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Monday, February 10, 2003
Updated: February 12, 5:40 PM ET
The seedier side of fur and fun

By Patrick Hruby
Special to Page 2

And you thought base jumpers, coal miners and NFL wedge busters had it rough.

When Edmonton Oilers coach Craig MacTavish tore out the tongue of Calgary Flames mascot Harvey the Hound a few weeks ago, it was yet another reminder that the life of a sports mascot is anything but warm 'n' fuzzy -- no matter how warm 'n' fuzzy their costumes happen to be.

To the contrary, our fur-covered clowns inhabit a dog-eat-hound world, a black-and-blue realm of bumps, bruises and taking it on the foam-covered chin.

Harvey the Hound
Harvey the Hound was speechless when Craig McTavish got through with him.
Among other places.

"A lot of mascots have stories about getting hit in the 'nads," said Dr. Edward McFarland, director of sports medicine and shoulder surgery at Johns Hopkins and the author of a study on mascot injuries. "That's just about the right height for kids to punch. They think they're aiming for the stomach. But they're not."

Just ask Paul Pierson. A mascot with the Atlanta Braves and the Harlem Globetrotters, he's endured more between-the-legs near-misses than he cares to remember -- along with a broken hand, pulled neck muscles, bruised ribs and muscle cramps worthy of the action on the field, never mind the sidelines.

"People say, 'Oh, I could be a mascot, I have a lot of energy,' " Pierson said. "Well, you could have a lot of energy. But if it's 80 degrees, you're operating at 120. And you have to keep your wits about you, because you're running up steps with little kids that you can't see all around. Plus, you have to entertain the crowd, be physically active, worry about breaking a leg.

"There are points when you're out that you literally think you're going to die."

Given mascotting's occupational hazards, death might be a blessing. Consider:

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  • Heat
    Costumes aren't exactly cool. On a hot summer day, in-outfit temperatures can soar more than 40 degrees above external conditions -- enough to turn the typical fuzzy getup into a slow-cook rotisserie.

    A few years ago, Baltimore Orioles mascot Bromley Lowe became so dehydrated during a Fourth of July parade that he ended up in an ambulance, hooked up to an I.V. bag.

    "Just imagine wearing a black fur coat that encompasses your entire body," said Lowe, who also has worked as a mascot for American University and the Baltimore Ravens. "It's basically like doing aerobics in a sauna."

    And then some. Forget the Atkins diet: If you're looking to shed a few pounds for bikini season -- or just make weight for your upcoming title bout -- mascotting offers the fastest results. According to McFarland, the average mascot loses 8.6 pounds per performance.

    In liquid terms, that's roughly a gallon of sweat. Night after sticky night.

    "If I'm working by myself on a hot day, I could easily lose 10 pounds," Lowe said.

    To ease the load, Lowe and fellow Orioles mascots Steven Butz and John Krownapple usually alternate half-hour shifts on game days. They also keep the fridge in the Camden Yards mascot locker room stocked with 64-ounce bottles of Powerade.

    Still, there are plenty of days when that's not enough.

    "I start drinking an obscene amount of water a few hours before the game," Butz said. "If I don't, I'll get huge cramps within 20 minutes. [But] since starting as the Bird, I've lost seven pounds."

    Stench
    Backflips. Trampoline dunks. The occasional leap through a propane-powered ring of fire. For NBA mascot Kirk Johnson, it's all in a day's work.

    MASCOT COURT REPORT
    As if the threat of physical harm wasn't enough, mascots also spend an inordinate amount of time in the courtroom. Somewhere, there's a David E. Kelley series in all of this:

  • Three years ago, a New Jersey man filed a $35 million lawsuit against the Orioles and their Bird, claiming mascot Jeff Gartner struck him with his tail, pushed him in the chest and took his property during a 1997 game at Camden Yards.
  • "Kind of reminds me of Jimmy Carter and the rabbit," Orioles owner Peter Angelos told the Baltimore Daily Record, referring to the former president's run-in with a bunny during a canoe trip.

  • A Detroit Tigers fan sued the team's mascot, PAWS, after he suffered neck and jaw injuries when a foul ball hit him during a 1995 game. The fan claimed he was hurt because he was paying attention to the mascot and not the game; a jury disagreed, and a circuit court judge ordered the fan to pay the Tigers $8,650 in legal fees.
  • During a game in 2000, Florida's Billy the Marlin accidentally hit a fan in the eye with a wadded-up T-shirt shot out of a CO2 launcher. The fan was knocked unconscious and later filed suit.
  • Three years ago, a former Kansas City Royals employee sued the club for allegedly patterning its mascot, Sluggerrr, after his copyrighted Leo the Royal Lion character.
  • According to an article in the Cardozo Law Review, the Phillie Phanatic "holds the dubious record as the most-sued mascot in the majors." Among the judgments levied against him: $2.5 million to a man who suffered back injuries from being hugged too hard; $128,000 to a man who was knocked over at a church carnival; and $25,000 to a pregnant woman who was accidentally kicked in the stomach.
  • Of course, there are some things even he won't do.

