The Mascot Whisperer

By guest author Max Rubin from the New York Times Magazine. He isis an essayist currently living in New York. His last article for the magazine was about Plymouth Rock.

In America’s four major sports leagues, about nine out of every 10 teams have a mascot. As for the holdouts, they seem to believe that inanity has no place in their brands. The New York Yankees, who take corporate-management levels of pride in policing their players’ facial hair, are too self-consciously dignified for a mascot. The Los Angeles Lakers are too Hollywood for one, to the extent that they use Jack Nicholson instead.

And until 2018, this was very much the case for the Philadelphia Flyers. While the Yankees are too august for a mascot and the Lakers are too slick, the Flyers were too brutish. They made their reputation with a brawling, bruising style of hockey, playing what is seen as America’s most hardscrabble sport in a place that sees itself as America’s most hardscrabble city; a mascot would simply be incongruous with the team’s image. That’s the stance the Flyers took for decades, regardless of how much it was losing them in merchandise revenue and earned media and community outreach.

But when the Philadelphia Eagles finally won their first Super Bowl three years ago, the welcome-home celebration was led by the city’s pro-sports mascots. Only the Flyers had no representation. This, the front office resolved, was the kind of thing they could no longer afford to miss out on. Their first call was obvious.

For the first 17 years of his career, a man named Dave Raymond worked just across the street, for the Philadelphia Phillies. There, Raymond portrayed a mascot. You could say he portrayed the mascot — in the pantheon of America’s furry avatars, none is more iconic than the Phillie Phanatic, a lumpy, waddling, bright green birdlike creature with a big, trumpeting snout and a red tongue that unfurls like a party blower. Raymond taught the Phanatic what became his signature moves: how to whomp his paunch, how to suction a plunger to the head of a bald man, how to stand at a distance and land rings on the plunger. His work was such a revelation that it not only established the industry standard, it basically established the industry — before 1978, when the Phillies introduced the Phanatic, pro-sports mascots were still quite rare.

In the years after he stopped performing, Raymond reverse-engineered the Phanatic’s success and distilled it into a four-step process for developing mascots from scratch. He has since used this process to help create more than 130 characters. Teams in Major League Baseball, the N.B.A., the N.H.L., minor-league affiliates, university athletics programmes, pharmaceutical companies, health care networks and banks — they pay Raymond good money to materialize their institutional ideals into furry form. The Flyers were already familiar with Raymond’s work because he had recently helped create a mascot for one of their minor-league teams. So they asked him to perform his trademark consultation, the Mascot Intervention, in which he guides clients through his four steps. It was particularly important that the Flyers followed it too, because anytime a storied franchise with a committed fan base introduces a mascot, the initial response is always backlash.

Raymond told the Flyers this at the outset. It was the very first thing he said: “You guys know we’re going to get creamed, right?” He said they could roll out the next Phanatic, and it wouldn’t make any difference — a team like theirs needed to prepare for a reaction that could last up to three months. But Joe Heller, then the Flyers’ vice president for marketing, said the team was ready for it, and Raymond knew right then that it was going to work, because the only projects he has worked on that have ever failed, he says, are the ones that didn’t have the full support of their organizations. That’s his first principle: complete commitment to the initiative.

The second is building a back story. That’s the best way to combat the criticism you’re going to get. “It will always be Why,” Raymond says. “We hate it. It looks terrible. Why did you make it look like that?” Your story is your answer. The one that the Flyers came up with was about a monster that they discovered beneath their stadium while doing renovations. Upon finding his lair, the team invited him up for a game. Not a polished tale, not a polished character, but polish is not what the Flyers wanted.

The biggest question, of course, was what this creature would look like. It had to convey the brand’s image, Raymond explained, but more important, it had to look unlike any other mascot out there. The ones with the most distinct appearances are the ones that make the most memorable impressions. That’s Principle No. 3. The Flyers, Raymond says, are the personification of hockey itself: “plodding and big and hulky and weird.” So the team’s designers gave their monster a massive, bulging body and a severe underbite. They gave him an excessive orange neck beard and swinging, deranged eyeballs. They gave him a bellybutton that could change colors. And then they gave him a name — a name that might have been a bit too on the nose, had they given him a nose. They named him Gritty.

When Gritty debuted on Sept. 24, 2018, he looked so unrepentantly strange, so unlike what we have been conditioned to expect a mascot to be, that he instantly became a viral subject of derision. Then, just as suddenly, he became the subject of deep, intense adulation — the unofficial mascot of the internet itself, and then, incredibly, the adopted mascot of the political far left, who saw in him an irascible oversize orange oaf they could claim as their own. So breathless was the public’s reaction to Gritty that it ran Raymond’s three-month gantlet, from backlash to acceptance, in 24 hours.

