The kids who sit on his lap at NorthTown Mall whisper in his ear cravings for Power Ranger figures and Barbie dolls.
The kids who wave to him and call him “Santa Christo, Santa Christo” in Mexico just want a smile, a hug and maybe a Pepsi.
This year, 70-year-old Rusty McCoy is thinking of those Mexican children as he dons his black boots, white-fringed red coat and wig of white locks.
With his earnings from a mall Santa Claus job, McCoy will buy and ship equipment for the youth baseball league he’s trying to establish in Puerto Penasco, a Mexican port town on the Sea of Cortez about 75 miles south of the border.
“Once we get it started, it’ll go like crazy,” McCoy predicts.
McCoy’s love for children, his round belly, Kris Kringle crooked nose and year-round white beard make him a model Santa Claus. Some little girls even tug the white whisps to test their authenticity.
“Ho, ho, ho,” he responds. “Oh, I’m so lucky to have all you kids visit me.”
He first played Santa in 1947 for a winter carnival in Fairbanks, Alaska. For the past 30 years, a Christmas has rarely passed without McCoy putting on the red and white suit.
But this is the first year he’s worked at a professional Santa job.
“For a rookie, he’s really at ease,” said Lorna Eichelberg, vice president of House of Images, the photographer at the mall. “You can just tell he genuinely likes children.”
McCoy’s wife, Marlene, acts as his chief elf; taking his suit to the cleaners, decorating their home with holiday cheer (down to the holly-covered salt and pepper shakers) and keeping Santa’s engagements straight.
But unlike the Santa Claus of legend, McCoy is not inclined to spend much time near the North Pole. Instead, he’s spent the last 35 winters on the northeast shore of the Sea of Cortez in an RV park after spending the holidays home in the Spokane Valley.
The warm climate is easier on his arthritic joints.
“It’s so beautiful there, it’s hard to explain,” he says with a far-away look. “Nobody can be anything but happy.”
Most locals are far less fortunate than the visiting Americans, however. Their lives have been made harder recently by a five-year fishing moratorium designed to replenish the dwindling schools of fish and shrimp in waters around the village.
The town’s economy relies on both fishing and tourism.
“The poor people in our country are pretty well-off compared to the poor people down there,” McCoy says.
Many children go barefoot. They might have two sets of clothes that their mothers keep meticulously laundered. They lack pencils and paper in school, and wear out the few toys they possess, the McCoys say.
Some of the boys worship baseball heros, such as Fernando Valenzuela, a San Diego pitcher.
McCoy got the idea of the youth baseball league one day when he was in town shopping and came across two young boys playing baseball with a stick.
“There was a boy with a torn-up mitt and a baseball that must have been one of the first balls stitched together,” he recalls. “These kids are baseball nuts.”
The town has a ballpark that seats about 1,000 spectators, but McCoy has never seen it used.
“Here they have a beautiful baseball park, but they have nothing to play with,” he says.
After finding local people interested in running a youth baseball league (including a school official, an artist and a former Mexican ballplayer), McCoy started collecting equipment and uniforms for the league.
McCoy was an umpire for Spokane’s youth baseball league when it started in the 1960s, so he has some experience in how to get one running. The big stumbling block is equipment.
So far, he’s collected enough uniforms (all slightly used) to outfit 16 teams, 38 aluminum bats, 150 baseballs, a few home plates and equipment to outfit seven catchers.
“We really need gloves and shoes,” he says. Any kind of sneakers will do, he adds. “It’s better than playing barefoot.”
McCoy is hoping to start the league when he and Marlene get back to Puerto Penasco in January. Anyone with spare shoes, mitts, baseballs or other equipment to donate can drop it off at Santa’s Winter Wonderland in the NorthTown Mall, where McCoy is one of four working Santas.
Santa and his elf will take it from there in their reindeerless recreational vehicle to the boys and girls south of the border.
“We love ‘em,” McCoy says. “It’s just that simple.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo; Map of Puerto Penasco area