The smell of freshly cut grass, the crack of a wooden bat, a six-foot tall bald eagle mascot and GW junior Stephen Roche. These are just some things a Washington Nationals fan may see during a typical game at Robert F. Kennedy Stadium.
Roche is a member of the new team’s “Nat Pack.” The group of six super-fans are paid to get the RFK crowd pumped up and organize promotional activities during the first major league baseball home games in Washington, D.C., in 38 years.
Roche said he just applied for the position, which lasts throughout the Nationals’ 2005 inaugural season.
“The Nat Pack really works as a team,” said Roche, who when not attending every Nationals home game is the station manager at WRGW.
“It’s not just (Nationals mascot) Screech, its not just me, it’s really a group of us that put this show on every home game,” he said.
One of Roche’s primary responsibilities is ushering Screech around the stadium to interact with fans.
Roche explained the legend behind Screech, saying that that while workers were renovating RFK stadium, they found a massive egg that was taken to the National Zoo for hatching. Upon birth, Screech, who is often mistaken for a chicken or confused with the “Saved by the Bell” character of the same name, returned to RFK and has called the stadium home since.
“I like hanging out with this guy,” Roche said, giving Screech a hug at a game against the New York Mets two weeks ago. “He’s the crowd favorite, really gets everyone going.”
As Screech dances up and down the aisles of RFK stadium, everyone from little kids at their first baseball game to drunken men in the upper deck come down to be seen with the beloved mascot.
“I tell everyone I have the best summer job in the world,” Roche said. “I come to a baseball stadium to get the fans excited for a living, when I tell people that they’re usually jealous.”
Roche said the best part of the job is the extra time he gets to spend watching major league baseball players.
“The other day I called up my dad and tell him that I just saw (Philadelphia Phillies first baseman) Jim Thome, and his biceps were the size of my head,” said Roche, a long-time Phillies fan.
Many Nationals players have been gracious to the new fans and said the support they get from a home-field advantage contributes to their performance, which is markedly better from when the team was playing as the Montreal Expos. Through May 13, the Nationals were a game over .500.
“It’s been quite a surprise, I knew they were going to show up, but they have really been enthusiastic and educated about the game too,” said Brad Schnieder, catcher for the Washington Nationals.
It is Roche’s job to bring the cheers out. He said that while he loves his job, the closest calls are with drunken college-aged fans from the opposing teams.
“I almost got knocked over in the second home game,” Roche explained. “Two drunk guys starting grabbing Screech and wouldn’t let go, I knew I had to get Screech out of there as soon as possible.”
While most of the fans are excited to see Screech, others are sometimes intimidated.
As Screech walked around the stadium during a game against the New York Mets last month, Roche noticed a small child wearing a Nationals cap. As Screech approached him, the child began to cry.
“Oh he’s a nice eagle,” Roche told the youngster. “Look, he likes to give high fives,” Roche said as he jumped up to slap hands with the eagle. With that, the child’s emotion turned for the better, and the kid ran up to give the bird a hug.
Roche said he remembered his exciting first experience meeting Philadelphia’s mascot, the Philly Fanatic, who looks like a “Sesame Street” castaway. Roche said he tries to impart that enthusiasm on young fans.
“To think that I can turn a little kid into a life-long Nationals fan by taking his picture with Screech,” Roche said, “that is something I really value.”