Much has been made over the past two weeks about the Dayton Dragons and their record breaking run to 815 consecutive home sellouts and all of it well deserved. The NY Times, USA Today and ESPN have all chimed in, bringing a spotlight to the birthplace of aviation (sorry Kitty Hawk, it’s Dayton). They’ve outlined the economic distress Dayton is in so I’m not going to talk about that. I’m also not going to tell you about how great the customer service has been and how President Bob Murphy and my good friend, Executive Vice President Eric Deutsch have consistently delivered quality entertainment even when the product on the field may not have been the best.
For those unaware of what’s happening, the Dayton Dragons are about to break the all time record for most consecutive sell-outs in professional sports. This spans opening day of the inaugural season in 2000 (or 2k, get it?) and barring rain delay, will break the Portland TrailBlazer’s record on Saturday, July 9, 2011. As a citizen of the Dayton metropolitan area, I’m proud of the what the Dragons represent to the community. With all due respect to the U. of Dayton and the NCAA’s First Four, the Dragons provide the brightest sparkle in what’s become a dingy Gem City.
The First Dragon
All that pleasantry aside, many of you may not know that I was once a part of the Dayton Dragon family. I have two separate experiences as a Dragon. One, in which I was literally a dragon and the other in which I had one of the best times of my collegiate life. Let’s look back into my time as a sophomore at the University of Dayton…
There I am, sitting in my dorm room in Virginia Kettering Hall when I get a call from my pseudo-sister Courtney Wendeln. At this early early stage in my story, there are two key points I must make. The first is about Courtney. Her brothers were my best friends in high school and remain part of a collection of “best friends”, if such a thing exists at 30+ years old. Her family is my second family and by default, she, my pseudo-sister. The second point that I need to make here is that my phone number in the VWK dorm was xxx-1234. We (my roommates and I) thought it was awesome (because it is). Courtney was the first person hired by Dayton Professional Baseball when Mandalay announced the team was coming to Dayton and she called me (courtesy of a conveniently easy to remember number) to see if I could help her out.
The task: BE THE DRAGON. That’s right, be the Dayton Dragon. At the time, Dayton Professional Baseball had been coy with the public and the announcement of its name. They had a contest, in fact, (an early demonstration of their connectedness with Daytonians) to name the team. Part of the way Mandalay flirted with the uninformed was by staging “dragon sightings” around the Miami Valley in which they would have a news camera film parts of the mascot suit to keep the commoners guessing as to the results of the contest. Well, for this first staged sighting, they needed a body. I was that body.
It didn’t take much cajoling on Courtney’s part to convince me to come downtown and BE the Dayton Dragon. I got down there in a hurry and was given my assignment. The biggest challenge, as far as I can see it, was putting the damn suit on me. If you’ve seen Iron Man and how he gets his suit on, you’d understand that this is really a great way to do it. We, myself and a handful of staffers at Dayton Professional Baseball, must have looked like a couple of clowns trying. What’s significant in all of this, and something I will tell people until the day I die is this: I was the FIRST person to ever wear the Dragon suit in public. Yes, I, Josh Francis, was the first Dayton Dragon.*
*I’m assuming that right now you’re putting my picture in a frame and hanging it above your fireplace mantle, possibly next to your photo of the San Diego Chicken or the Phillie Phanatic. Please don’t. I’m no hero, I’m just Josh. No pictures, please. Autographs $5 dollars, $10 for anything Dragons related.
As the original Dragon, my task was simple: infiltrate a local McDonald’s, earn their trust, and man (dragon?) the drive thru masquerading as a member of the Golden Arch Army. I’m afraid I’ve already been too detailed, but allow me a little leeway; after all, I was the first Dragon. Since the dragon suit had never been seen in public, the people at Dayton Professional Baseball were extra cautious so that nobody would see me. They shuffled me outside to a back alley where I was loaded into the back of a kidnapper’s van. No windows and I’m pretty sure no A/C. I had to lay down in the back of this van while they drove me…anywhere they wanted, really; I was in the back of a van wearing a dragon costume…what could I really do?
