The Blue Jays are hosting the Yankees in a crucial game late in the season. It's the bottom of the first, bases loaded, and Troy Tulowitzki steps to the plate. I'm on the 200 level of the Rogers Centre, standing by an usher as an unlikely—but not wholly unexpected—attendee takes a seat amongst the blue jerseys.
When Tulo smacks a single into the outfield, scoring two runs, this uber fan shoots up from his seat and high-fives 10 people within 15 seconds. All eyes and voices in this section are trained on ACE, the Blue Jays' mascot, not the replay of Tulo's big single running on the JumboTron.
ACE is a god here. As I shadow ACE for the first two innings of this Sept. 23 game, fans young and old, frail and nimble, beg the big blue bird for a hug, for a selfie, anything to commemorate the moment they met the Blue Jays' joyful mascot.
In an exclusive interview, I sat down with the man inside the suit to learn what motivates him as a mascot and how he navigates a job more difficult than you might think. He takes his role as host of the party very seriously, as does the Jays organization.
First, note that I've been instructed not to reveal ACE's true identity, for reasons you may find obvious: Many sports team want to keep an air of mystery surrounding their mascots, as if revealing their Clark Kent would disappoint kids who believe in Superman.
"I've probably hugged more people in Toronto than anyone else," says the man behind the ACE costume. "I've probably even hugged more people than the Raptors mascot."
He says this with a big smile, which I'll be seeing a lot more of over our 40 minutes together. ACE is a warm and friendly guy, the kind of dude you'd love to get beers with because his positive attitude is infectious. You can tell he's not just trotting out marketing lines. Besides, he's never been interviewed before.
After five minutes of watching ACE, who has served as the team mascot for the last 11 seasons, I notice him racking up 20 hugs, 10 selfies, seven high-fives and fielding a variety of friendly hollers ranging from, "Love you ACE!" to "Yeah ACE, you're the best!" When ACE walks along the 100-level concourse, ticket holders on the way to their seats will stop and stare, jaws agape, like they just spotted Scarlett Johansson on King Street West during TIFF. He's a celebrity attracting toddlers, 20-somethings chugging beers, and old guys who were around during the BJ Birdie days.
"I'm the host of the party," ACE says of his role. "It's like I live here. I know everyone, and even if I don't know you, you're my buddy. You're in my house and that makes us automatic friends."
ACE's affability stems in part from what goes on in his life when he's not suited up. Trained as a dancer, the 36-year-old family man also works in the public service.
Anyone who has seen ACE work the Rogers Centre knows how kid-friendly he can be. Even toddlers who are crying and clutching a mom's leg get the kneel-down-don't-be-shy treatment from ACE. For a party host who has to remain mute while interacting with fans, ACE impresses me by wordlessly converting a scared kid to a child wrapping his arms around his fur.
"I love people and it's why I have this job," says ACE. "It doesn't matter if my knees and back are hurting from kneeling so long, or feeling that sweat drip down my face, I realize this is the fans' time. I'm the representation of the Jays, so when they hug me they're hugging the team."
ACE has a set schedule organized by in-game producers, such as assisting the person throwing the first pitch, or "helping" the clean-up crew on field between innings. He dances atop the home dugout at set times, and is expected to whip the crowd into a frenzy with flags and arm pumps. He works with a handler, who is even more bubbly and friendly than he is, and she acts as ACE's voice. She traffic-controls crowds, takes photos for fans, and moves ACE to various areas of the Rogers Centre. She keeps a felt parrot in her bag in case Edwin Encarnacion smacks a homer and takes his bird for a walk around the bases, giving ACE the chance to bring some puppetry to his act.
If you've noticed ACE getting less acrobatic the past couple years, it's intentional. He used to perform backflips, scale the outfield wall and jump over it, or smack into the wall during the field clean-up. But he's been forced to scale back a bit after suffering numerous injuries over the years—a torn AC joint; fractured spine falling onto a stadium chair; and 10 stitches to his chin after slipping in the dugout.
"I got a family now and another job that requires a healthy body so I don't want to spend my days off limping around," he says.
Besides, he says, the Jays organization has found other ways to integrate him into the between-innings breaks through video segments, similar to how the Raptors mascot is prominently featured on the Air Canada Centre videoboard.
But ACE says he still gets his dance on, to songs ranging from "Hooked on a Feeling" to "Jump Around," and performs some mild acrobatics in order to maintain that "superhero quality of ACE, that he can do stuff normal people can't."
Another challenge for ACE comes up during kid-friendly games, when camps or elementary schools come to check out the team. "I'm practically swimming through children," he says, "and I'm sometimes 15 kids deep with them all around me. If someone falls, it can get messy."
He also has to keep his focus among a downpour of fans descending on him at any given moment, whether they are drunk bros gabbing with him while kids are waiting for photos or agreeing to a selfie in the stands and keeping his giant head out of people's sightlines.
One part of the job ACE especially loves is the All-Star Game festivities, where he's able to chat about the highs and lows of his job with fellow MLB mascots. ACE cherishes those conversations with the veterans who've donned the costume for decades. "It's great to learn from these guys who were around before selfie culture, when mascots could interact more with players and umps.
"There's something about being in a suit that only other people in a suit can relate to." He adds with a wink, "And there may or may not be a secret Facebook group for MLB mascots."
The toughest part of being ACE? Saying no to fans. "It's the classic line from people: 'Just one more shot,'" he says. "Every mascot has heard it a million times. Staying longer in an area can make some people happy, sure, but I have a schedule and I have places to be. It's difficult, because I want to make everyone happy. But my handler communicates to anyone I disappoint that I love them, but I have to go."
And go he does. When I watch ACE that Friday night, he's a blur of blue fur and high-fives and quick hugs, covering an entire 200 section within minutes and then taking the elevator down to the 100 level to interact with even more fans.
Heads crane away from the game to see why everyone is buzzing. Kids careen into his legs. Bros with beer in one hand high-five him with the other. ACE is the host and everyone wants to say hi. And with the Jays comfortably in the lead this game, everyone is all smiles. And so is the man behind the costume, smiling widely under his mesh beak.