As presidential races go, Calvin Coolidge ran a hard one earlier this month. Maybe a little too hard.
After crossing the finish line on a grassy field off Military Trail, he nearly collapsed, saved only by a chain-link fence upon which he rested his weary head, all 50 pounds of it.
“You OK?’’ asked Tom Davis, entertainment director for the Washington Nationals baseball team, as the old commander in chief huffed and puffed.
Wearing sneakers, slacks and a Nationals jersey with the No. 30 (Coolidge was our 30th president, serving from 1923-29), Calvin was a bit winded, his ego perhaps a little bruised, but otherwise fine.
He just needed a few minutes to catch his breath after being scorched in a mad dash by another running president, Herbert Hoover, who by the way also worked up quite a sweat on a hot afternoon of mascot tryouts.
There will be plenty more races this spring between the two oversized heads of state.
Those races will be run in front of thousands of fans, by a handful of area residents selected from tryouts for what they consider to be the most coveted jobs in baseball: wearing the larger-than-life costumes of Calvin and Herbie, at least two of the “Racing Presidents” who will be fixtures at the Nationals’ 16 home games at The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches starting Tuesday.
On Friday, the Nationals were expected to announce a third Racing President retiring to West Palm Beach — Bill, or William Howard Taft.
Known for their oversize caricature heads, the “Racing Presidents” have been mainstays for the past 11 seasons at Nationals Park in Washington. They originally started as a scoreboard feature before coming to life in 2006 with races on the field in the middle of the fourth inning.
Regular-season races at all 81 home games are run by Abe (Lincoln), Teddy (Roosevelt), George (Washington) and Tom (Jefferson).
Calvin and Herbie have raced at Nationals Park, too, along with Bill, but they’re following the team south to The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, the $150 million spring training complex that opened this month south of 45th Street.
They will be the first Racing Presidents to be regulars at spring training games. The mascots never ran in Grapefruit Leagues games when the Nationals trained at Space Coast Stadium in Viera from 2005 until 2016.
“Calvin and Herbie have retired to Florida,’’ Davis said with a casual tone that suggested he was talking about actual persons instead of costumed characters that don’t talk.
“There may be some times in the future seasons when the other presidents come down and race together (at The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches), but for now it’s Calvin and Herbie.’’
Davis is about as close as the Racing Presidents will ever get to having Secret Service protection. As the ultimate judge of the annual tryouts in Washington and Florida, he tries to focus all attention on the mascot persona — and away from the actual person wearing the costume.
As a condition of covering the tryouts, the Nationals ask media outlets to refrain from publishing the last names of mascot hopefuls, following what the team calls “the Walt Disney World effect.” (Would you really want to know that Mickey Mouse is your neighbor down the street?)
That edict applied to the dozen local residents, weeded out from a larger number of applicants, who participated in two rounds of tryouts in January and February behind the football stadium at Oxbridge Academy.
They all answered a job ad that called for an “ability to run from centerfield to first base (approximately 200 yards) in a 50-pound costume.’’
The pay is nominal for about five hours of work per day, including interaction with fans and the main event, the in-game race along the outfield’s dirt warning track.
“I’m retired but I worked in Washington. For me this was like the dream of a lifetime to do something with a sports team from Washington, D.C.,’’ said Danny, a retired military contractor who lives in West Palm Beach.
“I can’t play baseball, but I can be part of the team. So, it’s worth the sweat.’’
And there is plenty of sweating going on inside the costumes, especially in South Florida.
“You don’t have to have the fastest time,’’ Davis told the hopefuls at the tryouts, “but you have to be able to control the costume.’’
Easier said than done because “control the costume” essentially means controlling the costume’s head — 3 feet high and 50 pounds, harnessed on the runner’s shoulders.
“On TV it looks like a regular-size mascot,’’ said Mark from Delray Beach. “But when I saw it in person I went, “ah-oh…’’’
Exactly how “ah-oh”?
On Presidents Day, Calvin visited the Palm Beach Zoo and stood next to the “How High Can You Jump” measuring stick by the panther exhibit (which showed how panthers can leap 17 feet).
Calvin topped out at 10 ½ feet, which means constant ducking to prevent the 3-foot head from hitting door frames and tree branches.
“The hardest part is keeping your balance,’’ said Brian from Plantation, who works as a groundskeeper for the Miami Dolphins.
At Mater Academy a few years ago, Brian wore the lion costume for his high school in Miami.
“This is extremely different,’’ he said, catching his breath after a sprint in the Herbie costume. “As a mascot in high school all you do is wave. Here, I have to run.’’
During tryouts, hopefuls are asked to run two heats: a 40-yard solo dash and a longer sprint that mimics the in-game main attraction run from center field to first base. They also are asked to do a dance-off and show the judges their best victory pose.
Mark might’ve been the contestant with the most mascot experience. His résumé includes the Jupiter Hammerhead shark and Robbie the Redbird at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter; the South Florida Science Center alien, the Kilwins Ice Cream moose; and the Boynton Beach High School tiger.
None of that mattered earlier this month when he took off running for the first time wearing the Calvin costume.
That was Mark who collapsed against the fence inside the oversized head of a president whose 1924 campaign slogan — “Keep Cool with Coolidge” — served as a cruel tease. “I almost fainted,’’ Mark said, laughing.
Few of the contestants knew much about the real Calvin and Herbie. “Isn’t there a dike named after him?’’ Danny said, referring to the Herbert Hoover Dike around Lake Okeechobee.
Although there has been a movement to make Franklin D. Roosevelt the next mascot, including his wheelchair, Brian offered suggestions for a next Running President.
“Donald Trump,’’ he said. “He could always be looking at himself in the mirror, fixing his hair. He would be a lot of fun.’’