Born To Be A ZOOperstar: Life As A Traveling Minor League Entertainer

Dominic Latkovski knew he was destined to be a ballpark entertainer the moment he first dressed up as Billy Bird, the mascot of the old Louisville Redbirds franchise, three decades ago. Often with the help of his brothers, Brennan and Lex, Latkovski made a name for himself by entertaining crowds with a variety of on-field skits and stunts—often channeling his own childhood heroes like the San Diego Chicken and Max Patkin.

A few years later, Dominic and Brennan branched out on their own by creating BirdZerk, a traveling ballpark prankster who steals gloves from opposing infielders and dances with umpires and fans.

 

That act led to the birth of the ZOOperstars, the dancing inflatable animal caricatures of athletes and celebrities ranging from Cal Ripken, Jr. (Cow Ripken) to Ichiro Suzuki (Ichiroach) to LeBron James (LeBronco James) to Tiger Woods (Tiger Woodschuck). Together, Dominic and Brennan have traveled to more than 300 ballparks and stadiums, performing at minor and major league baseball games, NBA halftime shows and even making it to the finals of the hit TV talent show “America’s Got Talent.”

What follows is my conversation with Dominic Latkovski about the origins and highlights of his career as a ballpark entertainer. The transcript has been edited in spots for length and clarity. Previous interviews with other movers and shakers in minor league baseball can be found here.

For the readers who aren’t familiar with your work, how would you explain what BirdZerk is and what the ZOOperstars are?

I would explain it and say that BirdZerk and ZOOperstars are traveling entertainment acts focused on minor league baseball, which is our core business. We go from ballpark to ballpark doing our show, which features comedy and acrobatics and synchronized dancing and slapstick goofiness, and all of the routines we have perfected for over the last 28 years.

BirdZerk mascot dances at a game.
Dominic Latkovski gets down as BirdZerk, whom he describes as America’s ballpark prankster. (MiLB.com)

We started it all back in the day with Billy Bird, the [old] Triple-A mascot of the Louisville Redbirds in 1990. That’s where I began. For four seasons I was the mascot there and developed a reputation for being pretty decent at it. People said that me and my brothers [Brennan and Lex], who were helping me doing skits and different things out on the field, that we were entertaining, and as entertaining at the time as the Famous San Diego Chicken, who was in his heyday.

Former Louisville Redbirds mascot Billy Bird
Dominic Latkovski broke in as Billy Bird, mascot of the old Louisville Redbirds.

It was something that, as an entrepreneur, I always was interested in. I thought that it sure would be fun to go perform and make people laugh and clap and make their games more enjoyable. I thought it would be fun to go from city to city and ballpark to ballpark just like [the Chicken] was doing or Max Patkin or Morganna The Kissing Bandit and Captain Dynamite and all the others way back in the day. I always thought that would be a nice way to make a living, so sure enough that is what I have done with my life. Next thing you know, 28 years in, we’re still doing it and it is still working.

How did BirdZerk lead into creating the ZOOperstars?

The ZOOperstars story is pretty interesting. My two brothers were helping me somewhat often at the Louisville Redbirds games on big nights, they would come in and we would do fun routines and skits and come up with goofy stuff out on the field. I always had the blessing of my boss who was great. Dale Owens was his name. He just recently passed away last year. He was the Louisville Redbirds and Louisville Bats president and general manager for a long, long time. So he was always encouraging me to take chances and do crazy stuff and was always willing to have my back if things went wrong or haywire . . . That’s where the BirdZerk stuff all stemmed from.

But after doing BirdZerk for a few years, our dad, he would tell us, ‘Hey guys, you need to kick BirdZerk to the curb . . . Get rid of BirdZerk and come up with a new character called Harry Canary, a big yellow bird with white hair and glasses. He can do the same kind of routines as BirdZerk, but then in the seventh inning he can sing the seventh-inning stretch from the press box and lead everybody.’

Harry Canary 1
Harry Canary was the original ZOOperstar character . . .

Dad would always pitch that idea to us in the mid-90s when we were launching BirdZerk and going hot and heavy with BirdZerk. Every time he would bring it up we would go ‘yeah, whatever,’ and blow him off and put him off. Thank God we finally listened to him. It was right around the time we were becoming familiar with these inflatable costumes. So, we blended the Harry Canary concept that dad was always promoting with the inflatable costumes that we were becoming familiar with and we put it together and made Harry Canary an inflatable costume. So that was the beginning of the ZOOperstars.

ZOOperstars-Shark-McGwire
. . . Before being joined by a team of characters, including Shark McGwire.

At first it was just Harry Canary. We then said, we’ll let’s team him up with Shark McGwire and Ken Giraffey and Cow Ripken, and let’s put together an act with all of these different character names that are puns and parodies, and then let’s send them out on the road . . . Then we had to come up with a name. We knocked around some different names: The Baseball Bunch, The Baseball Buddies, Baseball Crew, and whatever. Somehow finally we settled on ZOOperstars. People jumped up when they heard that name, and everybody said that’s it. We ran with it, made five inflatable characters, invested a lot of money and hoped that it was going to be a hit. And it’s been a hit.

