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RailCats Caravan hit or miss in first go-around

Railcats mascots Rusty Rascal joVince DawsFuel Fitness flexing their muscles Crown Point fitness center Sunday April 28. The Gary Southshore

Railcats mascots Rusty and Rascal join Vince Dawson of Fuel Fitness in flexing their muscles at the Crown Point fitness center on Sunday, April 28. The Gary Southshore Railcats' Caravan visited two other region venues as part of their community relations tour.

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Updated: May 30, 2013 3:32PM



Meeting fans at the right place and the right time was hit or miss for the Gary Southshore RailCats’ inaugural preseason Caravan.

En route to region venues that included Jak’s Warehouse, Catch-22 restaurant and Fuel Fitness’ Crown Point center, RailCats players and staff members spent the weekend talking Independent League baseball with area residents, sharing a small bus with Rusty and Rascal, the team’s feline mascots.

The mascots greeted dozens of patrons at Jak’s Warehouse, a Schererville fun center. Players such as slugging outfielder Cristian Guerrero signed autographs and talked to young fans.

Ninth-year manager Greg Tagert said his main job is to command a winning product on the field. Yet the signs and gestures of on-field communication with players yield to another essential duty: Connecting with fans.

“Our business is concentrated over about a four-month period,” Tagert said. “Our front office staff and our mascots work year-round — they’re out in the community. But it’s baseball, people get excited to see the players.”

RailCats director of broadcasting and media relations Matt Friedman said that the caravan was just one part of the club’s community outreach. The preseason efforts are important, though, to spark interest and help fill the stands beginning with the Cats’ opener on May 16 at U.S. Steel Yard against the Lincoln Saltdogs.

At Fuel Fitness in Crown Point, a Sunday appearance by the caravan drew only a handful of visitors. Scheduling issues with youth organizations may have prevented a nice turnout.

Gym members Nick Anker and Veronica Jashenski stopped by after a workout to see the RailCats crew. They asked about game tickets and had a photo taken with players.

Rusty has entertained fans at the U.S. Steel Yard in downtown Gary since 2002. According RailCats lore, as told by Friedman, the friendly and comedic cat had made his home along the South Shore rail line and befriended the organization. Then in 2006, the tan cat brought his kid brother to the Steel Yard. Since then, the rascally brown cat has been half of an inseparable dynamic duo.

Railcats office guys often take turns donning the Rascal outfit, Friedman said, recalling how a group of kids had once tried to pull off his mask. Jimi Nunez is the season-long actor behind Rusty’s antics.

With the 2013 season right around the corner, Tagert looks to improve on last year’s 50-50 record. Guerrero, who spent a year in Sioux Falls, returns for his fifth season with the RailCats overall. He set the Steel Yard’s home run record of 19 in 2010. A native of Bani, Dominican Republic, the 32-year-old power hitter said he feels at home with the Cats.

“The reason I came back is because I like to play here,” said the 6-foot-5 Railcats star as he sat in the shadow of the team’s mascots. “I like the fans, teammates and everybody.”

Guerrero said he values the advice he gets from his cousin, nine-time MLB All Star Vladimir Guerrero. He said he calls his cousin a couple times a week and gets pointers on the game. His most valued piece of advice? There’s no secret to the game. Just play hard and smart.

Tagert said he hopes the Caravan generated interest among region baseball competitors just in time for the team’s annual open tryout on Thursday at the Steel Yard.



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