Matt Driscoll

Epic Sax Gorilla? Beard Show? Believe it or not, there’s a plan — and a man — behind the Rainiers’ madness

Columnist Matt Driscoll dances to the tune of Tacoma Rainiers’ Fun Squad

News Tribune Columnist Matt Driscoll dresses as a hotdog, dances on the dugout, and teaches the Conga in an effort to learn the secret behind the Tacoma Rainiers' between-inning entertainment.
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News Tribune Columnist Matt Driscoll dresses as a hotdog, dances on the dugout, and teaches the Conga in an effort to learn the secret behind the Tacoma Rainiers' between-inning entertainment.

Casey Catherwood quickly makes his way up a long ladder, toward the top of Cheney Stadium’s roof.

The Tacoma Rainiers’ creative director has five outs to get into place, high above the field, before the cameras focus on Epic Sax Gorilla, one of the team's strangest and most popular in-game entertainment characters.

If you’ve been to a Rainiers game, you’ve seen Catherwood in action. His job is to keep fans engaged between innings, and he does so with a mix of bizarre antics and classic tropes that makes the experience at Cheney Stadium one of the best in minor league baseball.

That’s just the way Catherwood likes it. A 30-year-old artist and musician with a background in painting and “grimy punk clubs,” he puts it all to good use while orchestrating the experience fans enjoy.

His influence is seen in every bit of entertaining strangeness that happens at the stadium, and heard in every song blasted through the speakers. He’s behind all of it.

To an average fan, some of that can go unnoticed, but watch Catherwood at the ballpark and this much becomes clear: No one at Cheney is having more fun. And no one is working harder.

Columnist Matt Driscoll dances on the third base dugout with Casey Catherwood, creative director with the Tacoma Rainiers, and the Rainier Fun Squad, during the seventh inning stretch of the Tacoma Rainiers’ game against the Las Vegas 51s at Cheney Stadium in Tacoma, Wash., on Thursday, June 28, 2018. Joshua Bessex

For a closer look, I tagged along with Catherwood last week during the fourth game of a nine-game home stand.

Mostly, I tried to keep up.

From the roof, we watch a long fly ball become the final out of the Las Vegas 51s eighth inning. It's not long after sunset, a few hours after the first pitch, and we’ve already danced on the dugout, wrangled kids into the famed Cheney conga line, thrown T-shirts and free hot dogs into the stands and performed the quirky “This or That?” between-inning game show.

As the trailing Rainiers hustle to the dugout for their turn at the plate, and hopefully a late-game rally, the Thirsty Thursday crowd turns its attention toward the roof — and the gorilla with the saxophone.

Even from high above the crowd, you get the sense people are at least as interested in Epic Sax Gorilla as they are with the outcome of a minor league baseball game.

Like most of the absurdly fun gags and gimmicks Rainiers fans see during games, Epic Sax Gorilla originated in Catherwood’s mind. The bit is a simple piece of comedic genius indicative of his creative process.

Hailey Heidrich helps prepare Epic Sax Gorilla during the Tacoma Rainiers’ game against the Las Vegas 51s at Cheney Stadium in Tacoma, Wash., on Thursday, June 28, 2018. Joshua Bessex

It started, he tells me later, in his first season with the team, when a gorilla costume was discovered stashed in a trash bag in the stadium's mascot room.

From there, Catherwood went to work.

The first attempt failed miserably, Catherwood remembers. It involved a gorilla playing the part of a visiting fan and a “foil to Rhubarb,” the Rainiers’ beloved mascot.

"Nobody liked it," he recalled. "It didn’t feel right for the gorilla to be a bad guy.”

It’s a familiar story, Catherwood says. Only about 30 percent of his ideas, he estimates, “become great things.”

Still, his mind kept churning. He looked at the gorilla costume and knew there was something there.

Eventually he settled on an idea that, like many of his best, incorporated pop culture – in this case, a well-known pelvic-thrusting, frosted-tipped saxophonist who achieved internet fame after appearing on Eurovision and playing with so much swagger and sensuality that it became a meme.

Cheney's Epic Sax Gorilla was born.

“It was a total hit," Catherwood says. "We’ve been doing it for four years now.”

“We’ve even got a bobble head coming out soon.”

From afar, all of this can seem random and, well, just plain weird. And it certainly is. But spend time with Catherwood – who tells me he sometimes meditates underneath his desk when he’s feeling particularly stressed – and you quickly realize there’s a lot more to it.

Specifically, the amount of thought that goes into what fans see probably doesn’t get the credit it deserves.

Take, for instance, the Cheney "Beard Show,” originally devised as a way to “celebrate … five strange men with long beards,” Catherwood says.

The popular bit uses the Isaac Hayes-like voice work of stadium public address announcer Randy McNair, and “gets a little PG13," Catherwood admits, "but never crosses the line.”

Perhaps even more surprising than McNair’s ability to hit the low notes is the smart writing. That’s all Catherwood, and what really makes the “Beard Show” work.

“I bet you’d run your fingers through this beard and it would carve you up like a bowling ball covered in butcher knives," McNair purrs over the PA as one of the participants strokes his impressive facial hair on the big screen. "That thing looks like a Brillo Pad and a Cuisinart had a baby, man. Dan-ger-ous.”

“Now," McNair growls as the camera focuses on another man, "what do you think’s inside of a beard like this?

“Bet that thing’s got its own library and an Adirondack in there. Full of secrets and history. Spacious, brother. Spacious.”

Members of the Rainiers’ Fun Squad, the group of mostly college-age kids who help Catherwood pull off the in-game entertainment, routinely speak of the pride they take in helping to bring his “vision” to life.

It sounds hyperbolic, but it’s true.

Casey Catherwood, creative director at the Tacoma Rainiers, announces Columnist Matt Driscoll as the winner of “This or That,” a between-inning gameshow during the Tacoma Rainiers’ game against the Las Vegas 51s at Cheney Stadium in Tacoma, Wash., on Thursday, June 28, 2018. Driscoll won a horse painting, a stress-relief punching bag, and Catherwood’s old Blu-Ray player as prizes. Joshua Bessex

“He’s still a temperamental artist,” says Rainiers President Aaron Artman, who acknowledges Catherwood can get “very moody” toward the end of a long home stand.

“The benefits outweigh any of that by a long shot,” Artman says.

Artman hired Catherwood before the 2015 season. After taking a flyer on the Seattle Central grad, Artman says, he gave Catherwood one piece of advice: Be yourself, and don’t worry about what other stadiums do.

“It’s just really fun to work with him and be creative with him and have him come to work with ideas," Artman says. "You know it’s going to be executed well. He puts real soul into what we do for the franchise, and really for Tacoma too.”

For Catherwood, it’s all in a day’s work. Watching his creativity take shape and come to life, he says, is the ultimate pay off.

“Ideas start as seeds," he says of his process. "You have to grab onto it and hope and pray that the water and thought will turn it into a thing. A lot of ideas don’t turn into a thing. I have notebooks — books, and books and books — full of half-brained little seedling ideas that will never become a thing.

“But you have to be constantly gardening.”

The Rainiers end up losing Thursday night, but for Catherwood, and the fans who head home with a smile, it really doesn’t matter. The game marked another in a long string of victories.

“I think we put on a nine-inning show tonight, for a receptive audience that really had a good time," he tells me with satisfaction from his office after the game. "I think we definitely added to the experience for a lot of people.

“We did it our own way tonight, which is a lot of fun. We couldn’t have executed it any better.”