Why the Phillie Phanatic Is a World Series Winner

I don’t care much for American entertainment.

Maybe it’s my millennial attention span or my general aversion to spitting, but the sport is hard to watch for me. Each inning takes an eternity, and sitting through nine of them is like waiting for Astroturf to grow. However, I will admit to enjoying a few things about baseball. I’ve 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 Field of dreams where Doc saves the little girl and Joe, without shoes, tells him he was good.

And more than anything, I love the Phillie Phanatic.

If you’re even a casual sports fan, you know who I’m talking about. If not, you can spot the Philadelphia Phillies baseball team mascot this week watching the World Series. There you’ll find it: a giant green doll with a trumpet face and a floppy introduction. The Phanatic is known for wildly raving about Citizens Bank Park, high-fiving kids and thrusting his hips at players. A friend recently described Phanatic as “crazy demonic energy”. But for me it’s the opposite: Phillie Phanatic is joy incarnate. He represents unbridled enthusiasm and undying loyalty to the team and the city. For the sports ambivalent, he is a delightfully diabolical distraction. For all of us, Phanatic is a reminder not to take anything too seriously.

Technically, the Phanatic is a bipedal, flightless bird – but bird not exactly the word that comes to mind when you see him. Originally from the Galápagos Islands in Ecuador, the Phanatic is a round, lime-green ball of Darwin’s experiment—a sort of feather, sort of furry—with shaggy blue eyebrows, a long megaphone-shaped mouth, and a tubular tongue that protrudes like a snake when feels particularly vile. At 6 feet 6 inches — the tallest player on the Phillies’ roster — he’s a super-tall super fan, and his style is minimalist: He attends every game wearing an upside-down baseball cap, a T-shirt, and no pants. Fanatic’s funniest feature – his flabby belly – wobbles like jelly when he jumps through the stands.

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If the Phanatic looks like it belongs in the set Fraggle Rock, it’s because he does. Back in 1977, when the Phillies were looking for a mascot to rival the rascally San Diego Chicken, they entrusted the task to Bonnie Erickson, Jim Henson’s longtime colleague and creator of Miss Piggy. Erickson designed the Phillie Phanatic that year, and in April 1978 the Phillies introduced it to the world in a modest unveiling. “Everybody decided to just let it roll out and not make any big announcement,” Erickson told WBUR a few years ago. “And so it just kind of showed up. He came to the field. The costume looked clean, shiny and got a lot of laughs.” (Initially, the Phillies decided not to buy the $1,300 image copyright from Erickson; five years later, the team changed its mind—and paid $250,000.)

The Phillie Phanatic was an instant success because of course He was. Erickson created a character who was neither handsome nor suave, but a scrappy underdog—a creature both irreverent and tireless who reflected what Phillies fans saw in themselves.

Fanatic’s aesthetic is cute, but his antics are spectacular. He thunders through the stands, burps and pours popcorn on the children. He bangs the heads of bald Phillies fans and bursts 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 from cannons; he once sent a woman to the hospital with a mixed meat torpedo, but she didn’t even seem angry! Thanks to that uproar, the Phanatic is reportedly the most sued mascot in baseball.

The green guy’s whole MO is mischief, and I think that’s wonderful. He taunts the members of the other team by dancing near their dugout, and he hexes them by spinning his toe-wings, called a “whammy”. He “flashes” opponents by lifting his tiny shirt to reveal a bare green torso. Sometimes, he slides his entire funnel-shaped mouth over the fan head like candle gas. But the classic bigot move is to grab his generous belly for a vengeful wave — a move known at Citizens Bank Park as “the belly.” Belly is good.

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In August 1982, Fanatic’s shenanigans proved too much for Tommy Lasorda, then manager of the LA Dodgers. After the Muppet hooted a little too enthusiastically at a fake version of Lasorda outside the Dodgers dugout, Lasorda chased the Phanatic across the field. Before turning and running, the Fanatic knelt brazenly; this made things worse. Lasorda caught up with the mascot, knocked 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 up one last belly, and drove off. Video of Major League Baseball incident has more than 5 million views; at least a dozen of them are mine.

Fanatic is an equal-opportunity bully, but he’s also a crowd pleaser, and Phillies fans enjoy his punch. In 1997, the Phanatic ran into Yankees owner George Steinbrenner’s box and threw a bucket of popcorn at Steinbrenner’s friend. He taunts the referees by vibrating his body to VIC’s “Wobble”, and steals cameras from the TV crew working on the pitch. Fanatic once beat José Bautista of the Toronto Blue Jays in a challenge of strength, then rubbed it in with a quick jersey lift. When the Phanatic is up to his antics, Phillies fans lose their minds with glee.

But a good mascot doesn’t just entertain the masses; it unites the team’s fans and reflects their emotions in good times and bad. The Phanatic excels at this aspect of the job: If Bryce Harper hits a home run, the Phanatic jumps into the crowd, giving high fives and mooches to every man, woman and child. If Harper hits, the Phanatic’s shoulders slump in defeat and he hits his head on the back of a chair. The Fanatic 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 became so famous that once a man stole his head.

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Because Fanatic is such a character, he makes it easy to forget that he’s human. That’s the idea! those people told me. David Raymond played the Phanatic from 1978 to 1993, and Tom Burgoyne has been doing it ever since. Both people call themselves “Fanatic’s best friends” to avoid shattering the illusion, but this label contains a deeper truth. Raymond and Burgoyne may have lent their talents to the Fanatic, but they are not him, I am told. The fanatic is just himself – a likable 44-year-old irritant.

“There’s a piece of me in it and a piece of Tom in it, and a piece of all of Philadelphia” in it, Raymond told me. “When I see Phillies highlights, I don’t picture myself there,” Burgoyne agreed. “It’s easy for me to say I’m just a friend.”

Other sports mascots enjoy wild popularity. Gritty, the orange representative of the Philadelphia hockey team with haunted eyes, made a splash when it was introduced in 2018; for a while it was all over social media and some internet conspiracy theorists suggested that Fanatic could actually be Gritty’s father. Oriole bird is cute and mr. Matt is funny in a silly way. But I only have eyes for the Phillie Phanatic. Somehow, despite having no connection to Philly and not one spark of the sports enthusiasm that the city’s residents seem to share, I still experience something close to elation when I see its carefree ambassador wriggling his fat belly.

When I tell Raymond this, he explains that I have grasped the true essence of the Philadelphia Phanatic. “He immediately connects with you on an emotional level,” Raymond said. “It’s deeper than just stupidity. It’s serious entertainment – it’s brilliant silliness.” I heard him smile over the phone. “The Philly Fanatic is here to distract us,” he added. “Time for a break, everyone!”


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