What’s your criteria for creating new characters (names and designs)? How often do you add a new character or retire an old one? (question submitted by @MWLtraveler)

There isn’t necessarily a set criteria. We as a group have brainstorming sessions and sit around and goof around quite a bit. And we talk about who’s next. Who are we going to bring out? It’s about who’s popular now but also who’s going to be around in five years or longer. Who is definitely not going to be a flash in the pan.

For example, we talked about years ago doing Anna Kournicobra, and we were pretty serious about doing that. We might have even gotten some drawings made of her and we thought it was going to be a hit. And sure enough, she totally disappeared . . . It’s a good thing that we didn’t do that one.

ZOOperstar character Mike Rainbow Trout
Mike Rainbow Trout is the newest of the ZOOperstar characters.

Mike Rainbow Trout is our most recent addition, and I think it is safe to say that he is going to be around for awhile and is going to be a star for awhile. It’s a funny name. It’s a good-looking costume. I think we’re going to have a hit with him. We just added Tommy Laswordfish not long ago. So, you’ve got Mike Rainbow Trout—who is a young, up-and-coming mega star, who is a possible MVP for the next 10 years. Then you’ve got Tommy Laswordfish. The name of the character is funny. It’s a perfect sounding character. Everyone knows what a swordfish looks like. And you can make a big jolly, Dodger-looking character with white hair and make it look like Tommy Lasorda. And most people 30 years old and older know who it is . . .

Anyway, you try and do your best to come up with characters that are going to be appeal to most people. The LeBronco James of the world and Tiger Woodschuck, those are easy ones because everybody on the planet knows them. But then Mike Rainbow Trout, my wife still might not know who that is. She’s not a baseball fan.

How do you decide which characters you are going to bring to each game? Does it vary by location?

We have 45 of them, I believe. Harry Canary is at pretty much every single game. It’s rare if he is not at a baseball game. We always take a character that can eat somebody. So whether that’s Clammy Sosa, Roger Clamens, Mackerel Jordan, Mike Rainbow Trout or Squidney Crosby. We’ve now got several characters that can do that. We’ll mix that up . . .

Some teams request certain characters. If we go to Jacksonville, maybe they want Tim Tebull, because he is from the area. Of course, anywhere we go in Florida, with all of the Florida Gators fans around, anytime we can take Tim Tebull we do that . . .  

Sometimes a team says we don’t want [a certain] character. We don’t want Shark McGwire. Back in the day, when the steroids stuff was going on, there were times when people said we don’t want you to bring Clammy Sosa or Shark McGwire—like that really had any bearing on anything or that it was going to be less funny . . .

ZOOperstar character Barack Ollama
Barack Ollama with his security detail in the background. (walkaround.com)

We ran into some trouble in Fort Wayne with Barack Ollama. Fans didn’t like that. That was a lesson learned. Barack Ollama is actually a funny character. And I think it’s one of the funnier things we do, when Barack Ollama walks around at a game and entertains the fans in the stands and one of us is dressed up in a suit with sunglasses and a Secret Service outfit walking around protecting him with walkie-talkies and stuff. To me that is really funny. We weren’t trying to make any political statement one way or the other, we were just trying to do something funny, and of course people are going to get bent out of shape about it. We don’t use him all that often anymore, just to avoid the whole situation.

A lot of your acts involve participation from players, coaches, managers and umpires. Who have been some of the more willing participants?

So with the BirdZerk show, I always do a routine with the visiting infielder to begin my show. Typically, it’s the third baseman, but every now and then it will be a different infield position. The list of guys who have done a little dance routine with me over the years is a pretty strong list. It’s pretty impressive. Now, I make a point when I go to a game and recruit an infielder from the visiting team to be in on a routine with me. I like to tell them the same thing:

Freddie Freeman BirdZerk 2
Freddie Freeman is among the big leaguers to dance with BirdZerk in the minors.

‘Just so you know, you’re going to be joining a pretty impressive list of guys who have done this routine with me. Let me know if you’ve heard of any of these guys. Cal Ripken, Scott Rolen, Evan Longoria, David Freese, Mike Lowell, Kevin Youkilis, Casey Blake, Freddie Freeman. There’s a lot of them.’ . . . I say to the guys, ‘When I met most of those guys, when I met Kris Bryant just a few years ago when he was playing Rookie ball, I didn’t know Kris Bryant just like I don’t know who you are. But maybe in a few years you’ll be the best player in baseball just like Kris Bryant is.”