    "You never put on another guy's (costume) head," said Johnson, a mascot in the Eastern Conference. "It smells terrible. You do 300 appearances a year, and you can never wash it.

    "If you put (my head) within a foot of you, you might gag. I take it in to get worked on, and they can barely stand it."

    Mascotting is a stinky, smelly job -- and by smelly, we mean skunk-repelling, weapons-grade funk. Think wet dog, infused with the eau de used jockstrap.

    Spread upon it, ye Right Guards, ye Degrees, ye Old Spices. And despair.

    "I don't notice the smell during the game," Butz said. "But at the end, the first thing I'm thinking about is getting a shower. The costume is plastered to you. By the ninth inning, you just itch."

    Butz and company generally bring two costume skins to each Orioles game, the better to change between shifts. Like most mascots, they dry clean their getups on a regular basis.

    Costume heads -- which can't exactly be thrown into the washing machine -- present a different challenge.

    "The hardest thing to keep clean is the beak," Butz said. "Because that's where you're kissing people. So it picks up all kinds of crud. Plus, that's where all your sweat seems to come through."

    In order to keep his beak clean -- relatively speaking -- Butz swears by a half-water, half-vodka spray solution. Others use a combination of water and rubbing alcohol (though one soccer mascot warns that if you use too much alcohol, "you can be overwhelmed by fumes").

    While traveling around the world with the Globetrotters, Pierson worked a six-month stint in which he had his costume cleaned only once.

    "On a scale of 1 to 10, the stench (was) about a 50," he said. "The stench (was) horrible. I'll tell you what: You can wash a costume, get it from the dry cleaners, use Bounce, Snuggles, whatever. But the moment you put it on and go out there for five minutes, that clean smell is gone. And that stench just comes straight through."

    Injury
    Three years ago, Lowe was about to begin a shift at Camden Yards when he accidentally caught his hand in a spring-loaded steel door. He lost the tip of his finger.

    "It was gross," Lowe said. "I was screaming, squirting blood. They had to rush me to the hospital. They found the tip in the Bird glove. But they couldn't sew it back on."

    If McFarland's first-of-its-kind study of mascot injuries is any indication, Lowe's misfortune is hardly unique. Among the grisly statistics:

  • More than half of all mascots have been stricken with a heat-related injury.
  • Forty-four percent of mascots suffer from chronic lower back pain.
  • Almost a fifth have sustained knee injuries while working.
  • "It's astonishing how many of them get hurt,"McFarland said. "Secondly, there's the kinds of injuries and the ways they get hurt. Probably the most bizarre was the one guy riding a motorized scooter. He ran it into an outfield wall."

    In 1995, Seattle's Mariner Moose broke his leg after inline skating into an outfield fence. One week later, Cleveland's Slider botched a somersault off a wall, tearing his ACL.

    "I've broken bones, been knocked out," Pierson said. "Bruises, cramps, the list goes on and on. I even knocked myself out once by running into a goal post. I must have been too excited. I saw black. I saw stars. I barely made it back to the sidelines."

    Then there's the former mascot for the now-defunct Baltimore BayRunners, Basil. Two years ago, the grinning sea beastie blew out his knee while -- we're not making this up -- playing air guitar.

    Philly Phanatic
    "Hey, how'd you like to be Ambassador to Iraq?"
    "I've got really good accidental death and dismemberment insurance," Johnson said with a laugh. "You never know what's going to happen."

    Johnson is only half-kidding: Thanks to an emphasis on trampoline dunks and high-flying acrobatics, basketball mascots have the highest injury rate in the business -- 4.9 for every 1,000 performances, about the same as male college gymnasts.

    In six seasons on the job, Johnson has dislocated a finger. Suffered a half-dozen twisted ankles. Smacked his chin and chest on the rim. Even undergone knee surgery.

    "There's some pretty good pounding," said Johnson, a former Arizona State gymnast. "But if it wasn't scary, it would be a boring job."

    One of Johnson's primo non-boring bits involves dunking a ball through the aforementioned flaming ring.

    "The scary thing is that I'm wearing a nylon costume," he said. "So instead of burning, it melts. If something happened, it would melt to my skin."

    Even the sheer weight of the average costume -- 21.2 pounds, with some as heavy as 40 pounds -- can lead to health problems. Not to mention a few trips to the local chiropractor.

