Meredith Baither made her debut on national television last Saturday.
Among the highlights of her time in the spotlight: slugging a cameraman, flirting with fans courtside at the Tennessee-Vanderbilt women's basketball game, and generally acting, well, crazy.
Is the Ottawa Hills native in trouble? Quite the contrary: it was exactly what everyone expected of her in her role as “Mr. Commodore,” the costumed mascot that represents Vandy's athletic teams.
Baither, a freshman at Vanderbilt, loves being a mascot, something she started to do as a sophomore at Ottawa Hills High School. “I was a cheerleader in eighth grade, but that was it,” she said. “But I am big on having school spirit, and a mascot is a symbol of school spirit.”
So before her sophomore year began she tried out, won the job, and promptly began breathing life into the Green Bear. She quickly found her biggest task was to entertain children at the games. “I did a lot of hanging out with kids as Green Bear,” Baither said. “They would hug me - and sometimes punch me or pull my tail.”
Baither became much more than a children's punching bag, though. “Meredith went way beyond what a normal mascot would do,” Tim Erickson, Ottawa Hills athletic director, said. “Whenever we wanted her to do something - go to a hospital, go to the elementary school, anything - boom! She'd do it.”
What's more, Baither started giving Green Bear a distinct personality. “When I was in high school I made up the Green Bear's character as I went along,” she said. “By my third year I had it down cold.”
Funny thing is, Green Bear started to take on some of Baither's personality traits. “I've always been outgoing and enthusiastic, but everything for a mascot is exaggerated,” she said. “Green Bear was some of the funny parts of me, but multiplied times a million because movements and everything have to be exaggerated.
“Green Bear had some of my gestures in real life, too. For example, when I stand I often put my hand on my hip and Green Bear did that, too.”
Baither also is quick to point out at least one difference between herself and the mascot she played. “I think I'm a little more realistic,” she said. “When the team is down 50 points, Green Bear was still thinking, `We'll win.' I think I was a little more realistic.”
When she graduated from Ottawa Hills and enrolled at Vanderbilt, she thought her days as a mascot were over.
How wrong she was. A month ago she received word that one of the two people who played the role of Mr. Commodore, the school's mascot, was giving up the job. She interviewed for the position, and she won the part as the “junior varsity” Mr. Commodore.
Vanderbilt cheerleader coach Meredith Walker said Baither stood out in the interviews. “Just in talking with Meredith, you can see she's an energetic and animated person,” Walker said. “With some people they may be too timid, and they need to `turn on the switch' to become animated. There's no need to turn on a switch with Meredith.”
Baither said taking on the role of Mr. Commodore is an adjustment from having been Green Bear. “I have to think a lot more, because this is a new character who already has a developed personality and attitude,” she said. “Plus, you are a representative of the athletic department, so you have to watch yourself because everything reflects on the college.”
Baither said that playing a “male” character takes concentration, too. “During the game all of the cheerleaders have to kneel so the people behind them can watch the game,” she said. “The first time I kneeled down someone came over to me and said, `A guy kneels on one knee.' I had kneeled like a girl, on both knees.
“And one of the things Mr. Commodore is expected to do is flirt with girls, so that's something I have to remember. But it's still a lot of fun.”
Baither is big on bringing props into the action, and one of the props helps her to “flirt” with female fans. “I have a big foam-board prop that looks like a thought bubble,” she said. “Before I flirt with someone, I'll hand that prop to the person sitting behind them. Then when I start flirting I have them lift up the thought bubble - it reads, `Wow, that Commodore is cute!'”
It is Baither's experience as a mascot that quickly sold her coach that she was right for the job. “I was a little concerned at first, but after her first game there was no problem,” Walker said. “It was easy to say, `Yes, she's got [an understanding of being a mascot]. She's very expressive, and she knows the rules of mascoting. Plus, she's developed a nice relationship with cameramen.”
That “relationship” has Baither, as Mr. Commodore, throwing playful punches at the cameraman until connecting with the coup de grace, an uppercut that sends the camera lens pointing to the ceiling.
Baither said playing the role of Mr. Commodore can be physically taxing. “Mr. C has this muscle suit that makes him look buff and cut,” she said. “But it really limits your mobility; it's hard to move your arms, and you can't bend down easily. And it makes it hard to catch your breath when you're running around.”
Baither admits she's still learning about being Mr. Commodore. “Mr. C wears a huge captain's hat that points forward,” she said. “Every time I lean forward I head-butt people with the front of the hat.” Baither credits the “varsity” Mr. Commodore, Mike Gleason, with helping her to learn and develop the part.
How long will Baither, a double major in biology and secondary education, continue to play Mr. Commodore at Vanderbilt? “As long as they'll let me,” she said.