Two lives are plenty for this cat
July 20, 2016
By day, Mark Uncapher is himself, a regular guy who works as the director of microcomputer support at IU Northwest, helping set the university's technology agenda.
At night, however, he plays a completely different person, er, animal -- at least during baseball season. For about 50 games per year and various events, Uncapher becomes Rusty the Railcat, the mascot for the local minor-league baseball team, the Gary Railcats.
Uncapher has led his “double life” for a little more than three years now, and the opportunity actually presented itself through his job at IU Northwest.
“IU Northwest had a really, really talented women’s basketball team, and to try to help get the word out and get fans to come, they had committed to this awesome, awesome mascot outfit, named Rufus,” Uncapher said. “I had played a mascot in high school and thought, ‘Hey, maybe if I get in this costume, other individuals will actually want to do it.’”
Instead, fans were so enamored with Uncapher’s portrayal of Rufus that IU Northwest’s athletic director asked Uncapher to play Rufus full-time, and he accepted.
That led him to attend a Railcats game as Rufus, since IU Northwest helps sponsor the team. During the game, an unfortunate situation led to a fortunate opportunity for Uncapher.
“The game was near the end of the season. It was rainy out, and the mascots walk on the chairs to get to the different fans. In doing that, the guy who played Rusty at the time slipped and fell and tore the ACL [anterior cruciate ligament] in his knee,” Uncapher recalled. “I was asked if I would fill in, so I filled in for Rusty about three-and-a-half years ago, and I’ve never stopped filling in.”
Uncapher said he has come to love the gig, and considering his modest pay for the role, he certainly does not do it for the money.
“I just love the interaction. I especially love the interactions with the children,” Uncapher said. “They just light up, and the neat thing is, the adults really enjoy it as well. It’s just very rewarding.”
Some children are afraid of the Rusty costume -- “You have to realize that your head is likely as big as their entire body” -- and Uncapher takes particular pride in helping those kids open up.
His favorite interactions come when working with people with illnesses or disabilities, particularly adults and children with autism. He said these individuals sometimes tend to communicate more freely with “characters” like Rusty.
“The children with autism will communicate and interact and do things with the mascots that they just will not do with humans, for one reason or another,” Uncapher explained. “To see not only those individuals, but the caretakers and parents and families of those individuals, and how happy they are to see their loved ones progressing and interacting, that’s awesome.”
His role as Rusty does carry some physical demands, however. Being a mascot generally requires sustained enthusiasm for four-plus hours, and the suit weighs about 20 pounds, so he said it can start to feel awfully heavy and hot during a nine-inning game in the middle of July. And as an independent baseball team, Uncapher said the club can’t always afford costume upkeep, so he often patches and fixes up the suit himself.
Uncapher grew up in nearby Miller (a section of Gary), then attended IU Northwest, and has worked there ever since, so he feels a special connection with northwest Indiana. That adds another layer of satisfaction to playing Rusty, since the Railcats are a big local attraction.
“Being from Gary, that’s another reason I really enjoy it. IU Northwest, Lake Michigan and this ballpark are the only things that are going to have people coming from other areas to the city,” Uncapher said. “And, boy, it’s important for us to make sure that individuals realize that Gary isn’t a horrible city. There are some bad parts, but it’s not a horrible city.”
Uncapher said he has loved working at IU Northwest, and after more than 20 years at the university, he said he “bleeds cream and crimson -- or rather, (IU Northwest colors) red, white, and black.” But when it comes to the rewards, it’s tough to beat the feeling he gets as Rusty.
“It’s like giving a gift, you know? The person who gives the gift is the one who gets the reward a lot of times. I just love making other people have a better day,” Uncapher said. “Man, it’s so rewarding. I think anyone else who could be a part of that would change their mind about what it means to be a mascot by seeing how rewarding it is.”