A good mascot knows how to take a punch. There's really no way around it. Spend any significant amount of time clowning around in a furry suit, and somebody somewhere will take a swing at you. Hard. Because even the luckiest mascots read: the ones who have managed to avoid jock itch of the face can't avoid pissing people off.
People, for instance, like Tommy Lasorda.
Dave Raymond shakes his head. Now that was a rough night. The former Phillie Phanatic chuckles at the memory, still vivid after 18 years: August 1988, Veterans Stadium, Philadelphia. An incident that lives in mascot infamy. The fuming Los Angeles Dodgers manager, eyes bulging, whaling away at the jolly green fuzzball with his own effigy, a plastic dummy swaddled in a replica Dodgers jersey, the letters L-A-S-O-R-D-A hand-stitched along the back.
Inside the costume, Raymond couldn't believe it. Was Lasorda serious? Seriously trying to hurt him? What happened to their longstanding détente? The Phanatic would mock Lasorda's waddle, or maybe his ubiquitous Slim-Fast commercials; in return, Lasorda would shout obscenities, or perhaps threaten Raymond's life.
"We would make a show of it," Raymond recalls. "I thought it was OK."
Raymond leans back in his chair, behind a desk dotted with bobblehead dolls. After 16 years with the Phillies (he was the Phanatic through the 1993 season) and nearly another decade as a roaming mascot-for-hire, the 50-year-old owns a company that creates and trains mascots. In fact, he does the training himself, traveling far and wide from his red brick office building in Newark, Del., sharing his wisdom and experience, acting as something of a mascot whisperer.
"What happened," Raymond recalls, "is that I think Tommy got tired of the fun."
Let's review: a manager beating a mascot with a mannequin. So far, so very, very good. Truth be told, Raymond wasn't blameless. A blameless man wouldn't have swiped so many of Lasorda's actual jerseys over the years courtesy of Dodgers second baseman and Phanatic fan Steve Sax that the paranoid manager packed a single uniform for the trip to Philadelphia.
A blameless man wouldn't have gone to Modell's and purchased the biggest Dodgers jersey he could find, a veritable gray parachute, the better to lampoon Lasorda's ballooning belly. A blameless man wouldn't have sewn Lasorda's name across the shoulders, nice and big, 'cause when your work uniform owes a debt to Cookie Monster, you get pretty handy with a needle.
Nope, a blameless man would have chosen d) none of the above. As for Raymond? He went with e) all of the above; followed by f) pull the jersey over a dummy, then crush the faux Lasorda under a four-wheel ATV. But nothing personal. The Phanatic had a scooter, so mock vehicular manslaughter was simply part of the act.
Lasorda's meltdown? Not so much.
"When he started punching me, I realized he was really serious," Raymond says. "And I'm thinking, 'That little [expletive]! I'm gonna kill him!"
Man bites Muppet. Muppet bites back. Sweet. Raymond could have done it, too. Could have gathered his 5-foot-10 frame still solid from his years as a college football punter and plowed the portly Dodgers' skipper right into the artificial Veterans Stadium turf, struck a blow for picked-on mascots everywhere. Coulda, woulda, shoulda
There was the time Youppi! got ejected from a game.
And the time the Mariner Moose broke his ankle crashing into a wall.
And the time Calgary's Harvey the Hound got his tongue ripped out by Edmonton Oilers coach Craig MacTavish.
Not to mention lawsuits, flaming costumes and one senseless attack.
The crowd roared. Raymond heard a click, felt his chin strap slip and slacken. The Phanatic's head tipped forward, backward, a great big scoop of fuzzy green sherbet, about to tumble from a too-small sugar cone.
Forget throwing down. Raymond went to ground. Got fetal.
"Everyone thought it was because he was beating me," he says. "But I just didn't want the head to come off."
A professional mascot, Raymond explains, never loses his oversized head in public. Not even if he's being pummeled. Them's the rules. Which brings up a bigger point.
