My debut as a major league mascot did not go well. I entered San
Diego's Qualcomm Stadium in the third inning of a Padres game
last September dressed in a neon-green gorilla suit. I
glad-handed youngsters and shook my furry buttocks to the sounds
of Superfreak. Then I lost my nerve.
I was one inhibited, unfunny ape. I had energy but no gags. I
found it hard to be a cutup. I resorted to clapping my hands and
pumping my fist. My exertion proved what I had been told:
Mascots perspire more than players. Peering out through the
peepholes of my dark, smelly, sweaty gorilla head, I saw looks
of pity and contempt. A pudgy freckled boy confronted me in the
aisle. "Hey, Gorilla," he said. "You suck!"
Chastened, I retreated after a single inning to a trailer in the
parking lot for consultation with mascot coach Dean Schoenewald.
"You weren't sure what to do," he said. "You need to be more
animated. Climb over chairs. Scan the crowd for the old lady
wearing the outrageous hat. Don't be afraid to dive into the
rows. Remember, there's nowhere you can't go."
For the past two years Schoenewald, at 36 the Chevy Chase of
sideline pratfalls, has run Mascot Mania, the world's only
school for aspiring mascots. For $795, characters in need of a
makeover spend three days juggling, rappelling, bungee-jumping
and skit-writing under Schoenewald's critical eye. And, of
course, there are stadium excursions. Schoenewald takes his
school around the country. I enrolled in San Diego, which seemed
fitting, since during the '70s the Padres' Chicken started the
modern mascot movement.
Winnie-the-Poohs need not apply. Schoenewald favors high-flying,
slam-dunking anti-Barneys capable of upstaging the game. "The
greatest compliment of all is to get a player to interact with
you," he said. "Whose court is it? It's my court." In his
various costumed incarnations Schoenewald has jumped all-terrain
vehicles over hockey nets, skydived into infields, confronted
umpires with eye charts and chain saws, had pizzas delivered to
second basemen, left the field in a hot-air balloon and polished
Charles Barkley's head with a towel. His stunts have been
awarded CNN's Play of the Day four times. The network nominated
his headfirst bungee dive in the San Jose Arena hockey rink for
1994's Play of the Year.
Schoenewald was all business as he watched my classmate Greg
Ohlman take a turn in the gorilla suit. Ohlman, 28, is in his
second season as the winged mascot of the International Hockey
League's Grand Rapids Griffins. His experience showed. He kissed
hands like a hirsute Romeo, snatched hats and filched tacos from
a food stand. "That's it! That's it!" Schoenewald told me as
Ohlman did a bump-and-grind to Brick House. "You looked like a
man in a costume. He looks like a character that's loose."
Still, Schoenewald saw room for Ohlman to improve. He clucked in
disapproval when Ohlman clowned with an elderly gent. Ohlman had
broken Schoenewald's first commandment: Ignore men. "They won't
give anything up to you," he warned. "The hardest person in the
ballpark to make laugh is a 35-year-old white male. Disregard
him. He doesn't exist."
Back in the trailer Schoenewald offered Ohlman bits from his own
repertoire. "Have you jumped out of a Zamboni? Have you swung
like Tarzan across the ice? Never ask permission. Somebody might
say no." He extracted Ohlman's griffin suit from its traveling
case. "Hey, what if this beak opened and closed?" he said. "You
could swallow heads. That would be hilarious!"
Schoenewald compiled his list of dos and don'ts over 18 years as
a mascot for 17 teams. "I'm not the life of the party," he said.
"Class clowns don't excel as mascots. It's serious work. I've
been together with all the best mascots. There was no humor in
that room until we put on our costumes. Then it became one wild
Schoenewald's improbable pursuit began in 1979, weeks after he
finished high school in Ocean City, N.J. "I wanted to be the
best at something in sports," he said. He spent $1,200 that was
intended for college on an eagle costume with furry arms and
oversized shoulders. He christened it Birdbrain and debuted it
for 30 friends at a coffee shop. Birdbrain met with Philadelphia
Eagles executives, but they declined to hire him. Undaunted,
Schoenewald fluttered through Veterans Stadium anyway. He never
got paid, but he did get noticed by a national TV audience when
a drunk Cowboys fan set fire to his left wing during a Monday
Night Football broadcast.