    "(The costume head) is so top heavy," Butz said. "You bend over, and your back is just like, 'ahhh!' Usually, I go home and put a heating pad on for an hour or so. That helps."

    Assault
    Harvey the Hound isn't the first mascot to come under attack. In 1988, former Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda traded blows with the Philly Phanatic. Six years later, Colorado Rockies mascot Dinger got into a fist fight with the team's radio announcer.

    In 1999, a Philadelphia electrician shoved Krownapple off the right field wall at Camden Yards. The Orioles mascot fell 15 feet, broke his left ankle and spent a month in a wheelchair. He later won a $59,000 judgment against his assailant.

    In 1995, Lowe had $500 worth of damage done to his costume by an intoxicated, off-duty Long Island police officer.

    "It can get ugly," Lowe said. "Once, I had three kids -- that preteen, 'Beavis and Butt-Head age.' I didn't have anyone around me. And they kept on punching me. I had to leave. What else could I do? You're not hired to be a human punching bag."

    Former Washington Capitals and Detroit Tigers mascot Erin Blank can relate. While entertaining fans at the 1994 World Cup soccer tournament, she suffered a close fan encounter of the, er, lewd kind.

    "Right outside of (Washington's) RFK (Stadium), some guy from Denmark groped me," she said. "I would have people come up to me on the street and ask me if they could punch me. I've been headlocked and dogpiled many times.

    Orioles mascot
    Dressing like a stuffed animal isn't all the glitz and Hollywood glamour you think it is.
    "I think it's the Wyle E. Coyote factor. It's a big cartoon character, so let's see him smack his face into a cliff. You perform slapstick maneuvers, so fans think that's permission to get rough with you."

    Pierson concurs. During his tenure as a Liberty University student mascot, a drunk fan tossed him into the school's football bleachers -- which, it should be noted, are made of metal.

    "I got up and did the naughty motion with my finger," Pierson said. "So the guy -- he was huge -- threw me again. This time, I landed on my head. On cement steps. I pulled four muscles in my neck. I'm lucky I didn't break it."

    To prevent similar incidents, the Orioles shadow their mascots with a pair of security escorts, called "Birdkeepers." But Pierson said a mascot sometimes has to take matters into his own, um, extra-large gloves.

    "If a kid gets too aggressive, I use the Vulcan Pinch," he said. "Like Mister Spock. Nobody can see it, so mom and dad aren't going to get mad at me for slapping their kid. I stick my pointer finger and middle finger between the shoulder blade and press down. They stop immediately. Of all the tricks I've learned, that one works 100 percent."

    Fact is, a mascot never can be too careful. Following a 1997 home sweep of Philadelphia, Lowe danced with a broom in front of the Phillies dugout -- a gag that left Philly's third base coach livid.

    Some 45 minutes later, Lowe was surprised to hear a knock on the mascot locker room door.

    "I'm sitting on the couch, and the third base coach kicks in the door," Lowe said with a laugh. "He says, 'Where's that Oriole Bird?' I'm like, 'I think he left about 20 minutes ago.' "

    The coach -- who will remain nameless -- paused for a moment, fuming.

    "He looks around, sees costume parts all over the place," Lowe said. "Then he yells, 'You tell that Bird that if he sweeps through our dugout again, I'm going to take that broom, snap it in half, and shove it up his )(expletive)!"

    Working Conditions
    Mascots aren't risking life, limb and the occasional shot to the groin for big bucks. Though a few MLB and NBA performers earn six-figure salaries -- Rocky, the Denver Nuggets' mascot, is thought to be at the top of the pay scale -- the majority make a modest living.

    Rocky Nuggets
    Rocky gets the "Garnett money" of the mascot trade.
    Working with the Braves last year, Pierson garnered $65 a game. Blank earned $45 per night in the minor leagues.

    Peter Lund, a former D.C. United mascot, took home even less.

    "I made $40 a game," said Lund, a University of Michigan student. "That isn't much for four hours of work, especially if I'm promoting 10 companies a night and wearing a MasterCard logo on my back."

    During his first season with United, Lund was given his own mascot room at RFK Stadium, complete with a bathroom, a shower and a trainer's table.

    A year later, however, the room was gone. In its place? An oversized storage closet.

    "There was no shower, just a public bathroom down the hall," Lund said. "I had to wait after the game to use the showers in the coaches' locker room. Teams have a lot to deal with -- ticket sales, marketing, facilities, players, coaches, front office. The mascot just always gets the short end of the stick."

    Patrick Hruby is a sportswriter for the Washington Times. You can reach him at phrub@yahoo.com.