Mascots are pros. They have rules.
In the beginning, it seemed like a good idea. Hang out with a mascot coach. Take notes. Write a story.
The last part was key. I was sick of the self-important seriousness coursing through sports. Weary of the notion that men and women in numbered pajamas playing with sticks and balls is a matter of jaw-clenching momentousness, as opposed to glorified recess. I couldn't stomach another dour Bill Belichick press conference, another pompous athlete likening himself to a solider, another biz-porn book applying the lessons of a winning college basketball program to both the boardroom and life. Gack. Give me the court jesters. I'd watch Raymond coach 'em up; the experience would be nothing like NFL training camp.
A mascot coach, I figured, had to be the last person in the whole wide athletic world who was still in it for fun, the only guy left who had yet to take a good, lighthearted thing and turn it into work.
I should have known better.
To the untrained eye, mascots seem like merry pranksters, akin to the guys from "Jackass." They dance on dugouts, dunk off trampolines, jump through hoops so the rest of us don't have to. But here's the thing: The hoops are usually on fire. And according to a Johns Hopkins study no joke the average mascot loses 8.6 pounds per performance, roughly a gallon of salty, sticky sweat.
Like I said, I really should have known better.
Mascotting is laborious. A grind. Raymond opened my eyes. He's a great guy, friendly and open. He's also as intense as any sleep-in-the-office football coach I've ever been around.
Raymond has a mantra: serious fun. There's a fundamental difference, he says, between a mascot and a guy in a furry suit. The former is a trained entertainer; the latter, a near-worthless dilettante.
Raymond coaches the difference. Peddles it. Preaches it. For years, he lived it.
Go back. Way back. To 1978, Raymond's first year as the Phanatic. Before he ever put on the costume, his University of Delaware frat brothers teased him mercilessly: Fans are gonna set you on fire. Raymond wasn't laughing. In the Town that Booed Santa, pyromania seemed like a real possibility. So he improvised. A former jock and the son of Hall of Fame football coach Tubby Raymond, he approached the gig like a sport.
If you're not getting better, you're getting worse.
Raymond took dance lessons. Studied Daffy Duck reruns. Watched the Three Stooges for inspiration. Taught himself to move like a living cartoon. He concocted elaborate, attention-getting skits, once skydiving into Veterans Stadium (in costume, of course). He established a rivalry with the San Diego Chicken, the Yankees-Red Sox of the mascot world.
What was life like inside that furry green costume? Dave Raymond tells how he got the job in the first place, his problems with Tommy Lasorda and his rivalry with the San Diego Chicken.
Near the end of his run, Raymond even videotaped and replayed his routines, looking for flaws, like Albert Pujols analyzing his at-bats.
"Every preseason, I had enormous anxiety about having new routines, new skits," Raymond says. "If there's 60,000 people there, then you have to entertain all 60,000. My perspective was that everyone was watching the Phanatic all the time."
Spoken like Joe DiMaggio, who once said he hustled on routine plays because "there's always some kid who may be seeing me for the first time." Good grief. Still, there's no denying Raymond's results: along with the Chicken, the Phanatic is arguably the most successful mascot in sports history, a beloved civic icon. When the Phillies won the 1980 World Series, they gave Raymond a championship ring.
(His reaction at the time? Great. Did they vote me a playoff share?)
Raymond tells a story. During one of his mascot Boot Camps again, no joke he taught a guy who wanted to create a new character, a donkey called "Kickass."
The name was apt: For a dollar, fans would be allowed to boot him in the rear. Hard.
Sounds good to me. Sounded awful to Raymond.
"Part of why I got into coaching was for the safety of the performers," he says. "And some performers, they don't even come up with a personality for their character. They're just in the costume. They think that's success."
OK, never mind DiMaggio. Maybe Raymond's a mascot Larry Brown. Is there a right way to jump through a flaming hoop?
