Hyperbolic Preening: The Desperate Lives of Mascots

Beneath their playfulness and antics, mascots are outcasts from their own species, either drawn or driven to a life as a sideshow.
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The sports mascot ecosystem is a strange and unsettling place. The animals within it act in ways that are both familiar and wholly unexpected. Even if we put aside pressing questions about the suspension of traditional predator-prey relationships during games, and focus on their biographies, we still know so little about the interior lives of these creatures.

While I concede it’s possible that mascots are just gymnasts in costumes, it seems far more likely to me that they’re actually animals, sometimes overgrown or strangely evolved, who have developed a taste for the spotlight and are now employed by their respective sports franchises.

The mascots are unmatched in their enthusiasm for pro sports, which presumably puts them at odds with the rest of their species, most of whom are indifferent or perhaps even hostile to the existence of these games (it’s safe to assume, for example, that most birds hate the military flyovers before NFL games, and most mammals would, if it were within their power to meaningfully resist, oppose the deforestation required to build massive stadiums). This is a job with great rewards—shelter, support, adulation—and some serious risks—injury, alienation, loss of dignity. But it’s more predictable than the wild. And it’s better than a zoo; there’s still some autonomy.

Most teams maintain biographies of their mascots. Some, particularly in the NBA, are pretty sparse. This is the bio of Burnie, the Miami Heat’s mascot, in its entirety: “You can find him at every HEAT home game making his way all over the arena, bringing his high energy to the fans. And on occasion, Burnie joins the Miami HEAT Dancers for a routine or two.” There’s no information about what kind of creature he even is, let alone what school he attended, his favorite foods, or his hobbies. The Dallas Mavericks have two mascots, but their website is just a picture of MavsMan and Clutch standing side-by-side with no other information. Most likely these lazy profiles are a result of recalcitrant mascots and overworked PR teams. But many other mascots have thorough biographies, and you can learn fascinating things about them as a cohort.

Mascots, it should come as no surprise, tend to be quite vain. Sixty percent of professional mascots in the four major North American sports list their position as “Center of Attention.” They are, with few exceptions, extremely cagey about the details of their height and weight. Given how unusual they are compared to others of their species, it makes sense that they would be sensitive about their bodies; if you were Stinger, the mascot for the Columbus Blue Jackets, wouldn’t you try to downplay the fact that you’re roughly one hundred thousand times the size of a normal yellow jacket wasp? Wouldn’t the general public be justified in fleeing in terror from a six-foot-nine, two hundred pound wasp? So of course his weight is listed as “don’t ask.” Of course Sir Purr, of the Carolina Panthers, lists his weight as “that’s purr-sonal!” and his height as simply, “taller than most cats.” The Houston Astros’ Orbit, some sort of alien creature, will only say he weighs, “a lot less in outer space.” Perhaps the strangest evasion of these questions comes from Blue, the Indianapolis Colts mascot: his height is, “We can’t measure him, he won’t stand still,” and his weight is, “360 horseshoes.”

To draw attention away from their physical differences, mascots will often use their bios to boast about their many accomplishments, many of which are dubious at best. While it is easy to verify that the Orlando Magic’s Stuff The Magic Dragon is the reigning NBA Mascot of the Year, Mr. Met’s claim that he leads all Major League mascots in “high fours” lies on much shakier ground. Sir Purr says he has the “belly shake record” of 331 shakes per minute, a number that a) seems physically impossible, and b) would surely be disputed by the Phillie Phanatic, whose belly shake is iconic. T-Rac, the Tennessee Titans’ mascot, claims to have a Master’s degree in “Mascotology” from the Tennessee Academy of Fine Arts and Hysteria, though no such school exists. The St. Louis Cardinals’ Fredbird, whose bio notes that he is afraid of baseball bats and thus subject to a daily nightmare during the season, also boasts that he has “beaked” one septillion fans’ heads. Staley Da (Chicago) Bear extends his bragging beyond the field, listing his famous girlfriends as: Britney Sbears, Bearonce, and Christina Aguilbeara.

