Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln Credit: AMAN KIDWAI

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While Nationals fans agonize over Bryce Harper‘s next move, 51 entertainment-minded hopefuls arrived at the Washington Nationals Youth Academy in Southeast on Sunday morning with their own stress and worries. They came in all ages, backgrounds, and levels of experience, but only a select few would have the chance to be part of the action come game day at Nationals Park.

But little of what happened this winter morning had to do with the game of baseball. Sunday marked the 13th year the Nationals have hosted tryouts to serve as the Washington Nationals Racing Presidents, the baseball team’s mascots who wear oversized costumes of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and Thomas Jefferson and also run the beloved mid-fourth inning Presidents Race.

The group included candidates from ages 18 to those in their 70s, with a large number of women. Even those who have previously served as a Racing President have to try out again every year.

The large turnout thrilled Tom Davis, the team’s director of entertainment.

“I think it’s important to have a good time, have fun with it,” Davis says. “The whole idea is to be a mascot and entertain people. It’s a long season and I wanna make sure the enthusiasm keeps up for the entire year.”

A nervous energy stretched through the air even before the tryouts began. As they took the field, the aspiring mascots warmed up in a variety of ways, from high-stepping to yoga and other agility exercises.

Three at a time, candidates donned the 50-pound president costumes for their heat. The heat consisted of an individual 40-yard dash before two races around the right field corner of the warning track. Then came the hard part—an impromptu celebratory dance and victory pose, all while Phil Collins’ greatest hits blared from the stadium speakers.

“The most surprising thing was how tired I am,” says Greg, a 28-year-old first-time attendee. “[After] the first race, I was exhausted, and then they make you do it again, and then they immediately want you to do it again and then dance and pose.”

Nationals staff check on Teddy Roosevelt Credit: AMAN KIDWAI

Over 250 people applied to the Nationals’ job posting for this role, and from that group 55 received invitations to attend Sunday’s tryout. The 51 who showed up represented familiar subsections of D.C. area residents, including teachers, government and non-profit workers, former college athletes, a lot of runners, and a handful of people with previous mascot experience.

The latter group had an advantage in how to entertain while in a costume, but not with running while carrying extra weight a few feet above their head.

“The toughest part was knowing who’s around me” says Andrew, a 48-year old school principal from Montgomery County. “You really can’t know where the other presidents are.”

“I wasn’t expecting it to be as substantially strapped in,” another candidate says. “It’s built like a hikers backpack… a bit top heavy… [To prepare] I tried wearing a backpack that had some dumbbells in it, but there’s nothing you can do to prepare for the balance.”

“The actual race itself was pretty challenging, with some good competition,” he adds.

Thomas Jefferson Credit: AMAN KIDWAI

After the on-field portion, the Nationals selected final candidates for interviews with the entertainment department’s leadership and human resources. Those who make it through that last step will find out the team’s decision by the end of the week, at which point they may become part of the organization.

The motivation for the candidates ranged from Nationals fandom to enthusiasm for the craft of entertainment, and just plain having a good time.

“I have my summers off,” says Maria, a 47-year-old high school teacher. “So I’m always trying to do something fun. Life is short! … I get to meet a lot of interesting people on a Sunday morning, and get a cool story for Monday I can tell my students.”

While the overall mood was certainly friendly, it was still an intensely competitive environment, much to the delight of Davis, who realized he would have a number of high-quality options to choose from. Candidates in costume made all sorts of attempts to stand out, including showboating during their race, acrobatics in their dance routine, and theatrical falls, with a lot of impressive athleticism on display.

“The competition is stronger than I thought,” says Greg. “I thought it would be a bunch of older dads.”