For a sports team, few things are usually permanent. Players often graduate, retire, and get traded. Stadiums and fields move, grow, or are rebuilt. Mascots on the other hand, rarely change once introduced. They help cultivate a team’s culture, foster good relations throughout their communities and generally entertain hundreds, thousands, or millions worldwide.
Whiting, well known around the Region for its many interesting and often somewhat off-beat attractions such as the Pierogi Fest, is on the verge of opening a celebration of those often weird and rambunctious icons that help make collegiate and professional sports so memorable - the National Mascot Hall of Fame. Featuring exhibit after exhibit showcasing the inducted mascots, the science and creativity behind them, and much more, the Mascot Hall of Fame is a premiere national museum right on the lakeshore. After years of work, opening day is less than a week away and the team behind the effort is ecstatic.
“I just can’t believe this place exists,” said David Raymond, creator of the original online version of the Mascot Hall of Fame. “I’ve seen it go from a sketch on a cocktail napkin to actually being here and seeing kids playing. It’s still very surreal and I’m proud to be a part of this group that brought it to life.”
The Hall’s striking appearance is noticeable as you drive past. The exterior is boldly colored and features the likeness of the museum’s mascot, Reggy, bursting out of its walls. Remarkably, it is an almost exact replica of the original concept art.
“The most memorable thing I heard at our opening fundraiser last night was when someone said they saw our initial renderings but thought there’d be no way it’d actually look like that,” Raymond said. “Then they said, well it does look exactly like that. It just couldn’t be more real than that. And I had two people independently tell me that exact same story.”
The interior is no less remarkable. As soon as you enter, you are met with the floating likenesses of the Hall’s inductees, ranging from Tommy Hawk and Benny the Bull, to Big Red and Mr. Met. A quick glance to the right reveals an elaborate play area where kids can play basketball, soccer, and kick field goals. For Executive Director Orestes Hernandez, a veteran sports executive with years of experience in the Miami Marlins’ front office and the PGA the Hall is something like a dream come to life.
“When they first flew me up here, these floating heads weren’t up yet, there was just this big, daunting, impressive hall,” he said. “Once they starting installing those though, well, that’s what this is all about. Those are the unsung heroes of sports right there. They usually don’t get press for visiting cancer patients, or visiting schools because it’s just expected, nobody talks about it. Yet you grow up loving a team because you love the mascot.”
Whiting Mayor Joe Stahura spearheaded the project, with his office approaching Raymond about turning the online hall into a permanent museum. Seeing the hall finally open its doors represents a huge opportunity for his city.
“I’m glad that we’re finally here because the staff’s worked their butts off to get everything ready, and it’s kind of surreal to see it finally open,” Stahura said. “We’ve been looking to add a second attraction, outside of the lakefront itself, to bring people in for tourism. We think this is going to be a big component of that, and will help fuel our economy.”
A few lucky classes of students explored the museum before days of a stressful finals at the official opening. They created their own mascots, explored the science behind the costumes, and learned about the history of the industry all through games and activities. The entire facility is designed to teach science, technology, engineering, arts, and math (STEAM) through fun.
“These kids are having so much fun with the mascot theme, the fur, and the touching this and creating that – they’re not realizing they’re learning these concepts,” Hernandez said. “STEAM is incorporated right into all of these exhibits, so we’re offering an out-of-the-box teaching tool.”
There is no shortage of exciting children’s museums out in the country, and places like Cooperstown’s National Baseball Hall of Fame are legendary. Despite the tough competition, Hernandez has big plans. If you ask him, it is only a matter of time until the Mascot Hall of Fame is a household name.
“I have two goals, one of them is to become one of the top 10 kid’s museums in the country,” Hernandez said. “The other piece is being considered in the same sentence and at the same level as Cooperstown or Canton, Ohio, those major halls of fame for sports in America. I think that might be easier than the educational goal, but they’re both doable and within reach. I want that recognition not just for the facility, but for those unsung heroes – the mascots.”