San Diego Chicken deserves call to Hall
My nominee for the National Baseball Hall of Fame has webbed feet and a beak that makes Nomar Garciaparra's schnoz look like a button nose. But the guy keeps putting up Cooperstown-worthy numbers. He has 35 years in the game, has never missed a single one of his 20,000-plus starts and has never clucked about getting sent to the minors. He's a pro's pro.
George W. invited him to the White House. Ted Turner supposedly tried to trade an Atlanta Braves catcher for him and later attempted to money-whip him as a free agent. "I'll make you bigger than Mickey Mouse," the Mouth of the South told my guy.
But loyalty means something to my Hall of Fame nominee. So does integrity, which is why he's never chowed down on growth hormone. And I guarantee you he isn't on the list of the 104 cheaters who tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs in 2003.
My guy? Ted Giannoulas, aka the San Diego Chicken.
"They've got a players' wing [in the Hall of Fame]," Giannoulas said. "They've got a broadcasters' wing. And I hope one day they'll have a chicken wing."
Given the choice between one of those celebrated cheaters or the Chicken, I'll take the Chicken for the Hall of Fame every time. I'm serious. I'd vote for Giannoulas, or a lifer major league scout, or a lifer coach (scouts and coaches have taken the Cooperstown oh-fer) before I'd waste a smidgen of ballot ink on the PEDers.
I don't care how many home runs were hit by Barry Bonds (eligible for induction in 2013), Rafael Palmeiro (2011), Sammy Sosa (2013), Mark McGwire (eligible since 2007) or Alex Rodriguez and Manny Ramirez (eligible five years after they retire). I don't care how many wins Roger Clemens (2013) compiled. Their numbers -- at least a portion of them -- are forever tainted. The Steroids Seven were undone by their greed and their narcissism.
Meanwhile, the 55-year-old Giannoulas happily crisscrosses the country in search of smiles. I found him in Georgia on Friday night at a Gwinnett Braves Triple-A game. The next night, he was in Buffalo, followed by Shreveport, La. In July, he'll take his act to Pensacola, Fla.; Salt Lake City; Portland, Ore.; Albuquerque, N.M.; Anchorage and Fairbanks, Alaska; Indianapolis; and Fort Worth and Frisco, Texas, for minor league gigs.
"A guy in a chicken suit can have such a catalytic effect on people," he said. "We as a country have the best sense of humor in the world. I'm waddling proof of that."
If Bowie Kuhn can make the Hall of Fame, so can the San Diego Chicken. In fact, the HOF once requested one of his costumes and used it in a traveling exhibit.
"It was a special moment for me that they even asked," Giannoulas said. "I didn't think they even noticed."
Are you kidding? People have noticed the San Diego Chicken since he made his baseball debut on April 9, 1974 -- the Padres' home opener against the Houston Astros. It was the night after Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth's career home run record, and the same night new Padres owner Ray Kroc grabbed the stadium microphone and told the crowd, "I've never seen such stupid baseball playing in my life."
The Chicken, though, was an entertainment revelation and revolution. He was part mascot, part cheerleader and all comedy shtick. People went to see him as much as they went to see the game -- maybe more for him than the game.
He earned $2 an hour for his first gig. His first chicken suit was a papier mâché rental from a costume shop. His motivation back in the day: "I was just looking for some free baseball."
You think Bonds loves the game the way Giannoulas does? Bonds wouldn't do anything for $2 an hour.
Giannoulas said he has made more than 20,000 appearances as the San Diego Chicken. (About 6,000 of those appearances have been at ballgames.) He's been on the road for as many as 250 days a year, although he's cut back on travel in recent seasons.
The man is a baseball treasure. San Diego schoolchildren wrote letters begging him to stay when word of Turner's big-money deal in 1978 became public. So Giannoulas followed his heart, rather than his wallet, and stayed put. And Giannoulas said former Padres president Ballard Smith told him that Turner once offered a backup Braves catcher for the Chicken. (A spokesman for Turner said Monday he couldn't confirm or deny the offer.)
Anyway, here's how sincere Giannoulas is about baseball. When I asked him whether he was a free-range chicken, he laughed. But when I kiddingly asked him whether he was one of those chickens who were fed growth hormone, Giannoulas' voice grew serious.
"I'm as organic as they come, buddy," he said. "What I put my body through every night, I would never chance something like that. There's no battery pack to keep me cool, no ice chest. It's so hot in there that I'm my own rain forest."
There are 32 Hall of Famers who were inducted as executives and eight inducted as umpires. Can't they make room for a chicken?
"The Chicken is an important part of baseball history," a HOF spokesman said. "We have one of his outfits in the collection."
But what about having the person in the outfit be elected to the Hall of Fame?
"There's no precedent for it," the spokesman said. "Everybody in there is a real, live person."
There was no precedent for voting for a slugger who didn't want to talk about the past (McGwire), but some people voted for him. And anyway, no one is more real than Giannoulas.
As the leader of the Vote Chicken Movement, I decided to call Jack O'Connell, secretary-treasurer of the Baseball Writers' Association of America. Selected members of the BBWAA vote for Hall of Fame candidates.
"I don't have a problem with honoring someone like this," said O'Connell, who added that Giannoulas' candidacy is out of the BBWAA's hands. "Could you write a history of the game without mentioning these people? You're honoring someone who honored the game, and that's what the Hall is about."
Someone who honored the game
Sounds like what Giannoulas does every time he puts on his uniform. Wish I could say the same about the Steroids Seven.Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here.
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