Like no mascot before him, Gritty demonstrated an uncanny ability to capture the zeitgeist. He harnessed all the standard mascot tropes and redirected them toward chaos: streaking across the ice, firing his T-shirt cannon at point-blank range, warning the Pittsburgh Penguins’ mascot to “sleep with one eye open.” Much of the credit here belongs to the performer who brings Gritty to life. The Flyers refuse to reveal their performer’s identity, but they at least admit such a person exists. Many organizations won’t even go that far; to maintain the illusion that their mascots move sentiently among us, the person on the payroll is sometimes known as the mascot’s “best friend.” And as Raymond demonstrated with the Phanatic, you don’t become a great mascot without a great best friend. That’s his fourth and final principle: Find the right performer.

A mascot as sensational as Gritty comes along once in a generation — once in a career, if you’re lucky. Raymond has known it twice, with 40 years of steady success in between. At 65, he is far and away the most influential person in the mascot world: Not only does he consult with teams and agencies to create new mascots (and update old, offensive ones), he also runs a boot camp for performers out of the Mascot Hall of Fame, which he founded, in Indiana. Raymond’s career is so singular that it offers its own sort of answer to the most puzzling question about this whole enterprise: How has this inherently ludicrous marketing gimmick endeared itself so thoroughly and lucratively to American sports culture? Indeed, the reach of Raymond’s influence is so wide that it’s almost hard to be an American without having come into contact with his work in some form or another, even if you probably never knew it.

Not that Raymond needs the credit. On the contrary. Once you’ve looked through a mascot’s eyes, success means getting people to forget you’re even there.

It is easy to see mascots as simple, goofy entertainment. That’s how Raymond saw it when he first stepped inside the Phanatic 43 years ago. But with every grown man who would approach him and ask for a hug, with every child who would smile for the first time in days when he visited her at the hospital, it became increasingly clear: More than entertainment, mascots are about emotional connection. They are about trust — between fan and team, between audience and institution. “All of that emotion that is built up in your team gets funneled right down to that symbol,” Raymond says. “They’re inviting you to come in and hug and interact physically with a piece of the team.”

This, of course, made much of the last year and a half rather tricky for the industry, since the very thing that makes mascots work was rendered effectively illicit. So now that stadiums and arenas are again operating at full capacity, mascots all across the country are finding themselves the focus of a heightened degree of exuberance.

This was plainly evident in early June, when Raymond attended his first Phillies game since the start of the pandemic. Citizens Bank Park, where the team plays, had opened to full capacity only two days earlier, so the crowd was unusually large. Yet spotting the Phanatic in the stands was quite simple — you just had to locate the section that was looking somewhere other than the field. All through the evening the Phanatic was encircled in a practical halo of humanity, like a politician in a campaign scrum. He couldn’t make it five feet without a young woman jumping up and down at the sight of him or a father thrusting his baby out to be held for a photo. “This is really what the Phanatic has always done and what a good character does: He laser-points,” Raymond said from his seat just behind the Phillies dugout. “Very rarely do you not see someone looking up and watching when the Phanatic is there.”

Of all of Raymond’s personal qualities that have been absorbed into the template for a good mascot, this ability to attract attention is the most pronounced. The Phillies first noticed it in 1976, when, as a sophomore in college, he got an internship in the team’s promotions department. He felt immediately at home in the organization, because Raymond is the sort of guy who feels at home wherever he goes. The reason for this is the same as the reason he got the internship in the first place: His father was Tubby Raymond, the legendary football coach for the University of Delaware. Tubby led Delaware’s football programme for 36 years, from 1966 to 2002, a tenure of staggering longevity and equally staggering success: 300 wins, three national championships and induction into the College Football Hall of Fame. When Dave was young, his father was the most revered man in Newark, Del., an institution unto himself. All the bigwigs — the university president, the mayor, Joe Biden — they all knew who to stand beside when they needed a favorable photo op. Dave grew up as the prince of the town, the kid who was welcomed wherever he went, granted privilege to bend the norms that other children were bound by. He knew it, too. “I was always a little bit of a wiseass,” he says. “I was disruptive. Teachers were always writing notes: Dave talks too much.”

When Tubby got his son an internship in the Philadelphia Phillies’ promotions department, it was that same disruptive wiseass who started showing up to meetings. The Phillies were a force in those years — Mike Schmidt in his prime, Steve Carlton and Tug McGraw on the mound — but the front office was concerned about flagging youth attendance numbers. So the team told promotions to get creative.

Out in San Diego, a minor celebrity had recently been made of another college kid, one named Ted Giannoulas. A local radio station called KGB had recently run an Easter promotion at the San Diego Zoo, and it hired Giannoulas to dress up as a chicken and distribute eggs. It was supposed to be a one-off gig, but Giannoulas began scheming about how he could leverage the costume to get things he wanted. What he wanted was free baseball.

Giannoulas approached the radio station with a proposition: If they got him into Padres games, he’d put on the chicken costume and work the crowd. At the time, the Padres were suffering through historically bad play, and no one was coming to games anyway. Giannoulas’s proposal was so low-risk that they didn’t say yes so much as they said sure, fine, whatever. And at the next home game there he was, a giant chicken roaming the stands. Whenever someone shouted, “Lay one on me,” the chicken would produce a plastic egg from his underside and present it to the fan, who would crack the egg open to find a promotional prize from the radio station. Soon, the Padres began inviting Giannoulas to perform on the field, and it wasn’t long before people started coming to games just to see him. By the end of the season, attendance had nearly doubled year over year, and the KGB Chicken had become a local phenomenon.

Back in Philadelphia, the Phillies took note. What would happen, they wondered, if we had a chicken, too? Only what if it wasn’t a chicken, but something original and eccentric and, above all, actually ours? What if the character was not an ambassador from a radio station, but a Phillies fan? Not just a fan, but the fan. The consummate fan. The Phanatic.

They wanted a character that was nothing like the mascots already in existence, which tended to be literal, unimaginative translations of team logos into wearable papier-mâché casts. Mr. Met, for example — who had been operational since 1964 — was just a guy who had a baseball for a head. By comparison, the Phillies wound up with something practically absurdist: green and lumpy and birdlike, six and a half feet tall and, according to its stat sheet, 300 pounds. It looked a little like Quetzalcoatl and a lot like a Muppet. Indeed, the year that Raymond started with the Phillies was the year “The Muppet Show” premiered on TV, and to build the Phanatic the team called Jim Henson himself. As Raymond tells it, the Phillies explained their vision to Henson, and at the end of the call he sent them over to Bonnie Erickson, erstwhile head of the Muppet Workshop, who had been responsible for designing Miss Piggy. Erickson and her creative partner fiddled with the concept, and when the team signed off, she built the suit. For an extra grand or two, she and her partner also offered the copyright to the costume, which the front office quickly declined. (The copyright is currently the subject of a legal dispute between the two parties.) Then she asked them to send her their performer for a fitting.

The Phillies were momentarily stumped. They hadn’t even thought to hire anyone for the job. They did, however, have that intern over in promotions — the one who seemed comfortable in just about any situation, the one who was kind of a wiseass, the one who talked too much. What Raymond’s bosses didn’t know is that he had already spent a lifetime in training for the role. His mother was deaf, and though a hearing aid provided some help, with a son like hers, help wasn’t always what she wanted; to tune him out in his teenage years, she’d often just turn the hearing aid off. And it was in these moments, gesticulating wildly to make his point by any means possible, that Raymond developed a rather emphatic nonverbal vocabulary.

Indeed, the Phillies could not have found a better best friend for the Phanatic had they put out a casting call. The moment Raymond inhabited the character he had a natural understanding of exactly what to do. The fans loved his wiseass pantomime. It was like watching a jester in court. Only it was more than that. It was vicarious. The Phanatic got to do all the things any fan would want to. He stood atop the dugout and taunted opposing players. He rode around the infield on an A.T.V. He was a conduit of spectator desire.

This made the Phanatic something new in American sports. He was not only a living embodiment of the Phillies; he was a living embodiment of Phillies fandom too. It was through him that the two took form, commingled, became one. Fully team and fully supporter. Fully squad and fully fan. As soon as other teams saw the impact this had on attendance and merchandise sales, it wasn’t long before Muppet-looking mascots were ubiquitous, using the precise template Raymond provided: one part silence, one part scalawag; one shake mother, one shake father. For the Phillies, it was clear that this idea had a value they’d never imagined. Unfortunately for them, it was clear to Bonnie Erickson too. When they eventually bought the copyright in 1984, the new price was USD 215000.

In his 16 years as the Phanatic, Raymond developed an entire profession’s worth of best practices for himself. But as more and more teams began introducing characters of their own, he noticed that they mostly had no idea what they were doing, and he watched as the annals of mascotry filled with failed characters and ill-advised antics. There was Crazy Crab of the San Francisco Giants, with its flaccid pleopods and heinous crustache. There was Souki of the Montreal Expos, who resembled nothing so much as a Pez dispenser hexed into consciousness. And every few years another mascot seemed to make headlines for shoving a security guard or discharging a fire extinguisher into the chest of a sheriff’s deputy, laser-pointing for all the wrong reasons.

So one day in 1994, not long after he retired from performing, Raymond sat at his computer, opened a document and began writing down everything he knew about being a good best friend. When he was done, the file was 87 pages long, a comprehensive handbook covering all fronts of mascot performance. He titled it “The Mascot Bible.” And for the last 25 years, it has served as the primary text for his Mascot Boot Camp, where best friends come to become better best friends.

Raymond draws about a dozen students to his biannual trainings, and it was a leaky, prepandemic afternoon when his most recent batch of students arrived. For years Raymond taught itinerantly, borrowing a college gymnasium or minor-league ballpark for the weekend. But in 2013 he got a call from a man who introduced himself as a representative of the mayor of Whiting, Ind., a small industrial town just over the state line from Chicago. The mayor had just discovered a website that Raymond had created years before, an online compendium of the greatest mascots in sports history, and he told Raymond he wanted to bring the website to life, right there in Whiting. Three years ago, that’s exactly what happened — in 2018, Raymond and the mayor opened the Mascot Hall of Fame, a gleaming, three-story, 25,000-square-foot, $18 million, unabashedly ridiculous children’s museum dedicated to America’s greatest mascots, with a space on the top floor for the new, permanent home of Mascot Boot Camp.

After Raymond ran his new students through a series of warm-up drills, he instructed them to suit up, and a moment later a chicken, a grizzly bear, two aliens, a tiger, the sun and some sort of human-wave hybrid named Crimson Joe were all standing at the ready. Only that wasn’t quite right. As Raymond quickly pointed out, a cardinal rule of the job is that mascots must never stand still. Their expressions are static and their voices are mute, so motion is their one true tool.

They tried again: Raymond instructed his students to suit up, and a moment later a chicken, a grizzly bear, two aliens, a tiger, the sun and Crimson Joe were all pumping their fists and doing the worm. “Next thing we’re going to do is we’ll sample a few emotions with our heads on,” Raymond said, and he summoned the mascots forward one by one. “Oscar,” Raymond called out, and the tiger stepped forth. “Oscar, I want you to show me happy.” On cue, Oscar sprang into the air. He swung his hands up to his mouth and wriggled his toes, bouncing up and down, his feet aflutter. Raymond laughed in delight. The aliens applauded. Crimson Joe nodded his massive, cresting head. Raymond continued calling out emotions. “You’re frustrated,” he prompted next, and Oscar swiped a paw at Crimson Joe. Then Raymond said, “Now show me cocky,” and Oscar grabbed his tail, slid it between his legs and let it dangle out front.

According to Raymond, enough people possess the skills to do this job well that there are always more candidates for top-tier mascot positions than positions available. He will be the first to tell you this. He isn’t trying to con aspiring best friends into the false promise of a career. Most of his students don’t even have ambitions to go pro. By and large they are performers for their high schools and colleges. For those students who do harbour larger ambitions, though, attending Raymond’s boot camp is a sound networking move, because most of the professional teams that hire him to help build their mascots also task him with finding their performer. When he was working with the Flyers, Raymond was so confident that he knew the right person for the job that he gave the team only one name. Though the Flyers keep the identity of Gritty’s inhabitant a closely guarded secret, this much can be said: Whoever is in there holds a certificate of graduation from America’s pre-eminent mascot-training programmeme.

When a performer is that good, when the costume is unique and the back story built and the organization committed, a mascot becomes more than the sum of its parts. Not only does it embody both fan and team, it reconciles one with the other. “The Christlike thing,” Raymond has called it. He’s joking, but only a little. Through their mascots, organizations take bodily form, so that we may better know them. They provide a bridge between our carnal nature and their incorporeal institutions. There is nothing so grand as existential salvation taking place, of course, but it’s undeniable that mascots bring forth from us a more fervent devotion, a deeper emotional connection.

At Citizens Bank Park in June, I could see it in the widening eyes of the young woman who turned around to see the Phanatic right in front of her, and in the way she almost instinctively started bouncing in place. I could see it in the father’s eagerness as he shoved his baby over for a photo, and then in his heaving red cheeks when the Phanatic lifted the child’s rear up to his snout and quickly jerked his head away in mock disgust. I could see it in the throng of desire that simply wanted to reach out and touch its team after a long plague of isolation.

But I could also see it just behind the Phillies dugout, where Dave Raymond was sitting. Before the game, while out on the field, the Phanatic looked over and located his old best friend. Raymond pointed a finger at the Phanatic. The Phanatic pointed one back. Then, almost in unison, the two looked over at the portly home plate umpire, hunched down and popped their guts out. Back and forth they mimed, as if concocting a plan, one that became clear when Raymond gestured a hand in the ump’s direction. The Phanatic waddled up from behind and extended his hand just like Raymond’s. Then he paused, lifted it slightly, and clenched, giving the ump a quick squeeze, low and inside.

www.nytimes.com