I do not care much for America’s pastime.
Maybe it’s my Millennial attention span or my general aversion to spitting, but for me, the sport is hard to watch. Every inning lasts an eternity, and sitting through nine of them is like waiting for Astroturf to grow. Still, I will admit to enjoying a few things about baseball. I have always loved hot dogs and sitting outside with friends. I love the pink glow of the sunset over Community Field in my hometown. I love that scene in Field of Dreams where Doc saves the little girl and Shoeless Joe tells him he was good.
And more than anything, I love the Phillie Phanatic.
If you’re even a casual sports fan, you know the guy I’m talking about. If not, you can spot the mascot of the Philadelphia Phillies baseball team this week by tuning in to the World Series. There, you’ll find him: an enormous green muppet with a trumpet face and a floppy gut. The Phanatic is known for galumphing wildly about Citizens Bank Park, high-fiving kids and hip-thrusting at players. A friend recently described the Phanatic as exhibiting “crazy demonic energy.” But to me, the opposite is true: The Phillie Phanatic is joy embodied. He represents unbridled enthusiasm, and undying loyalty to team and town. For the sports ambivalent, he is a delightfully devilish distraction. For all of us, the Phanatic is a reminder to not take anything too seriously.
Technically, the Phanatic is a bipedal flightless bird—but bird is not exactly the word that comes to mind when you see him. Hailing, supposedly, from Ecuador’s Galápagos Islands, the Phanatic is a rotund, lime-green fuzzball of a Darwin experiment—sort of feathery, sort of furry—with bushy blue eyebrows, a long megaphone-shaped mouth, and a tubular tongue that juts out like a snake’s when he’s feeling particularly impish. At 6 feet 6 inches—as tall as the tallest players on the Phillies team roster—he’s a super-tall super fan, and his style is minimalist: He attends every game wearing a backwards baseball cap, a crop top, and no pants. The Phanatic’s most hilarious feature—his flabby belly—wobbles like Jell-O when he prances through the stands.
If the Phanatic looks as if he belongs on the set of Fraggle Rock, that’s because he sort of does. Back in 1977, when the Phillies were looking for a mascot to rival the rascal San Diego Chicken, they entrusted the task to Bonnie Erickson, a longtime colleague of Jim Henson’s and the creator of Miss Piggy. Erickson designed the Phillie Phanatic that year, and in April 1978, the Phillies introduced him to the world in a low-key unveiling. “Everybody decided to just let him appear, not to make any big announcement,” Erickson told WBUR a few years ago. “And so he just sort of appeared. He came on the field. The costume looked clean, bright, and got a lot of laughs.” (At first, the Phillies decided not to buy the $1,300 character copyright from Erickson; five years later, the team changed its mind—and paid $250,000.)
The Phillie Phanatic was an immediate success, because of course he was. Erickson had created a character that was neither handsome nor slick, but a scrappy underdog—a creature both irreverent and indefatigable that reflected what Phillies fans saw in themselves.
The Phanatic’s aesthetic is endearing, but his antics are show-stealing. He thunders through the stands, belly jiggling, and pours popcorn on kids. He buffs the heads of bald Phillies fans, and barges into the announcers’ booth to spray Silly String and deliver snacks. Between innings, the Phanatic drives a red ATV around the field and shoots hot dogs out of cannons; he once sent a woman to the hospital with a mixed-meat torpedo, but she didn’t even seem mad! Thanks to that boisterousness, the Phanatic is allegedly the most-sued mascot in baseball.
The green guy’s entire MO is mischief, and I think that’s wonderful. He taunts members of the other team by dancing near their dugout, and he hexes them with a twirl of his finger-wings, which is called “whammy.” He “flashes” opponents by lifting up his tiny shirt to expose a naked green torso. Sometimes, he slides his entire funnel-shaped mouth over a fan’s head like a candle snuffer. But the classic Phanatic move is to grab hold of his generous stomach to give it a vindictive waggle—a move known in Citizens Bank Park as a “belly whomp.” The belly whomp is good.
In August 1982, the Phanatic’s shenanigans proved too much for Tommy Lasorda, the then-manager of the LA Dodgers. After the muppet whaled on a dummy version of Lasorda a little too enthusiastically outside the Dodgers’ dugout, Lasorda chased the Phanatic across the field. Before he turned and ran, the Phanatic offered a cheeky whomp; this made matters worse. Lasorda caught up to the mascot, tackled him to the ground, and beat him with a mannequin replica of himself. After Lasorda returned to the dugout, the Phanatic hopped on his ATV, offered a final tummy shake, and drove away. A Major League Baseball clip of the incident has more than 5 million views; at least a dozen of them are mine.
The Phanatic is an equal-opportunity taunter, but he is also a bird of the people, and Phillies fans take delight in his punching up. In 1997, the Phanatic ran into the Yankees owner George Steinbrenner’s box and dumped a bucket of popcorn on Steinbrenner’s friend. He’s taunted umpires by vibrating his body to V.I.C.’s “Wobble,” and he steals cameras from TV-crew members working on the field. The Phanatic once defeated the Toronto Blue Jays’ José Bautista in a feats-of-strength challenge and then rubbed it in with a quick lift of his jersey. When the Phanatic goes about his mischief, Phillies fans lose their mind with glee.
But a good mascot does more than entertain the masses; he unites the team’s fans and reflects their emotions in good times and bad. The Phanatic is excellent at this aspect of the job: If Bryce Harper hits a home run, the Phanatic leaps into the crowd, delivering high fives and smooches to every man, woman, and child. If Harper strikes out, the Phanatic’s shoulders slump in defeat, and he bangs his head on the back of a chair. The Phanatic is so impressive that he is one of only a handful of mascots ever to be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. He has become so famous that a man once stole his head.
Because the Phanatic is such a character, he makes it easy to forget there’s a human man inside him. That’s the idea! those human men told me. David Raymond played the Phanatic from 1978 to 1993, and Tom Burgoyne has been doing it ever since. Both men have been referred to as “the Phanatic’s best friends” to avoid ruining the illusion, but this label contains a deeper truth. Raymond and Burgoyne may have lent the Phanatic their talents, but they are not him, they told me. The Phanatic is only himself—a lovable 44-year-old irritant.
“There’s a piece of me in him and Tom in him, and a piece of all of Philadelphia” in him, Raymond told me. “When I see highlights of the Phillies, I don’t picture myself in there,” Burgoyne agreed. “It’s easy for me to say I’m just a friend.”
Other sports mascots enjoy wild popularity. Gritty, the haunted-eyed orange representative of Philadelphia’s hockey team, made a splash when he was introduced in 2018; for a while, he was ubiquitous on social media, and some internet conspiracy theorists suggested that the Phanatic might actually be Gritty’s father. The Oriole Bird is cute, and Mr. Met is funny in a dumb kind of way. But I only have eyes for the Phillie Phanatic. Somehow, despite having no ties to Philadelphia and possessing not a single spark of the sports enthusiasm seemingly felt by all of the city’s residents, I still experience something close to elation when I see its carefree ambassador jiggling his ample belly.
When I tell Raymond this, he explains that I have come to understand the true essence of the Philadelphia Phanatic. “He immediately connects with you on an emotional level,” Raymond said. “It’s deeper than just silliness. It’s serious fun—it’s brilliant stupidity.” I could hear him smiling over the phone. “The Philly Phanatic is here to distract us,” he added. “Time for a break, everybody!”