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The Mascot Whisperer – The New York Times

The Mascot Whisperer – The New York Times
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The Mascot Whisperer – The New York Times

The Mascot Whisperer – The New York Times

This was clearly evident in early June, when Raymond attended his first Phillies game since the start of the pandemic. Citizens Bank Park, where the team play, had opened at full capacity just two days earlier, so the crowd was unusually large. Still, spotting the Phanatic in the stands was pretty straightforward – all you had to do was locate the section that was looking elsewhere than on the ground. Throughout the evening, the Phanatic was surrounded by a halo of practical humanity, like a politician in a campaign scrum. He couldn’t be five feet tall without a young woman jumping up and down in sight or a father pushing his baby to be held up for a photo. “That’s really what the Phanatic has always done and what a good character does – they laser point,” Raymond said from his seat just behind the Phillies dugout canoe. “Very rarely do you see someone lift their eyes and watch when the Phanatic is there.”

Of all of Raymond’s personal qualities that have been absorbed into the model of a good mascot, this attention-grabbing ability is most pronounced. The Phillies first noticed him in 1976, when, in his sophomore year at college, he secured an internship in the team’s promotions department. He immediately felt at home in the organization because Raymond is the kind of guy who feels at home wherever he goes. The reason is the same as why he got the internship in the first place: his father was Tubby Raymond, the legendary University of Delaware football coach. Tubby led the Delaware football program for 36 years, from 1966 to 2002, a term of astounding longevity and equally astounding success: 300 wins, three national championships and an induction into the College Football Hall of Fame. When Dave was young, his father was Newark’s most revered man, Del., An institution on his own. All the bigwigs – college president, mayor Joe Biden – all knew who to look to when they needed a favorable photoshoot. Dave grew up as the prince of the city, the child who was welcome wherever he went, had the privilege of bypassing the standards to which other children were bound. He also knew it. “I’ve always been a bit wise,” he says. “I was disruptive. The teachers always wrote notes: Dave talks too much.

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When Tubby secured an internship for his son in the promotions department of the Philadelphia Phillies, it was that same disruptive idiot who started showing up at meetings. The Phillies were a force in those years – Mike Schmidt in his heyday, Steve Carlton and Tug McGraw on the mound – but the front office feared the number of young people would patronize the country. So the team asked promotions to be creative.

In San Diego, a minor celebrity had recently been made of another student, one named Ted Giannoulas. A local radio station called KGB recently ran 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-time gig, but Giannoulas began to imagine how he could leverage the costume to get what he wanted. What he wanted was free baseball.

Giannoulas approached the radio station with a proposal: If they made him participate in the Padres games, he would put on the chicken costume and work the crowd. At the time, the Padres were suffering from a historic bad game, and no one came to the games anyway. Giannoulas’ proposal was so low risk that they didn’t say yes so much as they said of course, okay, whatever. And in the next home game, there he was, a giant chicken roaming the stands. Every time someone yelled “Put one on me,” the chicken would produce a plastic egg from below and present it to the fan, who would smash the egg to find a radio station promo prize. Soon the Padres started inviting Giannoulas to perform on the pitch, and it didn’t take long for people to start coming to games just to see him. By the end of the season, attendance had nearly doubled year over year and KGB Chicken had become a local phenomenon.

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Back in Philadelphia, the Phillies took notice. What would happen, they wondered, if we also had a chicken? What if it wasn’t a chicken, but something quirky and quirky and, most importantly, our own? What if the character wasn’t a radio station ambassador, but a Phillies fan? Not just a fan, but the fan. The consummate fan. The Phanatic.

They wanted a character that looked nothing like the already existing mascots, which tended to be literal, unimaginative translations of the team’s logos into portable papier-mache casts. Mr. Met, for example – who had been in business since 1964 – was just a guy with a baseball head. In comparison, the Phillies ended up with something practically absurd: green and lumpy and resembling a bird, six and a half feet tall and, according to his stats sheet, 300 pounds. It looked a bit like Quetzalcoatl and a lot like a Muppet. Indeed, the year Raymond started with the Phillies was the year that “The Muppet Show” premiered on television, and to build the Phanatic, the team called themselves Jim Henson. As Raymond recounts, the Phillies explained their vision to Henson, and at the end of the call he sent them to Bonnie Erickson, the former head of the Muppet Workshop, who had been responsible for designing Miss. Piggy. Erickson and her creative partner tinkered with the concept, and when the team signed on, she built the costume. For a grand or two more, she and her partner also offered the copyright to the costume, which reception quickly declined. (Copyright is currently the subject of a dispute between the two parties.) Then she asked them to send their performer to her for a fitting.

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