The saddest boast of them all comes from Arizona Cardinals mascot Big Red, who cites, “Dancing with the Black Eyed Peas” as his greatest moment. Though, to be fair, the desires of birds and men are vastly different, and we shouldn’t expect them to share our value systems or taste. I wouldn’t eat worms from the dirt either. I wouldn’t want to live in a nest.

Hyperbolic preening is a survival skill for mascots. Though few of them divulge much of their background, those who do typically describe a bizarre origin story of alienation from their pack and a search for a new family and a new home. Miles, the Denver Broncos mascot who was born during a terrible thunderstorm as the product of a magical lightning strike, was raised by horses in the Rocky Mountains, but when he was two years old, he “felt his place wasn’t in the mountains any longer,” and wandered into the Broncos’ stadium to graze. He has spent the past nineteen years working for the team. It strains credulity to believe this horse, a runaway at two years old, never longs to return to his own kind and get away from the grind of NFL labor.

Crunch, the mascot of the Minnesota Timberwolves, was born in the wilderness of Minnesota and loved basketball so much he made hoops out of pine-cones and tree bark, though his parents never understood or supported him. Eventually, he “said goodbye to all he had known growing up,” and migrated to the Twin Cities to become a mascot. Putting aside the risk a gigantic wolf takes into strolling into a major city, this is a harrowing journey for any being, and one suspects the end result is something like an Amish teen deciding to self-exile after experiencing Rumspringa.

When Franklin the dog joined the Philadelphia 76ers in 2015, he detailed a convoluted history linking his ancestors to a number of important historical moments. One ancestor crossed the Delaware with George Washington, another left a heretofore-unseen blue paw print on the Declaration of Independence, and another dragged Ben Franklin to safety after he was struck by lightning. Franklin (the dog) has been alive since at least 1962, when he witnessed Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game, and he spent the subsequent decades lurking in the bowels of various arenas hoping for a chance to play basketball before he was finally discovered by the Sixers publicity team. Fifty years of living alone in fear and anticipation had to have shaped him in unpleasant ways we can only imagine.

The strangest backstory, though, belongs to the Seattle Seahawks’ Boom and Blitz. With no other explanation or context, we are told Boom joined the team when, “Boom hitched a ride on Blitz’s time machine.” Did the Seahawks even known Blitz had a time machine? What time period did Boom come from? Why couldn’t Blitz just find another contemporary seahawk to join him? What other time traveling have they done? The questions are endless.

There is little explanation of most aspects of their lives, because mascots have very few interests outside themselves. Lions, such as the Detroit Lions’ Roary, like movies like The Lion King for no other reason besides the movie’s lion content. D. Baxter, the Arizona Diamondbacks’ bobcat mascot, lists “Cat Scratch Fever” as his favorite song and “The Cat in the Hat” as his favorite book. His favorite play? Cats. Harvey the Hound, dog mascot of the Calgary Flames, loves the following entertainments: Scooby Doo, Dog the Bounty Hunter, “Hound Dog” by Elvis Presley, and Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel The Hound of the Baskervilles. As a rule, mascots love the games but they love themselves even more. Theirs is an inward-facing monomania.

After months of research, I’ve come to believe there is something deeply sad about the mascots’ yearning to be with and among their own species again, a special kind of loneliness they can never communicate to their human handlers nor cure, no matter how many dances they do or t-shirts they fire into the crowd. Beneath their playfulness and antics, mascots are outcasts from their own species, either drawn or driven to a life as a sideshow. They long ago learned that they cannot be taken seriously, and so they report to work every day knowing that their job is to smile and dance and to look happy. To move merchandise and to high-four children. In the little spaces, they find joys where they can, and they think: this could be worse. They think: at least I’ve got a good seat for the game.

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