Gapper: Playing Cincinnati Reds mascot is challenging, but rewarding, job

When Nick St. Pierre finishes a typical day at work, he's often dripping wet with sweat, has vomited a couple of times and has lost between eight and 12 pounds.

Occasionally, he also gets yelled at.

Still, St. Pierre relishes his job. And you've probably seen him.

St. Pierre is the man underneath the crimson, furry costume with a large snout and blue nose known as Gapper, one of the four mascots of the Cincinnati Reds.

"There's a huge amount of pride I have for being able to work for the team," said St. Pierre, who talks quickly and is filled with frenetic energy.

"There are so many people in love with the Reds."

A Pitch For Mascot's Return

Now 42, he began working for the team 16 years ago as part of the promotional crew now known as the Reds Rally Pack.

There was no costume then. He was just a guy who used an air gun to shoot T-shirts into the crowd and horsed around with fans. But St. Pierre excelled at it and connected with people, which management noticed.

During Marge Schott's ownership, the team eschewed any costumed mascots in favor of her beloved Saint Bernard, Schottzie.

But once she began scaling back her involvement with the team in 1997, the team decided to bring back Mr. Red, the character with the giant baseball head – which had been last used about a decade earlier.

St. Pierre was offered the job, and he quickly accepted.

Although managers wanted to also hire another person so the grueling, 80-plus game home schedule could be split between them, St. Pierre convinced them he could handle the workload.

"I would rather be the sole person who does it," he said. "A little bit is greed, but it's also from watching the Cyclones' Snowbird, the penguin mascot they used to have.

"If you went to too many Cyclones game in a row, you recognized the fact that it was two different guys," St. Pierre added. "This guy can skate, this one can't; the body language was so different that it killed the character and made it just a guy in a suit."

A Baseball For A Head

The original Mr. Red costume wasn't fancy; the huge noggin was crudely made from leather and plastic, and weighed about 10 pounds. It rested solely on St. Pierre's shoulders, because there wasn't a body portion to the suit at that point.

"I looked like a golf ball sitting on a tee," he said. "I still have some scars on my shoulders from wearing that thing for 81 games a season."

At first, some fans didn't know how to react to the mascot.

"I had to work exceptionally hard to get try to get people comfortable with that character … The first few people I ran into thought I was just some kind of crazy fan," he said. "Some people just would call me Ball Head."

After a few years, Mr. Red got invited to an All-Star Game in Seattle to join other MLB mascots on the field. While there, then-Reds Chief Operating Officer John Allen approached St. Pierre, and asked him for ideas to make the imposing Mr. Red more kid-friendly.

His answer was blunt: Dump Mr. Red and introduce a sillier, more flexible, cartoonish character like those used by the Pittsburgh Pirates, San Diego Padres and other teams.

"Those guys were basically doing the same things that I was, but they had these killer suits," St. Pierre said. "Every time they move, the suit exaggerates the movement they've just done so much.

"I wanted a suit that rests on top of the head and has some type of snout that I could  use as a prop, so when I wiggled my head, this thing would go crazy," he said. "I also wanted a belly and big butt that could shake."

And, he said, it had to be colorful.

Allen listened intently but didn't say anything.

"Mr. Allen was kind of quiet and conservative," St. Pierre said. "I was a little worried that I was blowing him away and he wasn't into it."

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Gapper Is Born

The conversation wasn't mentioned again. About a year later, St. Pierre was told to go to New York and get fitted for a new costume by a professional designer.

As he entered the large, open studio, St. Pierre saw a bizarre, furry suit hanging on a rack. "I was moving this thing out of the way, looking for my ball head."

The Gapper costume, which costs about $18,000, was designed and made by David Raymond, the man who wore the original Phillie Phanatic suit for two decades.

Generally, mascot costumes range in price from about $1,500 to $35,000 for the most sophisticated like the Phanatic.

Gapper made his debut at Redsfest in December 2002, before helping launch the inaugural season at Great American Ball Park the following spring.

But instead, young fans flocked to the more familiar Mr. Red, pushing the strange new character out of their way.

"All of a sudden, Mr. Red is getting all this love that I had worked so hard for," he said.

St. Pierre knew he needed to win the affection of kids all over again if he wanted to keep his job. The key, he decided, was creating an inviting personality.

"Gapper is very shy until he gets comfortable with you. He's like a pet," St. Pierre said. "When I think about it, he is some pets that I've owned, especially a dog I owned when I was a kid.

"He's also a little bit of Harpo Marx, who communicates with a whistle."

Part Of A Team

Gapper and Mr. Red are part of a four-person mascot lineup that includes the demure Rosie Red and Mr. Redlegs, another baseball-headed figure who wears an old-fashioned uniform and has a handlebar mustache.

Amy Burgess, a dance instructor and choreographer, plays Rosie; Michael Hirsch, who is an assisted living coordinator when he's not in costume, plays Mr. Red.

Rounding out the group is Brad Barnes, an assistant youth minister, who portrays Mr. Redlegs.

St. Pierre, a Mount Orab native who attended Western Brown High School, works fulltime for the Reds as events coordinator, when he's not in his mascot uniform.

His duties range from scheduling mascot appearances and repairing the costumes, to maintaining the stadium's four-wheelers and responding to fan mail.

Fun, But Physically Grueling

Playing a mascot has been St. Pierre's most physically demanding gig.

St. Pierre said that during May and June, the mascots can drop between eight to 10 pounds of water weight per game, In July and August, they lose about 10 to 12 pounds.

During games, the mascots drink copious amount of water and cool down by wiping themselves with towels kept in buckets of ice.

St. Pierre has never fainted from the heat, but he has gotten woozy and has vomited. 

"That's what you have to be careful about. You get sucked into having such a good time with the fans. The whole ballpark is your stage," he said.

Usually St. Pierre will realize when he's about to be sick and run off the field. But once, he couldn't get the head off in time and threw up inside the headpiece dangling in front of him.

"It's all just water because of the constant hydration," he said. "I just wiped it out and put it back on." 

Just as irate fans yell at ball players, Gapper also has encountered people in a foul mood.

Once, a ticket holder was annoyed when Gapper took time away from the game for a promotional event in the outfield.

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"He stood up and preceded to have an argument in Gapper's face. He was just spitting and yelling," St. Pierre said. "It was just all nonsensical rambling."

The man, who he thought probably was drunk, poked St. Pierre in the face and was angling for a fight.

"I'm not there to impose on anybody's good time. I'm there to enhance their experience," he said.

Also, a girl once hit in Gapper's neck, which is really were St. Pierre's head is located.

Weddings And Hospital Visits

St. Pierre also became an ordained minister after a fan asked if Gapper could perform a wedding in the Fan Zone. He's since performed two others.

The part of the job that affects St. Pierre the most is entertaining sick children in area hospitals.

He once visited a boy at the Ronald McDonald House who was bed-ridden and wearing an oxygen mask. When he noticed the boy was wearing a Cubs hat, he improvised a routine where Gapper pretended to be upset. The boy giggled throughout the visit.

A few weeks later, St. Pierre got a letter and photo from the child's mother, informing him the boy had died.

"She said it was the last photo of him smiling, and thanked me," he said. "That letter always gets to me."

St. Pierre used to get depressed when the Reds season ended. But the encounters with sick kids changed that.

"It's an eye-opener," he said. "It reminds you that you ain't got it that bad."

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