They drop me at a McDonald’s, to this day I don’t know which one, at which point I put on my head and went directly behind the counter. I shook hands, I danced a jig, I worked the drive thru. Glorious. But that suit sucks. You have to look through the neck, to give you a sense of how big it is, and you sweat like crazy. I’m a big guy, and yeah, I may sweat more than the average guy, but sweating doesn’t get to me. Sweating down your face when you absolutely can not wipe it off your face is like Chinese water torture. Brutal. But it was a success. I made the evening news and all my college buddies got a good laugh.
Retrospectively, this was amazing. I didn’t realize at the time that I would be a part of such a proud history. Sadly, I had a photograph, which used to make the VP at my old job laugh like crazy, but I lost it. It may still be somewhere hidden, but we can’t find it. It was me, in the dragon suit, without the head. Not that it was anything stupendous, but disproportion between my puny, insignificant head compared to that of the massive dragon torso was a bit comical.
The second part of my history with the Dragons doesn’t have quite the historical significance behind it, but it comprised four of the most fun weeks of my collegiate life. Again, we begin with Courtney calling me and asking for a favor. Apparently, as great as the Famous (San Diego) Chicken is, he poaches employees as well as he might his own eggs. He came to town and ran off with two of the Dragons’ “handlers”, as I’ll call them.
The Handlers were the folks that accompanied Walter Briggs in his pursuit of fan happiness and comprised the remainder of the entertainment staff. For 4 weeks at the end of the inaugural season and the playoffs, I had the pleasure of being one of these handlers. I got 40 bucks a game and at least 1 Dayton Dragons t-shirt. I can’t think of a better job as a college student.
My duties were a variety of things. First, we went over the “script” in which we ran through every skit we’d go through for the evening’s game and how many “outs” between each. (Outs were the currency of the game. We had 6 “outs” before we do the dancing umpire, we had 3 “outs” before we dance the YMCA, for example). Then we prepared. The most prep we ever had to do was when we had to fit Walter, a former 3rd string QB for the Jets, into 12-14 Dragons t-shirts. He did this thing where he’d run around the field taking off shirts and throwing them into the stands.* Usually though, we’d just get the water balloon launcher ready with plenty of t-shirts and hot dogs to fire at people who, I swear to God, would punch their grandmother to get them.
*On one spectacular day, Walter let ME put on the 14 t-shirts and throw them into the stands. I think he let my co-worker do it too. It was really a lot fun. Also, once Walter got a woman to take of HER shirt. Good times.
The fun on the field was great and even better when they asked us to go find “the hottest girls we could” for an on field skit. I sang (and danced) the YMCA or did the chicken dance at every game and I loved it. There was even a time when a sister team’s mascot (Rancho Cucamonga Quakes) came to town and I got to go on field with him for a special skit. Long story short, me (and my pseudo-bro) Casey pretended to be grounds crew but ended up dancing to KC and the Sunshine Band in the middle of dragging the field. The whole gig was just having fun and being out there making asses of ourselves, and I tell you what, I would do it again right now if I was asked.
As great as it was being an idiot out there in front of everyone, the most memorable things will not be from the game. It’ll be tossing a football on the field with Adam Dunn or having a drink with Austin Kearns (both of whom were the same age in Single A as I was in college). Or having dinner with Rey Olmedo. Or having a Budweiser in the clubhouse with my buddies and Walter after a long night of entertaining the masses. It’s being asked to sign the jersey of a lucky fan (who already had the whole team sign his jersey) because he said that “I was part of the team, too.” Those are things I’ll remember and tell my kids.
For now, I’ll sit here and tell those who are willing to listen about the fun times I’ve had with the Dayton Dragons. They’ve been good to me and I regret that I have’t been as good to them in return. Life, work, and two kids have really gotten in the way of enjoying the Dragons the way that I wish I could. Not that I am making excuses, because my wife and kids are more important to me than baseball, but I feel that at times I’ve taken them for granted. After all, I owe some of my greatest memories to the Dragons. They continue to host Russia night (as in Russia, OH…pronounced Roo-She) from whence I came and even my brother had been invited to sing the National Anthem (and did).
The Dragons are a bright spot, as mentioned, for the city of Dayton. I’m proud, as a member of the community to call them my own. Bust mostly, I’m just lucky. Lucky to have friends and know people associated with the organization, lucky to have a caring and excellent organization contributing to the Miami Valley, and lucky to have so many great stories to share with my friends and family.