Hannah Ferguson, Bailey Jenkins and Keri Lindberg were in swift pursuit of an autograph at McKechnie Field Monday night.
Not just any autograph, either.
They beelined from their seats to a spot near the visiting dugout where there sat a hulking bearded fellow wearing a huge pirate hat, an oversized baseball jersey, a big eye patch and earrings with his large booted feet splayed over the seat in front of him.
Keri tapped him on the shoulder, then held out a pen and rubber baseball.
“People usually think about getting ballplayers’ autographs, but never the mascot’s,” the 10-year-old said.
Marty the Marauder happily obliged the girls, who ran back to show their parents.
It was all in a night’s work -- or play -- for 32-year-old Matt Hitchcock, who brings the Bradenton Marauders’ rotund mascot to life every game at McKechnie.
High-fiving and hugging fans.
Boogying atop the dugout.
Frolicking on the field between innings.
Signing autographs, too.
It takes a little practice with Marty’s four-fingered mitts, but he can manage.
“Kids coming to see you, putting a smile on their faces. That’s why I love this job -- and it’s not a job. It’s a passion,” Hitchcock said. “Kids are the primary reason the mascot is there.”
Hannah’s mother won’t argue with that.
“They start looking for him the minute they get here,” Juli Ferguson said. “They’re not satisfied until they’ve seen him and watched him in action.”
“He’s funny,” said Hanna, 6.
“He’s cool,” said Bailey, 8.
“He’s awesome,” said Keri.
Marty the Marauder will be all that and more tonight when the Florida State League ballclub celebrates the mascot’s first birthday.
“Players come and players go, but Marty’s a constant,” said Trevor Gooby, the senior director of Florida Operations. “The first year, we asked, did we need a mascot? We determined it was important and it was a good decision.
“Kids love seeing him. Fans have adopted him. He’s been a great asset and we thought with a yearly birthday party we’d get people to celebrate and have fun with that.”
Having fun is what Hitchcock does every home game as Marty.
A long foul ball landed in the right field bleachers, setting off a stampede of kids. Marty lumbered up the steps right behind them, waving his giant glove.
“My wife and my parents are waiting for me to grow up,” said Hitchcock, whose day job is in sales. “I don’t know when that’s going to happen. If I’m going to be interacting with kids, I’ve got to act like one.”
The Jupiter native has been at it for 16 years.
Why stop now?
Among the numerous mascots Hitchcock has been are:
n University of Central Florida Knight.
n Palm Beach Cardinal and Jupiter Hammerhead in the FSL.
n University of South Florida’s Rocky.
n Tampa Bay Lightning’s ThunderBug.
n Tampa Bay Storm’s Storm Dawg.
His inspirations have been the legendary San Diego Chicken, Houston’s “Clutch the (NBA) Rockets Bear,” and the zany Phillie Phanatic.
So how did Hitchcock, who is 6 feet, 200 pounds, get into this gig?
“I started clowning at my church and my first job out of high school was at a skating rink for birthday parties,” he said. “Then once I did it at UCF, I wanted to pursue it. I’ve always been a quiet guy and this gave me a chance to be somebody I’m not.”
Gooby will second that.
“Matt is very reserved and soft spoken, but when he puts on the costume it’s like night and day,” he said. “You’d never know it’s the same person, doing dance moves we didn’t know he had”
Hitchcock credits the dance team at Living Lord Lutheran Church in Lakewood Ranch where his wife is youth director.
Yet Kristen Hitchcock said her husband has something that can’t be coached.
“Matt is forever a kid at heart,” she said. “He loves to make people smile and laugh and definitely becomes the character. I love watching people watch him and see kids’ faces light up.”
“Kids gravitate toward an oversized mascot,” Matt Hitchcock said. “They see a giant stuffed animal that moves and they want to go hug it. It’s a cool feeling to be able to put somebody’s child at ease.
“But some kids are not at ease. The mascot’s cool from the other side of the stadium, but I get 10 feet away and it’s, ‘No mommy, no!’”
On the same token, Hitchcock won’t push Marty on adult fans unless there’s an opening.
“Adults are more into the game,” he said. “There are a lot of baseball purists out there, too. If I can read they’re not into the interaction, I’ll just wave, walk on and have fun with someone else.
“By and large, everyone here has been warm to Marty.”
Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at 745-7055.