The man behind the Phillie Phanatic
Tom Burgoyne makes green fur a marketing coup as pro sports' top mascot.
Philadelphia — 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.
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.
The Phanatic is always sizing up the park, searching out his foil – an overly lively dance partner who can be pulled atop the dugout after the seventh inning, for instance, or a loudmouth who's telling him to sit down. "That's a person who wants to be in the act," Burgoyne observes. So the Phanatic will plop down next to him, or on him, maybe pull his shirt over the guy's face, or otherwise get in his space. Similarly, "I can sense a vibe" when someone wants to be left alone.
"You try to respond to what's given to you," he says, and then the fun begins. Will the umpire stand, stoic, while he gets belly-bumped? Will he walk away? Will the old-timer coach ignore the green creature circling him, or do a little dance in acknowledgment?
The Phanatic was designed by Harrison/Erickson (creators of Miss Piggy) when management noticed the San Diego Chicken and wanted something of its own. It's a rare species of bird said to have come to Philadelphia from the Galapagos Islands, a bird with the personality of an 8-year-old child who constantly gets into trouble but whom everyone loves because of his big heart. In search of an entertainer, not just window-dressing, the Phils allowed the creature wide creative berth. While some clubs bar their mascots from the field or dugout, the Phils don't. While some are expected to "brief" umpires in advance, Burgoyne isn't. The one requirement is that the humor be in good taste.
The role that he has played since 1993, now "fits like a glove," says Burgoyne, who was his high school mascot. He told the school paper at the time, jokingly, that what he wanted to be in 10 years was the Phillie Phanatic. Who knew?
After graduation from Drexel University in 1988, and eight months in the business world, he saw a blind ad "mascot wanted," and responded on a lark. At the audition, dancing in the 35-pound green fur suit, the belly distended by Hula Hoop-like hoops, he recalls "gasping for air, thinking 'this is terrible.' " The rest is history.
Since joining the team in 1989 as a backup to Dave Raymond, who originated the Phanatic role, he's donned the costume an estimated 5,000 times, for 81 home games a year and outside appearances. He's ready for anything, on-field and off, thanks to a large closet stuffed with costumes and props. Need a mini piano? Got it. An oversized barbell? A tuxedo? King Tut's headdress? No problem. And he boasts the only bathtub in Citizens Bank Park, a suggestion of his wife, who'd pulled her share of green fur from the drains at home.
Burgoyne is as talkative as his Phanatic is mute – an affable, full-time Phillies employee, team player, company man, and booster, who brushes off suggestions that the good-hearted-but-devilish character could ever cause trouble for management with those who don't share his sense of fun. He, as much as anyone, is smitten with this marketing concept made good.
As the baseball season opens – with time off rare, and sweltering 14-day home stands observed through the green mesh neck of his closest friend, his only air conditioning the occasional ice pack strapped to his chest – he laughs in anticipation. In his mind's eye he's already the great big kid who will kiss the pretty girls and goose the big shots.
"I feel like I'm reliving my childhood."