CLEARWATER — The Clearwater Threshers are rolling along in third place this season, winning about as many as they lose. That's still better than the parent Philadelphia Phillies, who are dead last in the National League East.
But one Thresher is on a winning streak. Phinley, the team's mascot, has prevailed in four head-to-head matchups to earn a spot in the final four of the first national mascot competition in minor league baseball.
Phinley is up against Ike the Spike of the State College Spikes (Pittsburgh Pirates) in the semifinal round. On the other side of the bracket, Snappy D. Turtle of the Beloit Snappers (Minnesota Twins) and Orbit of the Albuquerque Isotopes (Los Angeles Dodgers) are going head to head.
The winner of the competition, which started with 64 mascots, is determined through online voting.
Dave Deas, the man in the shark suit, always tries to earn a smile from fans — whether it's from his dance moves or buffing the heads of bald men during the games.
One of those bald heads belongs to Tom Dillman, a season ticket holder for three years and a Clearwater Beach resident.
Dillman, who describes himself as Phinley's No. 1 fan, said their relationship started at Dillman's first game three years ago. Dillman, 73, carried a towel on his shoulder to wipe the sweat off his head.
"He grabbed the towel and started wiping my head like a shoe shine man," he said. "I was surprised, but I loved it."
Dillman has been teased at every game since then — including when Phinley pretends to hold a pair of scissors to cut Dillman's nonexistent hair or spraying Silly String on him as a punishment for not paying for his haircut.
Dillman said he has already voted for Phinley during the semifinals.
"He is more entertaining than the team. He really is," Dillman said. "There is no doubt that he should win."
Deas, a city employee when he's not in the mascot suit, also attends events as Phinley beyond Bright House Field, the spring training home of the Phillies.
Last week, he and several ballplayers visited All Children's Hospital.
Deas, who declined to say what the mascot gig pays, remembers walking into a room where a boy was crying.
"Myself and two players walked in and all of a sudden he brightened up and smiled and gave us high-fives," he said. "Those are the kind of moments that I really like."
The public has until midnight tonight to vote online through the minor league baseball website. People can vote up to 25 times.
The final two will be announced Friday, when voting reopens to choose the No. 1 mascot. That voting session will end on Monday and the winner will be announced shortly after.
Matthew Gould, vice president of corporate communications for MLB Advanced Media, which operates the website, said his team is working on creating a "symbol" to be passed on to each year's winner.
"We're still finalizing it," he said. "At a later date, we'll present it to the winner."
Voters can register in a sweepstakes to win a prize package that could include subscriptions to the 2012 season of MiLB.TV and MLB.TV.
"At this point I feel like I have to win now because we've gone through five rounds," Deas said. "I think it would be cool to bring recognition to all the hard work that we do because we are really part of the community."
Diedra Rodriguez can be reached at (727) 445-4154 or firstname.lastname@example.org