Early spring. Raymond stands in the empty locker room of a minor league baseball stadium in Charleston, S.C., surrounded by packing popcorn. He wears khaki pants, a button-down shirt and an oversized cartoon dog helmet. He looks like an IT consultant for Disney on Ice. He's on hand to deliver a new costume for Charlie, the face of the Charleston RiverDogs, and also train Sarah, the team's performer.
Sarah needs help.
A good-natured 20-something, she's spontaneous and flaky, the sort of person who takes in stray dogs (a dozen at one point) but habitually forgets to set her alarm clock (she's late to her meeting with Raymond). Like many mascots, she's a right-brain thinker. Funny in costume. Floundering out of it. Her changing room is a mess, piled with clothes and props, recently infested by mice. Ignoring directions to keep her costume helmet cool and dry, she used to store Charlie's head in a duffel bag.
That is, until she came down with facial fungus.
Sarah was once slugged by a drunk fan, right in front of a police officer. The cop did nothing. A couple years ago, visiting players stole her costume. She barged into the locker room, threw the first guy she saw against a wall. Turned out to be the starting pitcher. The next night, the players swiped her outfit again, this time smearing Icy Hot inside Charlie's helmet.
Sarah worked the game nearly blind. Her eyes burned for the next two months.
"Get to know players," Raymond advises. "Make friends. Get them to help in skits. Get to know the stadium staff. Let them know you're not just some idiot in a costume."
Be more than an idiot. Such is Raymond's gospel. In practice, it means practice. Lots. A good mascot has more moves than Kobe Bryant. Seven ways to say hello. Five ways to show gratitude. A half-dozen choreographed dance steps.
Raymond plants Sarah in front of a mirror. He tells her to sigh, move slowly, dip her shoulders. Look sad. Feel sad. Be sad.
"These kinds of things need to be in the memory bank and written down," he says. "When Charlie is sad, you gotta tap into actual sadness. It's a little uncomfortable at first, but you have to let yourself go. It's acting."
"Method mascotting." Sarah takes notes. Raymond gives her his mascot manual, a thick, Buck Showalter-shaming binder covering everything from costume care to appearance contracts. No detail is too minute: Last summer, Sarah worked the day shift at a coffee shop, downing a half-dozen lattes before heading to the ballpark.
Remember that stuff about mascots and sweat? Caffeine dehydrates the body. Do the math.
"Eight-game home stands," Sarah says, "kind of sucked."
"Well, let's talk nutrition and fitness," Raymond replies. "What did you have for breakfast?"
"I ate a granola bar this morning. I don't usually eat breakfast. And I didn't drink any caffeine."
"What about Mountain Dew?"
"I dropped that, too."
"Yeah, since yesterday."
Sarah smiles. I feel for her. She wants to improve, make mascotting a full-time occupation. The team likes her enthusiasm. They want her to be more responsible.
Over lunch, she and Raymond discuss the future.
"Dave," she says between bites of pad Thai, "I want to be taken seriously."
"Then you'll have to demonstrate your commitment to doing things right," Raymond says. "You should follow up with me once a month. The next time we talk, I want you to send me documents. I want you to send me videotapes."
Sarah nods. Mission accomplished. Afterward, Raymond takes a call on his cell phone. Sarah heads for the parking lot, where she lights a cigarette.
"One of my goals is to quit [smoking] this year," she says, taking a drag. "I think I could run a lot farther."
"Promise you won't tell."
So you wanna be a mascot? Trust me: You're better off behind a desk. How do I know? Because I went to a mascot audition, and watched a guy who probably should be chasing Al Qaeda walk away with the job.
Let's start at the beginning.
The WNBA's Chicago Sky ask Raymond to help run their mascot tryouts. I tag along. On a mild morning last spring, we meet at the UIC Pavilion.
