The Man Behind the Mascot
“It’s like a switch. When you turn it on, you become somebody else.”
It may be hard for the average person to understand “becoming somebody else” just by putting on a costume. We dress up for Halloween, after all. But when you’re in that costume 150 times in a year, things change.
It seems like an easy gig. Put on a costume. Go to a baseball game. Dance around. Entertain people. Then go home. But baseball games are just a portion of Rip Tide’s appearances. The mascot’s schedule is filled with relays and 5K races as well as promotional events that encourage children to read. He can also be booked for birthday parties. “This weekend will be 11 appearances in just two days—one on Friday; 10 on Saturday,” Caruso says. For that reason, the job is split between him and another person who typically handles the day shifts.
Even though performing as Rip Tide seems like a full-time job on its own, Caruso has a regular day job—a program manager at Norfolk State University. He’s the liaison from the university to public schools, helping students that need assistance to get their academics up to par. Aside from that, he’s working toward his doctorate.
Rip Tide isn’t his first engagement in the world of mascots. For years he ran an entertainment company and performed as characters including Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Spongebob Squarepants. “But it is awkward when you first start,” he recalls. “You don’t know really what to do and you have to develop a personality for him.”
So what’s it like trying to entertain an entire stadium of fans at once? “I try to get in the crowd, walk the walls, climb on the seats, try to be bigger than just a mascot,” Caruso explains.
But it’s not all fun and (baseball) games. It’s difficult to keep the same upbeat temperament at all times. “You can have a bad day,” Caruso says. “But he can’t.” And bad days don’t get better when children kick the mascot, pull his nose and hit his head. “It echoes and it really hurts,” he says. Even worse—“Adults will sit there and laugh with the child.” Why not just ask the children to stop? Well, because mascots don’t talk.
Then when you experience two four-wheeler accidents in three years in front of 12,000 fans, it’s hard to live it down. “For me—psychologically—it was very difficult to recover from it,” Caruso says. “The first time, it was a big ordeal; it was on ESPN.” He was requested for interviews from several TV shows but refused. “Everyone said, ‘That should be a big moment.’ It wasn’t a big moment for me; it was a down moment.” “The second time,” he recalls, “It was just humiliating.”
And finally, there’s the heat. To keep himself hydrated, Caruso drinks Gatorade and water the day prior to a game, and on extremely hot days, he wears a camelback. “The only fan in [the costume] is me,” he laughs. “I’m my own biggest fan.”
But Caruso puts all that aside for what he considers to be the best part of the job: the smiles. “This brings the part that I love about me out in [Rip Tide],” he says.
Caruso finds ways to bring happiness to fans in the crowd, whether it’s giving them a quick burst of individualized attention or choosing fans at random to receive flowers. “I don’t pick somebody who’s a diehard fan; I pick somebody that it’s going to make their day—who will want to come back,” he explains. For this reason, he wants the games to be especially memorable for the elderly, the disabled and the children. “I look for that magic moment,” he says. “That’s what baseball’s about.”