By Gary Brown
When Eric Theiss was emailing the photos that help make up the display for this article, he added in his sign-off: “I never thought my track career at SUNY Oneonta could propel me to national notoriety – or better yet, becoming an over-sized squirrel.”
To be sure, the old NCAA tagline intoning that most student-athletes will go pro in something other than sports applies to this former SUNY Oneonta sprinter who turned his fleetness afoot into a pretty funny gig in baseball’s Minor Leagues.
Donning a squirrel suit for 70 homes games with San Diego Padres affiliate Lake Elsinore Storm, Theiss races fans between innings across the length of the outfield. Only he doesn’t make it a fair fight – he puts himself at a huge disadvantage.
Giving the unsuspecting fan a head start – sometimes as much as 30 or 40 yards – Theiss turns on the after-burners he used to help SUNY Oneonta win the 4x400-meter relay at the 2009 Division III Men’s Indoor Track and Field Championships and flies past the opponent at the finish line.
Rather than angering fans who are accustomed to getting the better of the mascot, they’re getting a kick out of it.
“I’m not the fastest person around,” Theiss said humbly, “but probably faster than the average person that comes into our stadium. They like that I give them the lead, and the fact that I can come back to win is fun for the fans. Plus, the way I look while running in the squirrel suit is just funny.”
It’s hilarious enough that when Theiss was essentially called up to the Majors and pulled the stunt in front of thousands of fans at the Padres’ Petco Park during a game with division-rival San Francisco in late April, the video made ESPN SportsCenter’s Top Ten Plays of the Week and made Theiss a celebrity, at least as much as squirrel can be a celebrity. To boot, the Padres rallied after Theiss’ “feat” and beat the Giants, 8-7. Manager Bud Black even tabbed Theiss “the Rally Squirrel” in his postgame remarks.
“I can’t even tell you how it came to be a squirrel,” Theiss said. After all, the Lake Elsinore team is the Storm, not the Squirrels.
Theiss tells the story of pursuing his dream of working in baseball (his lofty aspiration is to be the GM for the New York Yankees, in fact). After graduating from SUNY Oneonta in 2009 he went to baseball’s winter meetings and attended a job fair, landing a spot with Lake Elsinore, only about an hour away from San Diego.
Theiss (far left) teamed with SUNY Oneonta runners (from left after Theiss) Sean Daly, Fred Romer and Joe Reed to win the 4x400 relay at the 2009 Division III Men’s Indoor Track and Field Championships.
It was a marathon move for the sprinter, to be sure, but once the Storm staff learned of his background, they hit their promotional stride.
“For the most part, mascots at Minor League games will lose to some kid running the base paths or something like that,” the Saratoga Springs native said. “But our guys said this is a chance to do the opposite. They said, ‘Let’s have you race the fans but you give them a lead and come back and beat them.’ We had about five or six different mascot costumes lying around, and the squirrel one was the first I tried on – they thought it was funny and it kind of stuck.”
The big-tailed gag was a nut of genius. Now in his second year, Theiss’ performance is a must-see. He’s lost only once – to an 8-year-old, of all things, early last season.
“The announcer let her get almost to the finish line before he let me loose, and I couldn’t make up that much ground,” Theiss said.
He’s worried, though, that with the notoriety will come the challenge from fans who yearn to “take down the Squirrel.”
“Yeah, someone is going to come out of the woodwork,” he said. “I told my boss that there are a couple of high school kids around here who are running pretty fast, and if I see one of them come out, the suit’s coming off and I’m just running as Eric, not as the Squirrel.”
The Petco race and subsequent publicity via ESPN have intensified the spotlight for this Division III champion, but it hasn’t affected his personality.
“No one knew me as Eric,” he said of the Petco experience. “I was just some random man out there dressed as a squirrel. I’ve had a couple of interviews as Eric, and people say, ‘Oh, he’s that squirrel guy.’ So that’s been kind of interesting. But it’s all in good fun. I’m glad it has brought some notoriety to our organization, and I’m glad people are enjoying it and realizing that it’s just a funny thing to do.”