Raymond sits at a round conference table, reading glasses perched on the tip of his nose. He's fiddling with a laptop. Sky president Margaret Stender is present, along with then-head coach Dave Cowens and a handful of team officials. Three candidates are trying out; each will sit for a formal interview, then perform in costume.
The first order of business? Business. A good mascot, Raymond explains, acts as a team's marketing spearhead.
I picture the Phanatic, jamming a sharpened stick into some poor fan's wallet.
"Do they understand signage?" Raymond says. "Have they built a marketing plan? These are the questions you need to be asking."
Stender nods. A former college basketball player, she went to business school at the University of Virginia and later worked as a marketing executive for General Mills.
Raymond is speaking her language.
"This is a very vital part of our branding," she says. "We've thought a lot about this."
A business seminar. My head hurts. I should have known better. When Raymond became the Phanatic, he was a 22-year-old team intern whose previous big-league experience consisted of stuffing envelopes, a guy who switched his business major to physical education and wanted to work with kids. Didn't matter. Team executive Bill Giles gave Raymond a simple edict.
Go out and have fun.
Times have changed.
Those whimsical bobbleheads on Raymond's desk? Here are the books on a nearby shelf: "Guerilla Publicity," "Marketing For Dummies," "Close the Deal." Forget serious fun. Mascotting is serious business.
Top NBA mascots pull down six-figure salaries and make hundreds of promotional appearances per year. Even minor league performers earning $25 a game are expected to make calls, sell sponsorships and otherwise help the home team turn a tidy profit.
"It's hard to find a good performer who really understands business," Raymond adds. "But they can be much more detrimental to your program if they're a zero out of costume than if they're a zero in costume."
Skip ahead to the auditions. I sit by the basketball court, behind the scorer's table. Raymond looks through a camcorder. The building is almost empty.
"If you want to do something, don't be shy," Raymond tells the candidates. "Unless you want to get naked."
Mercifully, no one does. First up is Charlton, a minor league baseball mascot who ran track at Fresno State. Dressed as the school's bulldog mascot, he rips off a pair of tumbling backflips, dances to "Cotton Eye Joe" and ends his routine by hugging Cowens.
Cowens looks amused, but not surprised. Has he done this before?
Next comes Eric, a member of the Phoenix Suns dunk squad. A former college linebacker, his act drips with testosterone: clad in a gorilla outfit, he spikes a basketball at half court and hurdles the scorer's table before nearly smashing Stender's Blackberry. (Note: not the best idea). He also dances with Julie, a media consultant for the team, who seems something less than swept away.
"I can smell Febreze," she says, wrinkling her nose.
Patrick is last. A Sam Houston State graduate student, he stands on the edge of the scorer's table, directly in front of me. He's dressed as Sammy the Bearcat. I can see his sneakers. He's twitching. He shoots me a manic thumbs up, like a furry Tom Cruise.
Oh, no. He's gonna try a backflip.
I feel a sudden flood of compassion, an overwhelming urge to grab Patrick's extra-large Hawaiian shirt and yank him back to
Too late. Patrick flips. His feet fail to fully follow. He lands on his knees. Hard. He isn't wearing pads. The impact echoes to the rafters. Everyone winces -- even Cowens, the former Boston Celtics great, a man who knows floor burns.
"Are you OK?" Raymond asks.
Patrick stands up, gingerly. Another thumbs-up.
"Do you want to do that again?" Raymond asks.
Patrick shakes his head, pointing to his knees.
"You sure you're OK?"
Apparently so: a few minutes later, Raymond asks Patrick to act "painfully shy." Patrick sprints across the floor, then hurdles an equipment table. This time, he lands on his side. On concrete. Ouch. Another resounding thud.
"Yeah," cracks Cowens, "he's painfully shy, all right."
As far as I can tell, Patrick has a single standout in-costume skill: a complete and utter disregard for the physical well-being of his own rear end. But no matter.
A few days later, the Sky offer him the job.
In fact, it was his to lose.
