in 2019 and the Nationals won the World Series. Washington D.C. was starting to be called Washington, District of Champions.

Several weeks later, I received an email from the Nationals that indicated that all full-time and part-time employees would receive a World Series ring. “We truly appreciate everyone’s hard work and commitment to the organization over the years,” the email read.

I didn’t return to the entertainment staff in 2020 and looking back it seems fitting to end my short tenure on a World Series championship. Nevertheless, after waiting for many months, in mid-June, I finally received a follow-up email that said that the rings would be available soon, and four days later they were.

On Wednesday, June 24th, I rode my motorcycle from my apartment in Arlington, Virginia to Nationals Park and was directed to one of three Nationals employees who were handing out ring boxes. I gave my name to the attendant and she found my name on the list.

“Just sign and date,” she said, pointing to the empty boxes next to my name.

A moment later, a person behind her handed me a white cardboard box that was about 9 inches by 12 inches. A sticker on the outside had my name on it.

“Have a great day,” the woman said to me.

“Thanks,” I replied with a smile. “Thank you very much.” I put the box in my backpack and rode back home. I waited until Abby got home from work to open it. When she walked in the front door, she immediately saw the white box sitting on our television console.

“So,” she said looking at me with wide eyes, “do you want to open it up?”

I nodded and slowly opened the box, reading the information inside before opening the ring box. There was a letter from the Lerner family, the owners of the Nationals. There was a story about the ring, the meaning behind its components, and how it was designed.

Then, nuzzled in some paper confetti was a blue ring box with the word Jostens, the ringmaker, on the top.

I opened it up and saw the sparkle of the crystals, the red curly W, and the words “World Champion.” SCHAFFEL was engraved on the side. I would always have this ring to show that I was part of something special, especially because, up until the posting of this story, very few people knew of my affiliation with the Nationals. Only close friends, family, and work supervisors knew that I was one of the Racing Presidents.

Even though I’m no longer a part of the entertainment staff, I’ll always be able to look at my ring and think back to my tiny role in something historic and think of the memories of when I was part of an elite, secretive group that entertained millions. At least I can think that Grandma would have been proud.

I ran fast. I didn’t fall. I stayed off the grass. I got off the field.

To my former teammates, LFG and keep doing great things and entertaining tens of thousands. To the Nationals, thanks for an incredible opportunity.

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