To fans, he is just another giant shaggy head at the ballpark, another clumsy but lovable mascot in the world of sport.
But spend some time in the clown-size shoes of Keyote, the doglike character that delights folks at home games for the Frederick Keys minor league baseball team, and a different view emerges.
Peer beyond the floppy ears, the two-foot-long snout, the fixed goofy smile, the moon-eyed, happy-go-lucky antics of a sports team mascot, and you find that the life of a living, breathing cartoon character is not only hugs and autographs. His is also a world of claustrophobia, sadistic children, moldy costumes and broken shoes.
And Emily Huff, a Frederick County high school student who began playing Keyote this spring, loves almost every demanding, frenetic, dehydrating minute of it.
"The younger kids are the ones that I live for," says Emily, 17, of Walkersville before a game last week at the ballpark in Frederick.
Keyote has been hit in the head by a ceremonial first pitch. He has fallen down steps. He has fallen up steps. He has been mobbed by children who tried to rip his head off, and he has been pummeled with miniature baseball bats. The all-too-real peculiarities of a life-size costume require that Emily make sure her trusty blue bottle of Febreze, an odor neutralizer, is close at hand.
But Keyote also draws crowds of kids who want to hug him. They bury their faces in his fur. They stroke his muzzle. They pet his ears. They seek his loopy autograph. They blurt out things such as: "Keyote, you are so cool!" Even the smallest children push in close. Others are nudged forward by their parents. "Hugs are my favorite. That's the best," Emily says.
Promotions are critical to the success of any minor league baseball team because the teams operate on shoestring budgets. Chris McMurry, who heads public relations for this Class A club, a farm team of the Baltimore Orioles, is talking about public relations while waiting with the rest of the grounds crew to roll out the tarp for a threatened thunderstorm.
The Keys draw about 300,000 visitors a year to their home games. About 33 percent of the team's fans come from Frederick County, and 22 percent drive up from Montgomery County, McMurry says. Sizable percentages also come from Howard and Carroll counties and Loudoun County in Virginia.
Putting on a show within the show is especially important these days to a team such as the Keys, McMurry says. Now in their 16th year, the Keys can no longer rely on novelty alone to draw fans. Thus, there is Blues Brothers night, Launch-A-Ball night, Sponge Bob night, Bark in the Park night and, of course, fireworks. And there are the regulars, such as Keyote and Mr. I.M. Fun.
"Keyote is huge to these kids," McMurry says.
Inside the Doghouse
About an hour before the first pitch, Emily suits up in an air-conditioned press box, dubbed the Doghouse, at Harry Grove Stadium. The Febreze bottle sits by the window.
She comes to the ballpark wearing a gray Walkersville High School T-shirt and blue gym shorts with an Eagles logo. She also wears a brown bandanna, tied Russian babushka-style around her head.
"I have to wear my hair in the tightest bun known to man," she says. This is key, she added, not only for keeping her long blond hair in place but also for absorbing sweat. Now and then she fortifies herself from her supply of an electrolyte-filled sports drink. The room is littered with props -- hula hoops, colored wigs, an inflatable ship captain's wheel, a sorcerer's pointy cap and many, many straw hats -- most of which belong to Mr. Fun, who leads the Fun Patrol. A few weeks ago, Emily says, some of Mr. Fun's stuff was borrowed to rig up one of the two Keyote uniforms with a wig, leis and a pink dress for a Mother's Day skit.
Then Emily begins her transformation into Keyote.
First she dons the Muscle Suit, as she calls it -- a padded undergarment that resembles a bullet-proof vest. It helps her put a little girth into Keyote. It also smooths over and conceals any anatomical clues that might give away the gender of the person playing Keyote, she says.
Next comes a vest, fur sleeves and a shaggy mantle, which fits around her neck to hide her skin. Then she tugs Keyote's jersey over her head, glad to see that this is the one with snaps on its shirttails so that it won't shift up and expose anything when she bends over.
"Ewww," she says. "Dust."
She gingerly plucks a gray wad of lint from the seat of the black pants and slips them on. Into the belt loops go two felt-tip markers, at the ready for when people offer programs, shirts or what-have-you for Keyote to autograph. To land the job, in fact, she had to practice signing Keyote's name.
Emily, who will be a senior this fall at Walkersville High, got her start in mascotting when she put on a cow costume for the local Chick-fil-A franchise. She discovered she liked the way people reacted to her.
"Don't ask me why I loved it, but I did," she says. It was more lively than working as a server for a local caterer or baby-sitting, although those weren't bad jobs, she says during an interview at her family's home.
Her father, Paul, who works with Bechtel Corp.'s division in Frederick, moved the family from Georgia to Frederick County more than four years ago. Her mother, Lisa, stays home to look after Emily and her two younger sisters, Rachel and Katie.
When she's not making $25 a game as Keyote -- more for promotional appearances -- she focuses on the sorts of things other students do, such as reading "Anna Karenina" for her Advanced Placement English class next year or creating art on a computer. Playing Keyote, though, has reinforced her desire to become an English teacher working with children.
This spring, her friend Nick Hadad talked her into trying the Keyote job. Nick, 19, who graduated from Walkersville last year and lives down the street from Emily, splits the Keyote duties with her. He's slight, not as tall as Emily, who is 5 foot 7, and talks about heading to community college next year to prepare for becoming a veterinarian. While working with the Fun Patrol last week, he was wearing a pony tail under a sailor hat decorated with a dog's face and floppy ears.