Remember those formal interviews? Patrick knocked 'em dead. Clad in a suit and tie, he was funny in a deadpan way, serious without being stiff. He talked about corporate sponsors, outside appearances, market penetration and this went over particularly well getting children to spend their parents' money.
Better still, he handed out a two-page marketing plan, complete with bullet points:
• Group ticket packages
• Develop mascot merchandise
• Get a corporate sponsor for Kids Club
(Marketing) spear, meet head. I look over Patrick's résumé. As an undergrad, he majored in criminal justice. A few weeks later, I give him a call.
Just how did he go from "CSI" to "The Muppet Show"?
"It's nuts," Patrick admits. "I wanted to be an FBI agent."
A prospective G-man. Sounds about right. Are we having serious fun yet?
I'm sitting in the back of a van, rolling through downtown Philadelphia, surrounded by men dressed as furry animals. Not to worry: this isn't some "Dateline NBC" sting targeting sexual deviants. The van belongs to Swoop, mascot for the Philadelphia Eagles. We're heading to the Mascot Hall of Fame induction ceremony.
Team: Formerly the San Diego Padres, now independent.
Claim to Fame: The Granddaddy of sports mascots practically invented the gig; when an airline lost his luggage, performed at a minor league hockey game wearing his helmet, tail, gloves, socks and underwear.
The Phillie Phanatic
Clutch the Bear
And yeah, mascots actually have a Hall of Fame. In case you were wondering.
Sacramento Kings mascot Slamson the Lion is sweating a potential parking ticket. Orlando Magic mascot Stuff and a dude dressed as a giant gold trophy are singing along to Journey. Don't stop belieeeeevin! Seattle Sonics mascot Squatch is complaining about the smell, which brings to mind used jockstraps.
I'm excited. It's August, and the induction ceremony is my last best chance to see some not-so-serious mascot fun. Some 60-plus mascots are supposed to be show up. Strength in numbers, right?
The van stops next to Love Park. The gold trophy guy opens the back doors.
"No, no no!" someone shouts. "We have people with heads off!"
Sigh. Mascot rule No. 1. The ceremony itself is a rousing success, attracting camera crews, bemused spectators and more mascots than I can count. It's also tightly scripted, right down to Houston Rockets mascot Clutch the Bear smushing a cake into the face of his real-life wife.
(Turns out she's a former team dancer, and that's how the pair met. Who says chivalry is dead?)
Raymond stands behind a portable stage, making notes on the back of a map. He wears a T-shirt reading OLD MASCOTS NEVER DIE. THEY JUST SMELL THAT WAY. The two-year-old Hall is his baby, the embodiment of serious fun, the surest sign yet of how the mascot industry is changing.
The night before the ceremony, Raymond hosts a mascot meet-and-greet at a sports bar near Citizens Bank Park. A petite, curvy blonde walks through the room, packed into a miniskirt and a low-cut, too-tight top. Heads turn.
"She likes mascots," says Jon Absey, the Utah Jazz Bear. "I think it's the fact that we're pseudo-celebrities."
Mascot groupies? Whoa. Actually, Absey is pulling my leg: The girl is someone's sister.
A Hall inductee, Absey has been with the Jazz for 13 years. He's known for his physical stunts for instance, jumping through flaming hoops. He lifts weights with the players on the team, takes his job seriously.
Maybe too seriously.
A decade ago, Absey says, the annual NBA mascot conference and yeah, they have one of those, too centered around skit and stunt videos. Today, it's a series of Power Point presentations: Writing contracts. Selling your character. Maximizing value.
"When you're in college, your only job is to go out and have fun," he says, wistfully. "But at the pro level, you have to have a business plan. That's kind of what sucks about it."
I think of Sarah, the Charleston RiverDogs mascot.
She once brought her dog to the ballpark. During the National Anthem, the pooch pooped on the infield, delighting players and spectators alike.
