How bad has this season been for the New York Mets? So bad that even their beloved, baseball-shaped mascot has been verbally batted around. At a recent game, frustrated fans taunted Mr. Met and he responded by flipping the bird and giving an obscene, cross-armed salute. The video went viral and the man playing Mr. Met was fired. But then something positive happened. Support for the poor guy in the seam-head costume mushroomed on social media, and the team had a change of heart. Rather than jettison the Mr. Met actor, they reassigned him. In true, Big Apple parlance, they told him to “Fuhgeddaboudit!”
The brouhaha conjured memories of one the more bizarre stories I’ve covered. It occurred during the summer of 1990 and involved Chipper the Clipper, a fuzzy bluebird mascot of the Batavia Clippers, a New York-Penn League professional baseball team now known as the Muckdogs.
At a game that season, Chipper ruffled feathers by allegedly shaking his tail feathers in the face of Pamela Cash, the wife of then-Clippers manager Dave Cash. She claimed the college kid in the mascot suit had been disrespectful and said the team’s assistant general manager laughed at her when she expressed her displeasure. Pamela, a high-strung, high-maintenance person, left the ballpark in a huff. She told her husband she was through with Batavia. The next day the Philadelphia Phillies—the Clippers’ parent club—reassigned Dave to the position of roving minor-league instructor.
Interestingly, when Clipper officials broached the idea of introducing a mascot that summer, they sought Cash’s opinion and he suggested they pattern it after the Phillie Phanatic. The fuzzy, animated Phanatic had become immensely popular because he occasionally copped an attitude and got under the skin of opponents and umpires. No one became more annoyed with him than loquacious Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda, who threatened to stuff the Phanatic into a trash can during one of his visits to the City of Brotherly Love.
Being a mascot isn’t easy. I speak from experience. A dozen summers ago, I proposed the bird-brained idea of playing Spikes, the big-beaked face of the Rochester Red Wings, and writing a column about it. I’m glad I did it. And vowed afterward that I would never, ever do it again.
The assignment was simultaneously exhilarating and dehydrating. I made a lot of friends and lost a lot of weight. Which, come to think of it, was not such a bad thing. I discovered how immensely popular Spikes is—Santa Claus-like, really, among the kids. And I learned that mascotting is a young person’s gig. Imagine walking around in a sauna for nine innings and you’ll begin to understand how physically demanding Spikes’ job is. By night’s end, I could have used several IVs to replenish all the fluids I sweated out of my body. I was ready to collapse.
I also was in dire need of ice packs for my throbbing right wrist, which had been put to the autograph test on mini-bat giveaway night. Wings General Manager Dan Mason said the team distributed 1,000 bats that evening and I swear I signed every last one of them. I didn’t screw up and sign “Scott” on any of the bats, but I did sign “Spikes” on a few of my checks while paying bills the following day.
Fortunately, I didn’t go it alone that night. My guardian angel was Dave McAlpin, who was a lacrosse player at the College at Brockport who normally played Spikes. He gave me a crash course on the big fella and led me to my appointed rounds—which included on-field promotions, birthday parties in the concourse, suite visits, dugout dances and the aforementioned autographs. Dave’s main advice: “Don’t be you; be Spikes. Just act as goofy as you want to act because nobody knows you are inside there. And be careful not to trip.”
Luckily Spikes doesn’t speak, so that eliminated any botched lines by moi. The toughest part was acclimating to the costume. It was warm, smelly and claustrophobic. When I put the head on, I felt like an astronaut. My vision was limited to two screens at eye-level and two smaller ones near the throat. You definitely had to be careful doing stairs. You’re always just one step away from an embarrassing pratfall.
Dave apologized when he heard it was bat night. Some ushers warned me to protect myself because young fans occasionally like to take a swing, and, hey, they can’t help it if your shin or kneecap happens to be in the way. Fortunately, I escaped being belted. Other than a few snide remarks from some teenage boys, I didn’t encounter any mascot abuse. Spikes and his female counterpart, Mittsy, are beloved. Much more so than their Wings predecessors. R.W. Homer, the team’s baseball-shaped mascot of the 1970s and ’80s, occasionally was kicked in the rear and sent rolling down the concrete aisles at old Silver Stadium. Ouch!
The best part was the looks on those kids’ faces when I signed their bats and hugged them. After I high-fived a boy in a wheelchair, his mom told me that was the first time in weeks she had seen him smile.
As I extricated myself from the costume after the game, I looked as if I had been through several rinse cycles. My gym shorts and T-shirt were soaked. My hair was disheveled. My eyes were bloodshot and stung like hell from the salty perspiration cascading from my brow. By living the story I had gained a greater appreciation for mascots. While exiting the ballpark, I joked to one of the interns that the next time I desired to practice participatory journalism, I would choose something saner—like running with the bulls in Pamplona or climbing Mount Everest.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.