I can clearly remember being in Everett, Washington, and Kris Bryant was playing for Boise. They told me he was going to be playing third base that night and he had signed for $6 or $7 million out of San Diego and he would be in the major leagues one day real soon. And I met him and talked to him, and of course I didn’t know who the heck he was. Sure enough, a couple of years later, there he is playing third base for the Cubs.

How was Kris Bryant on the field with you? Did he play along?

He was great. He was amazing. So many of the guys are—90 to 95 percent of the players, coaches and umpires are cool as heck, fun, accommodating, easy-going. They don’t mind having some fun. But then, you know, you have a handful of guys who are jerks, maybe they’re having a bad day, or they are not down with wanting to be involved, or coaches are in a bad mood or maybe the team is on a losing streak.

It’s one thing to say, ‘Hey, I’ve seen your act or I’ve heard about it. It sounds fun but that’s not me. How about if we try to get the shortstop or second baseman to do it?’ But it’s another thing to be a jerk or a-hole about it. Luckily that list is much shorter.

Can you describe a day in the life of Dominic Latkovski on a game day?

I was telling the group last night at the game in the suites when I was talking to the owners of the team. We have a really glamorous life. We’re going to get done cleaning up our dirty costumes tonight in the locker room at 11 o’clock. Then we are going to drive through In-N-Out Burger and get something to eat. Then we’re going to go to the hotel and air out our stinky clothes from the show. And we’re going to get cleaned up and sleep for four hours and wake up and drive an hour and a half to the Sacramento airport so that we can catch a 7 am. flight. Then we’ve got another drive for three hours to where we’re going tonight. We’re going to be changing in a groundscrew shed or something tonight at this college wood bat game we’re doing tonight. Every stadium is not like the Louisville Bats beautiful stadium or the Rochester Red Wings or the Durham Bulls. We don’t do every single performance in a big-time beautiful locker room, air conditioned, carpeted stadium. Sometimes we have to do make-do with what they’ve got.

Mike and I here are on a six-day trip. We were home for two days and before that we were on a six-day trip. It’s early flights, lots of travel, loading stuff in and out of the car, in and out of the stadium, and getting the show prepared with the coaches and the players and the PA and the music and the umpires. That’s one-third of the year we’re on the road . . . I’m not complaining about it. I don’t want to get a normal job, you know. I’m good with this. But it’s not just all glamorous, fancy-schmancy stuff. We have fun. We love what we do.

Do you have favorite cities to perform in? Does it make a difference? (question via @jasonbohn9)

There are too many things that go into what is our favorite place. The stadium, the fans, the weather, the clients—who are they and are they fun people to be around? Do they appreciate what you do? . . .

It’s fun to be in Portland, Oregon. It’s fun to go to Portland, Maine. I like to go to Clearwater. I like to go to Nashville. I like to go to Oklahoma City ,because it’s where my wife’s family is from. I like to go to Albuquerque because I think Albuquerque has great fans and the stadium is amazing.

ZOOperstars in Kane County
The ZOOperstars have performed for the Kane County Cougars more than any other minor league team.

Kane County Cougars is the place where we have performed at more than any other. We have done more shows for the Kane County Cougars than any other team. While it is not the fanciest stadium, there is something about Kane County that is fun to go to. The people are so nice, the concessions are always so good. I just have a lot of friends who work for the team or are fans of the team, because we have been going there for so long. That’s always a good spot.

As far as favorite stadiums: my two favorite stadiums are in the Midwest League and that’s the Great Lakes Loons and the Fort Wayne Tincaps. Charlotte Knights have a great stadium. Jacksonville has a great stadium . . . There are so many of them now.

I imagine you have had first-hand look at how the ballparks have changed over the years. What’s it been like from your perspective?

Back then, we performed in Toledo at their old stadium before they got their nice new stadium downtown. Jacksonville went from an old one to a nice new one. Louisville from an old one to a new one. I’ve seen a lot of new stadiums come along. I remember when Norfolk had a nice new one and now it is one of the older ones in the International League.

You see it all. You see the real nice fancy ones, like the one the Great Lakes Loons have, where you could seriously eat off of the floor where the groundscrew keep their equipment. It’s that clean. Then you go to other places, and it’s dirty and worn down . . . I’m not naming any names, but you just see it all.

In the end, none of that matters because we know we are there to entertain people and help people have a great time. So that when they leave the game and go home, they have that memory of when they went to a game and saw Harry Canary sing during the seventh-inning stretch. And they saw Mike Rainbow Trout eat the batboy and spit him out in his underwear. And when they saw BirdZerk throw the third baseman’s glove over the wall.

I have [similar] vivid memories of the Chicken and Max Patkin and Captain Dynamite and all of them from when I was a kid. I can’t tell you the score of the games or how many hits Willie McGee had when he played for the Redbirds, but I can still see Max Patkin coaching first base and spitting that steamy spit stuff in the air. I can remember Captain Dynamite’s box blowing up, Morgana running across the field calling timeout. That’s the stuff I can remember.

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