Whenever they're together, Emily and Nick talk tradecraft, which often revolves around the costume.
"By the way, does the suit smell okay?" Nick asks her, sitting in the Doghouse.
"It smells okay," she says.
"I think I finally got rid of the mold," he says before explaining how he has washed it several times and hung it out to dry. "Behold the Keyote freshness."
Other talk revolves around encounters with kids. There was the time, for example, that Nick was playing Keyote and spotted a 9-year-old boy with a miniature baseball bat coming toward him for a hug. Or so Nick thought.
"He said: 'Guess what, Keyote? It's my birthday,' and he bats me upside the head," Nick recalls. Not that he felt it: There is so much foam inside Keyote's head that the mascots are well protected.
The next thing Nick saw was an entire birthday party of boys descending on him with their bats while their parents stared blankly, apparently pleased that the boys seemed to be having a nice time. Keyote had to jump a railing to escape.
"Some people don't understand there's a living, breathing person in that suit who feels pain and can get hurt," Nick says.
But there was another encounter that has made for just as lasting a memory. Last summer, a father and son approached Keyote as he signed autographs along the third base line. The boy, who looked about 5 years old, clung to his dad in such a way that Nick thought the lad was terrified.
Then the man leaned in close to speak to the mascot.
"Keyote," the man said, "Christopher is blind. He just wants to know what you feel like."
The little boy patted Keyote's muzzle. He scratched behind Keyote's ears. He thanked Keyote for the encounter, and they left.
"It was so sweet," Nick says, "I wanted to cry."
Playing the Game
Outside, through windows fogged by the air conditioning, Harry Grove Stadium seems like a green jewel. Beyond the outfield wall, which is kaleidoscopic with promos and ads, the sky shows no threat of the rain that has been forecast, and the visiting team is taking batting practice. Emily is not even sure which team the Keys are playing. Someone else says it's the Myrtle Beach Pelicans from South Carolina.
Next come the laughably enormous black shoes, so battered that Charlie Chaplin might have chucked them by now.
Emily is not ready to put on the head yet. Instead, she runs down the schedule. There will be a slingshot game, in which Mr. Fun and members of the Fun Patrol launch balled-up T-shirts into the crowd. For Keyote, this means dashing from one side of the field to the other. There is also a Frisbee toss, Emily says. And, of course, there will be the seventh-inning stretch singalong and the shaking of the keys -- a tradition.
Suddenly, Mr. Fun makes an appearance. Outside the ballpark, most know him as Jeff Bertoni, a 36-year-old father of three who lives in Frederick. He is also a reading and theater arts teacher at Montgomery County's Neelsville Middle School. But now, the onfield emcee is wearing a Mad Hatter hat and, when not gently razzing Emily, talking about his days playing Keyote.
"There's total anonymity in it," Bertoni says. "You can go and sit in someone's lap. You can act as crazy as you want. Then after the game you take off the head and walk out, and nobody knows you."
Well, almost. People can become so caught up with the character, it's hard to stop.
"I've gotten out of the suit and seen a kid and started waving "How ya' doin',' and he's, like, 'Why are you waving at me?' " Bertoni says. Before leaving the Doghouse, he reminds Emily that Spider-Man -- another promotional character -- is also on hand for the game.
Keyote's head comes last. Considering its size, it's fairly light. But it's also cumbersome and stifling. You can only see out of the eyes and through the mouth, which are covered with mesh. The first time she put it on and buckled the chin strap, she says, she felt claustrophobic and could not wait to get out.
"I compare it with being in a very close-quartered sauna," she says. Now she's used to it, although she still bumps its bulbous snout into things from time to time.
On it goes, and the 155-pound blue-eyed blond girl with the peaches-and-cream complexion disappears inside.
Keyote plunges from the icy air-conditioned haven of the Doghouse into the gelatinous air of a humid summer night. He hardly takes 10 steps from the press box before an elderly man puts down his hamburger to wave.
A mascot's Don'ts are simple: No talking. No obscene gestures. No violence. Never take the costume's head off in public.
The Dos are simpler: Be energetic.
Matthew Potts, a carrot-topped 8-year-old from Mount Airy, spots Keyote coming and bolts from his seat to give him a hug. The corn dogs and tacos mean as much as the baseball, Matthew says, but he busts out laughing at the mention of Keyote.
"I like Keyote," the third-grader says. "Once, when I gave him my hat to sign, he was chewing on it."
Minutes later, Keyote whiffs at a ceremonial pitch from Spider-Man. That's followed by several posed photographs with sponsors. Then a horde of little baseball players from the Olney Boys and Girls Club's Bionicles team swarms Keyote for hugs, caresses and autographs. They gaze at him in wonder. All is going well until No. 6, a knee-high player named Ross "Tre" Washington III, gets an idea.
"Hey, let's tickle him till he falls down!" says Tre, who lives in Silver Spring. The boys crowd in, pawing at the mascot, getting friskier. Keyote backs away a little, palms up, waving his arms to the boys to make them stop.
"Hey, guys, be nice," one of the Little League coaches says.