Furry, frenzied fun with Tigers mascot Paws
Maybe the mascot was having a wardrobe malfunction in his dressing room, or perhaps he got distracted by selfie requests.It was 11:30 a.m. Sunday and Paws, the furry orange Detroit Tigers mascot 20 stripes tall, was supposed to be at Gate A greeting children masked in face paint and waving foam claws through the turnstiles. The tiger was now 10 minutes late.
Mac Slavin, the Detroit Tigers’ social media specialist, checks his phone.
“It looks like Paws is stuck in traffic,” he says. “He’ll be here soon.”
Even the beloved mascot can’t escape game-day gridlock.
The Detroit News was curious about what it’s like to be Paws, so the newspaper followed the mascot around Comerica Park for Kids Opening Day when the Tigers hosted the Cleveland Indians.
If there’s one Tiger that’s stolen the hearts of fans of all ages, it’s this one.
The stealthy tiger materialized at the main entrance. Immediately, parents and kids swarmed for photos. Warning: When approaching the mascot, stay alert. Paws likes to lift baseball caps, remove sunglasses, tug on ponytails and kiss hands.
Kathy Iwinski, a nurse at Garden City Hospital, stood in line behind kindergarteners to get a picture with Paws and her friends.
“I’m a big kid at heart,” she says, laughing.
Paws’ handler and interpreter Ken Wood signals it’s time to move on. Wood — wearing a navy polo emblazoned with an orange “D” and matching hat — keeps Paws’ strict schedule stuffed in his cargo shorts pockets. This being Kids Opening Day, it’s more hectic than normal.
To get to the next gate on time, the two start jogging, doling out fist bumps and high-fives as they part the crowd. The concession workers all shout “Hey Paws!” as the fur ball whizzes by.
Instincts must have told Paws to stop and give Sterling Heights resident Carol Capobres, 67, a giant hug.
“It was so great,” she says. “I’m a widow, and it’s the first time I’ve had a hug like that in a while.”
The next victim is Evelyn Ozga, 87, of Shelby Township, who grins ear-to-ear as Paws’ arms engulf her body.
The tiger snatches cellphones and hands them to Wood to snap photos for a few more poses with confused babies, giggling teenagers and bashful adults.
Wood glances at his watch.
We have to go,” he shouts. “We have to be on the field.”
Paws punches the elevator button with his white digit, then skips around the corner to guest services. The tiger’s trusty nose moved toward the Dunkin’ Donuts box. Wood comes in huffing, guessing what Paws is up to. “OK, real quick,” he says.
Paws sweeps off his navy cap, pops a donut inside and places it back on his head.
“You bad kitty,” scolds witness Dorothy Lakey, working behind the counter.
Wood is on his tail. “Let’s roll Paws!”
Lakey starts belting “rollin’ on the river,” and Paws mimics her hip thrusts before scurrying out the door.
Bursting out of a tunnel, Paws makes the first appearance of the day on the field. The tiger’s head bobs to “Walking on Sunshine” while giving high-fives to groundskeepers and pointing to a nice beard in the stands.
No detail goes unnoticed. In the right outfield, the tiger brushes off Wood’s cap with his paws, then pounces on an event staffer to fix her collar.
The woman unleashes 200 kids on the field for an exercise demo, with Paws in the center.
The tiger swings its legs and touches its toes but flops on its back when it comes to the sit-ups.
“Get up lazy!” Wood jokes from the sidelines. “That doesn’t look like a sit-up!”
Paws saunters over to the Indians stretching on the field. The mascot mocks their toe touches and twists.
Paws spots former Tiger Joba Chamberlain in the Cleveland dugout and pops over for a chat. (Paws doesn’t speak, so picture paw gestures.)
Paws removes its a cap and stands shoulder to shoulder with Wood for “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Then the tiger tends to official duties — signing T-shirts and pumping up select kids to run on field. Paws hands a signed J.D. Martinez baseball to a 3-year-old before heading in for a quick water break.
Back on the elevator, Paws pretends to take a guy’s Miller Lite and snaps a selfie with a delighted rider.
The mascot’s off to a few surprise suite visits. First up, suite 133, where 6-year-old Lukas Kahn shyly gives Paws his drawing of the tiger.
“My kids are infatuated with Paws. He’s their movie star,” says mother Jennifer Kahn of Beverly Hills.
The kids in suite 214 are not as infatuated.
Evelyn Jakubiak, a 3-year-old in a Verlander jersey, bursts in tears at the sight of the tiger bounding in the room.
“I want to get out of here,” she wails in her mother’s arms.
“You don’t want to say hi?” her mother asks.
