Wednesday, May 28, 2003
Story by Fred McKissack
He hadn’t slipped into Maynard’s body and head since the day he won the tryout, and even that was brief in comparison. Yet Timothy Bartelt appeared surprisingly tranquil given that this was his first official public appearance as the Madison Mallards mascot.
In reality, the 19-year-old would be in front of several thousand more people while walking through Monona during the town’s annual Memorial Day parade than he would at the team’s June 11 home opener.
The tall, curly haired Madison East High School grad said he just wanted to do a good job and have fun, his demeanor reminiscent of the played-down cool of an East Side hipster rather than wide-eyed, gee-whiz-ain’t-this-neat.
This wasn’t what he had mind for the summer. Bartelt’s original plan upon returning home for the summer from the University of Pittsburgh was to work in a chocolate factory.
His short journey from man to man-as-mallard started out on an overcast, slightly muggy Sunday eight days earlier, when nine men and one woman turned up for the Mallards public tryout at their Warner Park home known as the “Duck Pond.”
All were trying out for the job of Maynard. Winning the job means a grueling 33-home game schedule, plus offsite promotions. Lisa Erickson, a 17-year-old Madison East junior who is in her third year of wearing the costume, fills the job of Millie D. Duck-Mallard.
Maynard G. Mallard has been the team’s mascot for the three years of the franchise’s existence; Millie landed later in the first season. Erickson actually started off her tenure with the Mallards walking around in Bonehead, a basset hound costume.
Erickson strolled the grounds in her Millie costume before the tryouts less diva and more supportive comrade-in-costume. She was one of the celebrity judges, and she also helped each contestant get into the suit, a 10-minute process of tugs and pulls.
Erickson, a slight woman, said the suit gets pretty hot during the summer. She figures she loses a couple of pounds in water weight during a game, so she goes through at least two 33-ounce bottled waters to keep hydrated.
“I love kids,” Erickson said a few minutes before she helped Jaimie Kendal-Ward, the day’s first contestant, into Maynard. “I get so many hugs during games from kids. I get to pick them up. It’s a lot of fun.”
Kendal-Ward and the nine other contestants were judged by how they handled a routine consisting of standards such as “YMCA,” “The Macarena,” “The Chicken Dance,” as well as a surprise song for improvisation and one, song-less special talent. A handful of people in the stands watched the competition. Several of them were Bartelt’s friends, who told him about the tryout after reading about it in the Wisconsin State Journal.
Kendal-Ward, a 16-year-old student at Madison West High School, trotted out in front of the judge’s table at home plate and got things going. She had taken a one-hour bus ride to Warner Park from the West Side. She was a little timid at first, but warmed up to win the judges over at the end of the routine.
“I’m tired, but it was fun,” she said, emerging from the dugout, her hair matted down. Kendal-Ward said she wants to be West’s Regent mascot next year and thought this would be good practice.
“It’s my calling,” she said, in mock seriousness.
The rest of the performers played to both the judges and the crowd, no one with more gusto during the earlier performances than Greg Werner, a 38-year-old claims adjuster from Waunakee.
As soon as the familiar horns of “YMCA” blared over the stadium’s sound system, Werner jumped up on the dugout along the third-base line and started dancing. He worked his fellow contestants, and then hopped over the railing into the stands and danced with a young woman. Werner worked the crowd like a pro. Well, he had been a pro once, for a mascot promotions company in Atlanta, where he served as Blaze, the mascot to the 1996 Paralympics.
During the improv portion, while dancing to Will Smith’s “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It,” Werner did something that most 38-year-old men dare only to imagine: the splits. Fully. Hard to the ground like a limber gymnast half his age. The place went nuts.
“Oh, that was fun,” he said, taking backslaps and high-fives from the other contestants after he emerged from the dugout/changing room. “I really like doing this. I really like the kids. But it’s much easier to do than in front of a handful of people.”
After a few more solid, but not earth-shattering performances, it was Eric Bjornling’s turn. The affable 20-year-old UW marketing major was a finalist for the Bucky Badger mascot competition, a fact that made some consider him the odds-on-favorite to become Maynard.
The Madison West grad’s performance was high-energy, and turned heads (he moon-walked during “Macarena”), but the competition still had five more contestants.
Bartelt was next. Up in the booth, Rich Reynolds, the team’s assistant general manager and public address announcer, blared out his name.
Immediately, Bartelt showed why he would eventually win the competition, when he jumped on the judge’s table.
“Whoa!” Reynolds laughed. “I thought he was going to break the table.”
Bartelt leapt off the table, then ran and jumped on top of the dugout along the third-base line. The music turned to “Macarena,” during which he danced with a few friends in the stands.
But what sealed the deal was his special talent. Bartelt rotated Maynard 180 degrees from his body without revealing his own face. Simple, imaginative.
“Oh, that was great!” Reynolds said. “That’s what we’re looking for — someone who can think on their feet.”
In the end, the scores mattered about as much as they do on Drew Carey’s “Who’s Line Is It Anyway?”
Stenman and Mallards’ owner Steve Schmitt, with some input from several members of the staff, decided to go with Bartelt. They also decided to hire Bjornling as a summer intern, and he would wear Maynard when Bartelt was unavailable. Werner’s expertise would be used on a consultative basis.
“I didn’t expect this,” a stunned Bartelt said after the competition, surrounded by the friends who had pushed him to try out. “This is crazy. Just crazy. But this is going to be really exciting.”
Kendal-Ward may have received the greatest shock. She was cast as Bonnie Bonehead, a new character.
“Hi,” she said on her cellphone as she walked out of the stadium. “Guess who I am? I’m Bonnie Bonehead.”