Serindipitous canine defecation: Something you won't find in a business plan. Or a mascot manual.
Late April. A game night. I'm sitting behind a press table at the Verizon Center in downtown Washington, D.C., where the Wizards are playing the Cleveland Cavaliers. I haven't thought about mascots in more than a month.
That's when I notice the Geico Gekko.
Down on the floor, fans are throwing down trampoline dunks. So is the Gekko. Best jam earns free car insurance. Or something. I dunno. Most of the time, I hardly notice promotional stunts in part because I'm working, in part because the media dining room offers free ice cream.
Tonight, I'm transfixed. Not in a good way. The Gekko stinks. He's terrible. The way he walks, the way he moves. It's all wrong.
He looks like a guy in a lizard suit.
I think back to Charleston. Raymond sits on the locker room floor, pulling on Charlie's pants. He runs a finger along the inseam, stopping on a cluster of safety pins. Little time bombs, he calls them. For your crotch.
He's getting too old for this. Too old to sacrifice another Advil at the altar of his aching joints. But test-driving costumes is part of Raymond's job. So is hand-delivery, which wasn't always the case: A few years ago, Raymond's company shipped out a new costume for a character named Skipper. The performer proceeded to wear the suit backwards for 17 games.
"His boss was thinking, 'This character looks like he has a wedgie,'" Raymond says with a laugh. "The performer said the only problem with the costume was that it choked him."
Raymond stands up, buckles his chin strap.Pop! His knees. He pants, barks, whimpers like a puppy. Standing before a mirror, he shakes out his feet, legs, arms. His shoulders shimmy, left and right. Dancing in place, he claps his paws a la Kevin Garnett at the scorer's table then stomps out in a Daffy Duck huff. He's ready.
"If I fall down and don't get up," Raymond says, "that means I need help."
He heads for the stadium concourse, barges into the RiverDogs' front office. He dances the Robot, kisses women, drops to his hands -- er, paws -- and knees before general manager Dave Echols.
"Charlie walks like an old guy," whispers an intern.
Raymond pinches a delivery man in the butt. Hey! He high-steps into the empty ballpark, lifts his leg above a potted plant, strut-strolls atop the visiting dugout. Patting his belly, he waves at a groundskeeper. The groundskeeper drops his rake, grinning and rubbing his own ample stomach.
Shhhhhake it up! Oooh, shake it up!
Music blares from the PA system. Raymond taps his feet, flaps his arms, moonwalks like it's 1985. He poses in a "Karate Kid"-style crane stance. The groundskeeper guffaws.
Baaack in Black!
Now Raymond's panting. For real. Inside the costume, his face is crimson. He drops his head, makes a throat-slash gesture. He pretends to vomit in a garbage can.
"All right," he wheezes. "I'm done. I'm too old."
The music keeps playing. Yes I'm ba-a-a-ck! Raymond perks up. First his shoulders, then his head. Ba-a-a-ck! He breaks into air guitar. For a moment, Raymond doesn't look like an old guy in a furry suit. He looks like Charlie, moving exactly the way a giant, rock n' rolling cartoon dog should.
Which, back in the present, is probably why the Gekko is pissing me off.
The Verizon Center crowd adores him. Guest judge Dominique Wilkins gives him a two-handed high five. Two hands! From 'Nique! I feel offended for Raymond, for Sarah and Patrick, for every mascot who ever jumped through a flaming hoop so the rest of us don't have to. Don't these idiot fans know any better? Almost shaking, I scribble in my notepad:
What a joke. Doesn't walk the way a man-sized insurance-hawking lizard should. Try getting in character, jackass!
The Gekko saunters off the court, toward the stadium tunnel. I'm pretty sure I can see his socks. For a moment, serious fun makes perfect sense. For a moment, I wonder if Mr. Lizard knows how to take a punch.
Patrick Hruby is a columnist for Page 2. Sound off to Page 2 here.