Theo LeBlanc, an 11-year-old fifth-grader at South Portland’s Brown Elementary School, was 4 when first he encountered the mascot of the Portland Sea Dogs.
“I was terrified of Slugger,” he admits. “I pulled a blanket over myself.”
Theo eventually came around, joining more than 7 million baseball fans who have visited Hadlock Field over the past two decades and enjoyed Slugger’s antics.
His dad, Justin LeBlanc, had a lot to do with making the mascot popular in the franchise’s first three years, from 1994 to 1996.
This spring, to celebrate the mascot’s 20th birthday, Justin LeBlanc plans one last adventure: a 114-mile walk from Fenway Park to Hadlock Field, from the home of the Boston Red Sox to the home of their Double A minor league affiliate.
The cause is personal for LeBlanc, now a 42-year-old lawyer. He hopes to raise awareness of – and funds for – programs that help children with Tourette syndrome, a neurological disorder characterized by repetitive involuntary movements or vocalizations called tics. Five years ago, Theo was diagnosed with Tourette syndrome.
When Theo started school, Justin’s wife, Hope, visited his class at the start of each school year to talk about Tourette syndrome and educate students and teachers. She looked around the room and pointed out kids: You have curly hair. You have straight hair. You have blue eyes. You have brown eyes. They aren’t choices. You can’t control such things.
This is Theo. He can’t control his blinking, his twitching or his tapping.
“So they’re all very understanding,” Justin said. “We sort of live in a really nice bubble. Good school, good friends.”
A year ago, Theo started to become more aware of how Tourette syndrome affects his life. This fall, he will jump to Mahoney Middle School, where kids who don’t know him well might not understand his idiosyncrasies, might not empathize as well as his grade-school buddies. Kids with Tourette syndrome can be inviting targets for bullies.
Last summer, for the first time, Theo met other kids with Tourette syndrome at a week-long overnight camp in Georgia – Camp Twitch and Shout. He paddled a canoe. He climbed rock walls. He played capture the flag.
“It was very empowering for him and it was a little scary for me to see kids on a wide spectrum of how they’re affected,” said Justin, who spent the week working from the library of his law school at the University of Georgia, one town over from the camp.
THE CATAMOUNT CONNECTION
Justin LeBlanc grew up in Portland, graduated from Cheverus High School and joined the men’s gymnastics team at the University of Vermont. One afternoon, early in his junior year, the athletic department was holding mascot tryouts, for Charlie and Kitty Catamount, as a gymnastics practice was winding down.
“We were watching these tryouts and I remember thinking, ‘This is ridiculous,’ ” he said. “I mean, these people were horrible. So I went up to someone and said, ‘Can I give it a shot?’ ”
He went into an adjacent room, changed into the Catamount suit, emerged on a musical cue and strutted his stuff.
He got the job. Embracing the anonymity of the costume, he was free to cavort and harass and act out at hockey and basketball games as Charlie the Catamount in ways that Justin could only imagine. His identity was closely guarded on campus.
After graduation in 1993, he returned to Portland and became director of Habitat for Humanity. When the Sea Dogs advertised for what they now describe as a “mascot trainer,” Justin applied and, again, got the job.
Whereas his son would later hide under a blanket when first meeting Slugger, Justin loved Slugger right from the start. Because there was no plan, no preconceived notions at the beginning, the Sea Dogs gave Justin wide latitude to shape Slugger’s personality.
“It made a world of difference, really helped make Slugger who he is today,” said Geoff Iacuessa, the Sea Dogs’ general manager. “One of our biggest attractions is Slugger, and Justin’s work as a ‘trainer’ was huge.”
Justin dreamed up Slugger’s Kung-Fu Fighting umpire skit and the stealing-the-vendor’s-biscuits routine.
“Mascots can go one of two ways,” said Iacuessa, who joined the team in 2001. “They can be corny and cheesy … or they can be Slugger, very popular and very fan-friendly.”
Although he began law school in the fall of 1996, LeBlanc has returned to Hadlock many times to assist with Slugger.
“After working with him all those years ago,” he said, “I really know how to push his buttons and get in his head.”
SLUGGER’S GOOD WORKS
The Sea Dogs will provide a recreational vehicle to support SluggerWalk, set to begin May 4 after Slugger is introduced before the Red Sox game that day with Oakland. Justin will walk every step of the way. Theo will join in for the first few miles and all of the last day, May 8, when the Sea Dogs are scheduled to host New Hampshire.
With Slugger’s help, the Sea Dogs have raised more than $4 million for the Maine Children’s Cancer Program. Hundreds of mascot appearances through the years have contributed to countless other causes, from road races to school visits to community suppers.
The fundraising goal for SluggerWalk is $20,000. LeBlanc said the money will be split between two youth acceptance programs: Camp Twitch and Shout and a youth ambassador program in which the National Tourette Syndrome Association trains teenagers to teach tolerance, understanding and sensitivity.
The donation page is at http://active.com/donate/sluggerswalk
And after the long walk from Fenway to Hadlock?
“Slugger and I will depart after this,” LeBlanc said. “We will remain friends, but from a distance.”
Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or at: