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SportsThe Mascot Whisperer - The New York Times

The Mascot Whisperer – The New York Times

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This was plainly evident in early June, when Raymond attended his first Phillies game since the start of the pandemic. Citizens Bank Park, where the team plays, had opened to full capacity only two days earlier, so the crowd was unusually large. Yet spotting the Phanatic in the stands was quite simple — you just had to locate the section that was looking somewhere other than the field. All through the evening the Phanatic was encircled in a practical halo of humanity, like a politician in a campaign scrum. He couldn’t make it five feet without a young woman jumping up and down at the sight of him or a father thrusting his baby out to be held for a photo. “This is really what the Phanatic has always done and what a good character does: He laser-points,” Raymond said from his seat just behind the Phillies dugout. “Very rarely do you not see someone looking up and watching when the Phanatic is there.”

Of all of Raymond’s personal qualities that have been absorbed into the template for a good mascot, this ability to attract attention is the most pronounced. The Phillies first noticed it in 1976, when, as a sophomore in college, he got an internship in the team’s promotions department. He felt immediately at home in the organization, because Raymond is the sort of guy who feels at home wherever he goes. The reason for this is the same as the reason he got the internship in the first place: His father was Tubby Raymond, the legendary football coach for the University of Delaware. Tubby led Delaware’s football program for 36 years, from 1966 to 2002, a tenure of staggering longevity and equally staggering success: 300 wins, three national championships and induction into the College Football Hall of Fame. When Dave was young, his father was the most revered man in Newark, Del., an institution unto himself. All the bigwigs — the university president, the mayor, Joe Biden — they all knew who to stand beside when they needed a favorable photo op. Dave grew up as the prince of the town, the kid who was welcomed wherever he went, granted privilege to bend the norms that other children were bound by. He knew it, too. “I was always a little bit of a wiseass,” he says. “I was disruptive. Teachers were always writing notes: Dave talks too much.”

When Tubby got his son an internship in the Philadelphia Phillies’ promotions department, it was that same disruptive wiseass who started showing up to meetings. The Phillies were a force in those years — Mike Schmidt in his prime, Steve Carlton and Tug McGraw on the mound — but the front office was concerned about flagging youth attendance numbers. So the team told promotions to get creative.

Out in San Diego, a minor celebrity had recently been made of another college kid, one named Ted Giannoulas. A local radio station called KGB had recently run an Easter promotion at the San Diego Zoo, and it hired Giannoulas to dress up as a chicken and distribute eggs. It was supposed to be a one-off gig, but Giannoulas began scheming about how he could leverage the costume to get things he wanted. What he wanted was free baseball.

Giannoulas approached the radio station with a proposition: If they got him into Padres games, he’d put on the chicken costume and work the crowd. At the time, the Padres were suffering through historically bad play, and no one was coming to games anyway. Giannoulas’s proposal was so low-risk that they didn’t say yes so much as they said sure, fine, whatever. And at the next home game there he was, a giant chicken roaming the stands. Whenever someone shouted, “Lay one on me,” the chicken would produce a plastic egg from his underside and present it to the fan, who would crack the egg open to find a promotional prize from the radio station. Soon, the Padres began inviting Giannoulas to perform on the field, and it wasn’t long before people started coming to games just to see him. By the end of the season, attendance had nearly doubled year over year, and the KGB Chicken had become a local phenomenon.

Back in Philadelphia, the Phillies took note. What would happen, they wondered, if we had a chicken, too? Only what if it wasn’t a chicken, but something original and eccentric and, above all, actually ours? What if the character was not an ambassador from a radio station, but a Phillies fan? Not just a fan, but the fan. The consummate fan. The Phanatic.

They wanted a character that was nothing like the mascots already in existence, which tended to be literal, unimaginative translations of team logos into wearable papier-mâché casts. Mr. Met, for example — who had been operational since 1964 — was just a guy who had a baseball for a head. By comparison, the Phillies wound up with something practically absurdist: green and lumpy and birdlike, six and a half feet tall and, according to its stat sheet, 300 pounds. It looked a little like Quetzalcoatl and a lot like a Muppet. Indeed, the year that Raymond started with the Phillies was the year “The Muppet Show” premiered on TV, and to build the Phanatic the team called Jim Henson himself. As Raymond tells it, the Phillies explained their vision to Henson, and at the end of the call he sent them over to Bonnie Erickson, erstwhile head of the Muppet Workshop, who had been responsible for designing Miss Piggy. Erickson and her creative partner fiddled with the concept, and when the team signed off, she built the suit. For an extra grand or two, she and her partner also offered the copyright to the costume, which the front office quickly declined. (The copyright is currently the subject of a legal dispute between the two parties.) Then she asked them to send her their performer for a fitting.

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