“No,” she sniffles.
“You don’t want to give him a high-five?”
“No,” she pouts.
Paws can’t win them all.
Paws and Wood are deliberating in a hallway. After 14 years as a handler, Wood has mastered the mascot-speak.
“I don’t think we have time for a break after,” Wood says. (They squeeze breaks in when they can.) “We have to get up to 337 after six outs.” Paws holds up digits and gestures in response. The two come to some unspoken agreement.
Paws waits for his fifth (or is it sixth?) elevator ride. Wood checks his fitness tracker. Only 6,500 steps so far.
“It’s surprisingly low, but it’s still early,” he says.
This elevator ride, Paws tries to steal French fries from elevator operator Alma. No luck.
“Paws, I’ll make you some brownies instead,” she promises.
The mascot lumbers out in his big black sneakers and Wood realizes there’s time to kill before they need to be in Section 337 for the “find Paws” cam. The tiger pops in a first aid room for a respite, and Wood has a moment to chat.
When he’s not chasing Paws, the 46-year-old Canton resident works for Amcor, a plastic bottle manufacturer in Ann Arbor. He’s experienced with mascots. (Mascot spoiler: He used to be the Detroit Whalers whale.)
His favorite part of this job? “I like having a view of the stadium that others don’t have,” he says. “Paws arguably has the best job in the park. He can go anywhere. Who’s going to stop a tiger?”
Wood attempts to usher Paws to Section 337, but unless he’s jogging, the sought-after tiger doesn’t get far.
“The hardest part is having to be the jerk to people and cutting the line off,” Wood says. “I’ve been called all sorts of names.”
They eventually reach 337, scratch-free.
“You’ve got four outs still. Stay in the shade,” Wood advises Paws, as he climbs steps to scope out the scene.
While waiting below, Takyra Allen, 13, of Detroit ambles by with ice cream. Paws snatches the spoon and playfully scoops some into her mouth. Hazell Stroble, 35, of Detroit picks the wrong moment to get a photo. An accidental move by Paws sends her soft drink flying to the floor.
“You’re killin’ me smalls,” Wood shouts down to the tiger he’s trying to hide in the stands in time for the Paws cam. Paws refuses to leave until he rights his wrong. He grabs a trading card tucked under his hat and scratches with a Sharpie: “go to the stand and tell them paws spilled it and they will refill it.”
This wasn’t the first food mishap.
“Paws has knocked over a beer or two in his time,” Wood says. The concession stands are understanding. As Wood sees it: “That could be 8 bucks. Nobody wants to waste an $8 beer.”
Minus the spilled drink, the Paws cam went without a hitch. Kids hiding him in their row pass him popcorn and nachos. The boy hunting Paws spots him as soon as the section rises to their feet, instructed by Wood. “OK everybody, start jumping!”
Enough with the elevator. Paws chooses the stairs, much to the surprise of youngsters filing down the steps.
“Oh my gosh, Paws!” “Look!” “Paws!”
The tiger romps to his dressing room, with a black and white sketch of himself plastered outside the door. (The reporter wasn’t allowed in, but rumor has it the lair is a bit messy.)
Paws gets in line, in front of the race cars and Oakland University’s Grizz, to lead the seventh-inning stretch.
“Hold on,” Wood stops him. “You missed a button. I thought something didn’t look right.”
The right outfield gate opens, releasing the mascots to get the crowd out of their seats. As Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the U.S.A.” blasts for the sing-along, Wood keeps his eye on the clock ticking down the two minutes between innings. The seconds disappear too quickly for his liking, and he beckons Paws to run. The gates close behind them just as the players stepped back on the field.
“It’s all timing,” Wood says, catching his breath. “I’d be (in big trouble) if I didn’t get him off in time.”
The game ended in a disappointing loss, but Paws has one last job. A line of children follow their fearless leader to the field for Kids Run the Bases. The mascot marches to second base. For the next 35 minutes, hundreds of kids round by, as Paws waves at them to stay on the dirt.
A few yards away, Wood looks at his tracker. Only 8,700 steps.
“I expected 10,000 by now,” he says.
After the last kid crosses home plate, Wood’s heading to Bucharest Grill to pick up chicken schwarma for his wife and two kids.
Some days, he and Paws grab a bite after the game. (The tiger is reportedly fond of Nemo’s Bar burgers.) But not today.
“Paws has had a very long day,” he says.
Born: May 5, 1995
Residence: Comerica Park
Jersey Number: 00
Height: 20 stripes tall
Weight: Unknown (Ever try to put a tiger on a scale?)
Source: Paws trading card