Schoenewald's breakthrough came in 1987 when the Salt Lake City
Golden Eagles, a minor league affiliate of the Calgary Flames,
hired him. He has unleashed his high-octane brand of mischief in
16 synthetic suits, for clients ranging from the Triple A
Nashville Sounds to the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Organizing
Committee. Last summer he created a five-person touring mascot
troupe called Gorilla Warfare.
Schoenewald also works as a consultant, inventing new characters
or resuscitating old ones. He has, for example, enlivened
lackluster mascots for the Cleveland Cavaliers, Toronto Raptors
and Chicago Bulls. For $76,000 he will create a costume from
scratch, debut it himself, train a replacement and consult on
merchandising mascot-related products. His progeny include a
scraggly-maned skating lion (Ottawa Senators), a furry fish with
swaying fins and oversized teeth (San Jose Sharks), and a
satanic imp with horns and shaggy black eyebrows (New Jersey
Devils). "As soon as I finish a creation, I want to do another,"
he says. "I can't imagine inhabiting one costume for years."
Luckily there is no shortage of invitations. "This is an
industry ready to explode," he told his students in San Diego.
Major league owners are ever more inclined to deploy mascots as
a bridge between disgruntled fans and indulged players. "Win
their hearts and minds," Schoenewald said, "and their wallets
will follow." He claimed mascots are starting to earn paychecks
commensurate with their public-relations value, with top
performers making more than $150,000 per season.
Since convening his first mascot school class, in June 1995, he
has trained 170 furry and/or feathered creatures. One of his
proteges, Ed McBride, has already reached the majors as Dinger,
a purple triceratops adopted by the Colorado Rockies.
When asked if he had suffered any injuries as a mascot,
Schoenewald pulled up his shirt to reveal a knotty lump
protruding from a permanently separated right shoulder. He also
has torn ligaments in his right hand, the result of snagging his
fingers in a catcher's mask. Last August he tore the ACL in his
right knee while filming a promotional video for Gorilla
Warfare, but he has been too busy to schedule surgery.
Schoenewald counseled his students on avoiding injury, but above
all he urged them to avoid dehydration. Mascots lose up to 10
pounds during a single game. Schoenewald fainted during the '81
Super Bowl and spent the second half receiving fluids
intravenously at the Superdome infirmary.
Two months ago Schoenewald signed with Hollywood's William
Morris Agency to develop a sitcom and a movie based on mascot
school. He also expects to be the first mascot to own a team,
most likely in the CBA. "We won't be selling basketball," he
said. "We'll be selling entertainment."
For now, though, the mascot mogul is an instructor. "I want you
to find out for the first time what it is to not be you," he
advised as I suited up for my final foray into the aisles.
"There's no reason to be nervous. You're not going out there. A
I met trouble just inside the stadium gates. A four-year-old boy
saw me and screamed as if I were Freddie Kruger. Schoenewald had
told us to approach children low and slow. "From 50 feet you
look like Barney," he warned. "From two feet you look like
Godzilla." Unfortunately the boy took my attempt at a friendly
advance as an attack by a wild animal. I fled.
In the stands, however, emboldened by two days of instruction, I
was able to relax and let my inner ape express itself. I tried
to goad a platoon of Marines to get up and boogie (my entreaties
met with stony silence). I held a child aloft for applause, and
the surrounding section obliged with a roar. I sat down next to
unsuspecting spectators, and I did a high-stepping silly walk
behind a soda vendor, who ignored me. Children poured down the
aisle for hugs and snapshots. "You owned that place,"
Schoenewald said later, congratulating me. "That was your
Mike Cannell's most recent story for SI was about frostbite
surfing in Maine.
TWO COLOR ILLUSTRATIONS: ILLUSTRATIONS BY BRIAN AJHAR [Two drawings of prefessional sports mascots interacting with members of crowd]