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Mascots play hurt, too


Dinger the Dinosaur got socked where the sun don't shine. Wild Wing scorched his feathers. Mariner Moose rammed an outfield wall. And the Oriole Bird discovered he couldn't fly - the hard way.

It may look like fun and games to fans, but the life of a professional sports mascot can be just as dangerous as that of the athletes on the court and in the field.

"We all sort of think of mascots as superhuman or beyond human or not human," says Dr. Edward McFarland, an orthopedic surgeon who heads the sports medicine program at the Johns Hopkins University's School of Medicine. "You never really think that when the mascot is limping off the field, he really may not be faking it."

In the first study of its kind, McFarland and his colleagues found that sports mascots have been tripped and tackled, bopped and burned, stomped on and suffocated, and, occasionally, carried off on a stretcher.

Of the 179 mascot injuries reported, the knee was the most common spot to get banged up, followed by the hand and ankle. Ankle sprains were a common complaint. Nearly half the mascots reported chronic lower back pain. Twenty-two of the injuries required surgery.

The Hopkins researchers presented their findings yesterday at the annual meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine at the Baltimore Convention Center.

McFarland became curious about mascots after Bayzl the Sea Monster became a patient a few years back. The mascot for the short-lived Baltimore BayRunners basketball team tore a ligament and went to Johns Hopkins Hospital to get patched up.

McFarland and his colleagues scoured the medical journals for studies of pro mascots, and found none. Last summer, they began mailing surveys to all 70 professional mascots in professional football, basketball and baseball, and got 48 back. (A few cheeky characters sent an autographed photo along with their response.)

The mascots with the highest injury rate, he found, worked for the NBA - though exactly why remains a mystery. These daredevils get banged up more frequently than men's college baseball players but less often than college football players, McFarland says. Other mascots get hurt about as often as gymnasts, which many of them once were. McFarland says mascots for college teams probably suffer injuries with similar frequency.

Most injuries are accidents, caused by mixing risky stunts and awkward costumes. In the study, the average outfit weighed 21 pounds. The heaviest costume added 60 pounds.

"Jumping off a trampoline in an outfit with big feet that weighs 60 pounds is probably not a good idea," says McFarland.

Over the years, mascots have taken some notable spills. The Seattle Mariner's Moose rollerbladed hoof-first into the Kingdome wall, breaking an ankle. Slider of the Cleveland Indians once somersaulted his furry pink frame off an 8-foot wall, tearing a ligament. Wild Wing of the Anaheim Mighty Ducks got seared while attempting to leap through a ring of fire.

"It can be very dangerous. You almost have to be in better shape than the athletes," says Joby Gicalone, 39, who once worked as Dinger the Dinosaur, the Colorado Rockies' mascot.

Besides accidents, fans and players - even opposing cheerleaders - can be detrimental to a mascot's health.

Last fall, Albert the Alligator, the University of Florida's mascot, suffered a sprained ankle after being ambushed by three Florida State cheerleaders. (The cheerleaders say Albert "tripped.")

Crabby Crab, the former mascot of the San Francisco Giants, hung up his claws after being routinely pummeled during games with golf balls, beer bottles and urine-filled balloons, so hostile had the crowd grown to the cranky crustacean.

John Krownapple, one of three current Oriole Birds, used a wheelchair for 40 days in 1999 after plummeting 10 feet off the right-field bleachers, pushed by a Philadelphia electrician. Like many pro mascots, the Bird has its own private security force - dubbed the "bird keepers" - who trail him around.

Even seemingly sweet little kids can be more dangerous than they look.

"You deal with some real smart alecks," says Greg Black, 25, who portrays the Ravens' mascot "Poe" and says he's taken more than his share of "crotch shots" from half-pint fans.

Like most mascots, Black tries to be professional about it. But once when he was the Towson University Tiger, he got popped in the privates twice by the same kid and lost it.

"That time I actually broke character and took him up to the top of the stands by the shirt and said, 'Listen, this isn't funny!'"

But the biggest health hazard for mascots is heat.

More than half of the mascots in the Hopkins study reported suffering heat-related illnesses. In 14 cases, fluids were administered intravenously. One mascot was whisked to the emergency room.

"Fluid depletion is by far one of the major problems they have," says McFarland

The costumes, McFarland says, should be lighter, better ventilated and easier to move around in. The Oriole Bird, for instance, is made of synthetic fur, foam, spandex and fiberglass - all the makings of a furry furnace.

"It's unbearable sometimes," says Bromley Lowe, 30, another veteran Oriole Bird.

Lowe recalls a series in 1995 when the mercury at Camden Yards hit 105 degrees and he began to swoon. "I literally saw spots," he says.

While no one has measured how hot it gets inside the costumes, mascots reported sweating off an average 3.8 pounds a game. Some lost as much as 9 pounds. The week before this year's Super Bowl, Black was working so hard as "Poe" in Tampa that he needed two bags of intravenous fluid to rehydrate him.

Despite the bumps and bruises, professional mascots say they love performing for fans - and a few make six-figure salaries. They're glad the Hopkins study finally shows just how demanding their job can be.

"My advice is, everybody should just try it once," says Gicalone. "I really think that 90 percent of the people would hate it."

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