The man behind the Phillie Phanatic
Tom Burgoyne makes green fur a marketing coup as pro sports' top mascot.
The game may be baseball but it's the lacrosse helmet that makes Tom Burgoyne a hit. Feathery, furry, and securely strapped on his head, the helmet lets Mr. Burgoyne – the inner self of the Philadelphia Phillie Phanatic – move.Skip to next paragraph
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While many big-league sports mascots are prisoners of static heads and frozen smiles, this one can do the double take. He can dodge and weave, bump and roll, swipe a shirt from a player and – like an overexcited Labrador retriever – dash it around the stadium and bestow it on a pretty girl, all the while feigning surprise at his own daring.
Created 30 years ago to bring more kids to the park, and later boosted to JumboTron dimensions, the Phanatic was recently crowned top sports mascot by Forbes.com. Along with the San Diego Chicken, Forbes said, the Phanatic "pretty much revolutionized the role of the mascot – from cheerleader to full-fledged entertainer – at ball games in the late '70s, influencing the many that have followed." The award was the result of a Davie-Brown Index study assessing the brand recognition of the mascot's ilk.
A championship mascot undergoes his own version of spring training at this time of year, says Burgoyne, in his dressing room under Citizens Bank Park. The greatest challenge is to keep the character current. So these days, he surfs the Web and combs YouTube, trolling for that perfect new tune or strut, that great dance troupe to bring into the stadium. He quizzes his sons – ages 12, 10, and 5 – at the dinner table about the latest schoolyard favorites: Who sings that? What are the words? How does that move go? He wants to work a little hip-hop, maybe, into an act that's largely pop, classic rock, and Motown.
Though there are baseball purists who find the antics unbecoming the game, (indeed, former Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda admits having "body slammed" an early Phanatic incarnation to the turf), most of what the Phanatic does is familiar and beloved stuff. A cross between Daffy Duck and Charlie Chaplin, he spit-shines the bald pate of an embarrassed fan. He accidentally spills a lady's popcorn and then, when it's replaced, spills it again. He razzes visiting players, mimicking their characteristic stances, ever ready to tease the error-prone or the egotistical.
Visiting teams often sit on their dugout step to watch the ribbing. "I get the feeling they like coming to Philadelphia because of the Phanatic," Burgoyne says. When he's through with the players, he'll kidnap a choir member. Or her microphone. "There are a lot of ways you can wreak havoc on the field before the game," he chuckles, as if he only watched the hijinks instead of perpetrating them.