Originally published Aug. 18, 1996
Lassie had Timmy. Scooby-Doo had Shaggy. Slugger the Sea Dog had Justin LeBlanc.
From April 1994, when Slugger became the mascot of the Portland Sea Dogs, he and Justin have been virtually inseparable. Justin trained Slugger, taught him to dance, to spell Y-M-C-A, to drive an ATV.
“None of these things are natural seal traits, ” Justin said. “I came on board to help him learn to do these things.”
Slugger is not your average seal. He stands more than 6 feet, has a head bigger than a beach ball and is more popular than any Sea Dogs player was or will be.
Part fan, part scamp, Slugger cavorts around Hadlock Field planting kisses, buffing heads and earning vendors’ trust, only to steal their wares and spread them to the masses. Robin Hoodwink.
Justin, a former gymnast at the University of Vermont, is at least a foot shorter. He is a 1989 graduate of Cheverus High and former director of the Greater Portland Habitat for Humanity. At 25, Justin is more than two decades older than Slugger, but dog and boy developed a special bond.
“His first year he was a little nervous, ” Justin said. “We worked pretty closely about scripting out his plan for the game. But as his learning curve improved, he’s relied on me less and less.”
As Slugger grew more confident, his magic grew stronger, magic that gleams brightest in a child’s wide eyes. But that magic also has led opposing players to regularly douse him with water, an inebriated fan to take a swing at him and a lady to proposition him.
“A lot of it goes over his head,” said Justin of Slugger, who, after being slugged, donned boxing shorts and made his entrance to the “Rocky” theme. “He’s so focused on trying to entertain people without getting in the way of their enjoyment of the game.”
There are baseball mascots funnier and more talented, but not in the Eastern League.
“He’s probably the best regular team mascot in the league, ” said Heath Jones, twice voted the EL’s best umpire. “He’s entertaining without being obnoxious.”
Even team owner Dan Burke’s initial response to having a mascot was: “That sounds lame to me.”
But Slugger’s enthusiasm and irrepressible nature won over even the most cynical observers. Sure, regulars at Hadlock probably wish for a mute button when he climbs aboard the third-base dugout for yet another Y-M-C-A dance.
“(But) while Slugger does Y-M-C-A 71 times a year, ” reminded Justin, “there’s somebody at that 71st game who’s seeing it for the first time. Slugger’s doing the dance for that person.”
Together, Justin and Slugger have visited schools and hospitals. They’ve met a president (Bush), two Kings (Angus and Stephen) and a tuna (Bill Parcells).
Alas, Friday was their last day together. Justin starts law school Monday in Georgia.
“I will miss Slugger, ” Justin said. “But I’ll have fond memories. Three years of watching Slugger get excited about the Sea Dogs, of bringing baseball back to Maine, of entertaining more than a million fans.”
And of Slugger? Will he survive the breakup?
“I think he’ll be sad, ” Justin said. “But he’s ready. He’s done a lot of new things this year. Like the Macarena. That was something I thought from the get-go was not going to fly. But he went out with a bunch of (vendors) and did it and it really took off.”
Now Justin is taking off for the town that spawned REM. That’s Slugger in the spotlight, not Justin. And Justin feels fine.
“That’s one of the benefits of the job, to sit back and watch Slugger do his magic, ” Justin said. “Watching the people laugh and enjoy him is all the reward you need.”