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ESPN’s ‘Sunday Night Baseball’ mascots face uncertain future after Presidents Race debut

Buster Olney's mascot won Sunday's Presidents' Race. (MLB)

Laura Gentile was as surprised as anyone when the new mascot designed to look like ESPN reporter Buster Olney reached the finish line first in Sunday’s special edition of the Presidents Race at Nationals Park. Olney’s giant-headed likeness was paired with George Washington of the Washington Nationals’ original racing presidents in a relay competition and, upon receiving the baton from George, held off mascots modeled after his “Sunday Night Baseball” colleagues Jessica Mendoza, Alex Rodriguez and Matt Vasgersian.

“I don’t think Buster is that fast in real life,” joked Gentile, ESPN’s senior vice president of marketing, who watched Sunday’s race from home.

Gentile’s team came up with the idea to turn the “Sunday Night Baseball” crew into mascots shortly after she was promoted to her current position last September.

“If you’re a sports fan, you know the Nationals have these races and it’s a great stadium experience,” she said in a phone interview this week. “We really just wanted to play a role in that. . . . Our “Sunday Night Baseball” talent, they’re all unique individuals. They all have great personalities. It’s a distinctive booth. We just thought it was a fun way to bring them to life under the guise of what the Nationals do every single home game.”

Gentile said the Nationals, who debuted the fourth-inning Presidents Race in 2006, took to the idea immediately and were helpful throughout the process of getting the mascots made.

“We actually ended up using the vendor that created the [racing] presidents,” Gentile said. “Everything has to be authentic and true. We saw some original sketches from other vendors, and we thought, ‘Hmm, maybe not.’ ”

Still, some viewers noted that the finished products bore little resemblance to Olney, Mendoza, Vasgersian and Rodriguez and suggested that some of the images from the race were scarier than the ERA of the Nationals’ bullpen.

“Jessica’s probably looks more like Jessica than some of the others, but that’s what you get with an idea like this,” Gentile said. “They’re all amazing. We thought it was funny, especially when you see them running around. You don’t have to get that literal with them, like Matt’s hair doesn’t have to look exactly like Matt’s hair or there are bags under Buster Olney’s eyes because he’s been working really, really hard.”

Gentile said ESPN’s “Sunday Night Baseball” talent took the mascots “with good humor” when they met the disproportional versions of themselves before the game.

The ESPN mascots stood on the warning track in center field as the racing presidents took off from the left field corner. “Where’s Alex?” Mendoza asked while watching the race unfold from the broadcast booth. Rodriguez joked that the relay was “rigged” when his mascot finished dead last. It was perhaps only right that Rodriguez brought up the rear after he made disparaging comments about D.C. as a sports town during a broadcast this year.

After the game, ESPN’s racing broadcasters returned to Bristol, where their fate is to be determined. There are no plans to take the mascots on the road to other “Sunday Night Baseball” stops this season, but Sunday may not have been the last fans will see of them, for better or worse.

“The idea was specific to Washington and the game there, but if it became an annual event with the Nationals, that would be kind of fun,” Gentile said. “It wasn’t meant to be anything more than just a great way to interact with fans in a different way and show them a side of ESPN that was fun and give the viewing audience a sense of what it’s like to be in the stadium when you’re watching a Nationals game."

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