Marcio Jose Sanchez, Associated Press
SAN FRANCISCO — Joel Zimei exhibits what can only be considered a mascot swagger.
No matter that almost nobody knows his real name, save for those behind the scenes with the San Francisco Giants. To the masses, he is the beloved Lou Seal. The mascot bounces around the ballpark, dances on the dugout and poses for photos. He signs autographs, too.
And Lou Seal is riding quite the impressive streak. When the reigning World Series champions wrap up their season Wednesday, it will mark Zimei's 1,054th consecutive home game — a Cal Ripken-like record in his costume-wearing world. That's 13 straight seasons, spanning the final days at Candlestick Park to the present in the Giants' picturesque waterfront spot.
How has he pulled off this remarkable run while balancing life as a husband, homeowner and soon-to-be first-time father?
"Stubbornness and determination," Zimei said while hurriedly getting ready for Monday night's game against the Colorado Rockies. "That's 13 straight seasons without missing a game."
Yet Zimei has lost track of his streak. He knows June 8 marked 1,000 straight home games — the team honored him with a banner that day.
After that, Zimei has to make a quick count on the magnetic schedule stuck to the door of the "Seal Cave," his locker room. It's an approximately 12-foot-by-12-foot closet where he transforms himself into San Francisco's Lou Seal simply by pulling on that larger-than-life fluffy gray seal suit.
Virtually anonymous — the way he prefers it — instincts take over once Zimei gets dressed.
"It's almost automatic, no matter how I'm feeling," Zimei said. "It's like hitting an involuntary switch and I just become Lou. After 13 years, sooner or later, it just blends."
On this night, he apologizes for the McDonald's garbage on the floor. He swears it's the first time in six months he has eaten fast-food for his pregame meal.
Sometimes, there's no choice because of the time crunch. He also needs his fuel considering how active he is each night and it's typically 45 degrees warmer inside his suit than it is outside.
Zimei has had some close calls along the way keeping his streak alive.
He once drove through the night from Reno, Nev., to make it back from vacation just in time for a day game after his flight from Denver to San Francisco got canceled.
He told his wife, Sierra, he couldn't miss the game.
"This is my full-time gig," said Zimei, who is aided with all aspects of his operation by assistant Anthony Pava. "It's the longest streak. All of us are pretty good friends. NFL guys, good luck catching me. You'd have to have a 100-year run to get close."
Zimei became Luigi Francisco Seal in 1999. He has his own magnets, World Series pictures that he autographs, even business cards with his real name and that of Lou Seal.
He's "5-foot-9-something" as he puts it and 170 pounds. In costume, Zimei stands 6-2.
Just like all the ballplayers he cheers, Zimei remembers his callup to the big leagues as if it were yesterday.
A college student in criminal justice at the time, he became a mascot by accident.
Zimei took a job working for Philadelphia's Triple-A Scranton club when he got the chance to help out the Phillies mascot during the 1998 season. That offseason, he wrote to most of the major league clubs and discovered the Giants, Mets and Red Sox all were holding mascot auditions.
"I didn't want to be a Red Sox, I didn't want to be a Met. My grandfather was a huge, huge Willie Mays fan back in the Willie Mays New York Giants days," Zimei said. "I figured it would be fun to get off the East Coast, come out here and check out California, and I've been here ever since."
In the winter, Zimei works for the NBA's Golden State Warriors across the bay in Oakland.
Though he doesn't give his body much of a break, he has never been on the mascot disabled list.
"Fortunately the injuries I have had I've been able to work through," he said. "I broke my right hand the last day of the season in 2004 because I was a sore loser and punched a brick wall after I found out we didn't make the playoffs that year. Fortunately for me it healed through the offseason."
He has gained several players' seal of approval.
"That's awesome, pretty cool," Rockies veteran Jason Giambi said. "He takes his job seriously. I'm sure every now and then he could have a schedule conflict. I like it. That's impressive."
Matt Cain, San Francisco's longest-tenured player, can appreciate Zimei's longevity, too.
"That's pretty sweet," Cain said. "I asked him earlier this year, 'How many days are you here?' He said, 'I haven't missed a day.' That's great. That's a lot. It's pretty amazing — 13 years straight, that's a long time."
Still, around AT&T Park there's one home streak that's tough to beat. Longtime equipment manager Mike Murphy hasn't missed a home game since the franchise moved West from New York in 1958.
When told about Zimei, Murphy quipped: "Oh really? I haven't missed a home game since 1958. I've missed a few road trips but never missed a home game."
That's a pair of remarkable runs for this organization to celebrate in a year the Giants won't return to the playoffs.
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