PHILADELPHIA - At first glance, it looked like a Sesame Street skit on steroids. In Center City yesterday, almost out of nowhere, a furry, 6-foot-5 dog in a black hockey sweater jumped out of a Ride the Ducks boat car, and started dancing to "Let's Get it Started" by the Black Eyed Peas.
But he wasn't alone. Seconds later, a 7-foot moose in a white baseball uniform joined in, and before you could blink, a leprechaun, a giant owl and a lion wearing a basketball jersey had followed suit. One after another, they kept coming, maybe 50 in all, each in a different shape, size and color, like a scene from a Lewis Carroll novel or a bad Disneyland acid trip.
They high-fived little kids, kissed grandmothers and shot Silly String in every direction. Amid the pandemonium, a shaggy sasquatch wearing green-and-gold basketball shorts calmly posed for pictures with the statue of former Philadelphia Mayor Frank Rizzo.
It was, David Raymond said afterward, exactly what he was hoping for. In fact, in his opinion, the celebration for the inaugural class of the Mascot Hall of Fame - which included The Famous Chicken, the Phillie Phanatic and the Phoenix Gorilla - could not have gone any better.
"This is about fun," Raymond said. "Sports are about fun. Sometimes we forget that."
Raymond would know. In 1978, he was an intern working for the Philadelphia Phillies when the team's chairman and majority owner, Bill Giles, asked him if he would consider dressing up in a costume during games. Giles had noticed how much positive feedback the Padres were getting from their mascot, the San Diego Chicken, and wanted to see if the Phillies could duplicate it.
"Both my dad and my mom said, 'If you say yes to this, the Phillies will think you're willing to do anything, and you'll get a job,' " Raymond said. " 'If you say no, and it's a big thing, you'll be like the guy that should have signed Elvis Presley but didn't because he thought he was a wacko.' "
Raymond said yes, and the Phanatic - a fuzzy, neon-green, pot-bellied blob with bushy eyebrows and cone-shaped beak - was born. Part cheerleader, part stand-up comedian, Raymond and Ted Giannoulas (the only man to ever perform as The Famous Chicken) became the clown princes of baseball. They pranced on top of dugouts, danced in the stands, toyed with players and managers, all in the name of entertainment and fun. Giles thought so highly of the job Raymond did, he gave him a World Series ring in 1980.
"He was like a surrogate father to me," said Raymond, who played the Phanatic for 16 years. "He was really an important person in my life."
Soon, every franchise and most universities wanted a similar character, and now, you can't go to a sporting event without seeing one. A number of universities even give mascot scholarships now.
And when Bob Woolf, a gymnastics coach living in Arizona, took over as the Phoenix Suns' Gorilla in 1988, it introduced a whole new element into the mascot job. Woolf, who showed up yesterday in costume with a cheerleader on each arm, was the first character to dunk from the three-point line off a trampoline, the first to jump through a ring of fire and dunk, and the first to jump a motorcycle from one ramp to another at midcourt.
Giannoulas couldn't attend yesterday, but former NBA players Cedric Ceballos and Connie Hawkins, as well as Ravens mascot Poe and the Oriole Bird, were among those on hand yesterday to honor the pioneers of the craft.
The Mascot Hall of Fame was actually Raymond's brainchild, and his business, the Raymond Entertainment Group, is one of its main sponsors. It doesn't have a permanent building yet, but there is a committee of 18 members who will vote each year on new inductees. Raymond said the plan next year is to induct college mascots. Any profits will be donated to the Lance Armstrong Foundation.
"We'd been talking about this for a few years and decided if no one else was going to do it, then we were going to do it ourselves," Raymond said.
Raymond also figured it could be a chance every year for mascots from around the country to gather, make new friends and trade stories, including which athletes will play along in skits. (The consensus is that Allen Iverson and Ben Wallace are great, while Latrell Sprewell is not.) In all, 19 mascots from professional sports franchises attended the event.
"Having been in the business, you want to meet people and find out what's right, what's wrong, and what works," said Rob Wicall, who plays the San Antonio Spurs' Coyote.
Unlike some, Wicall didn't know he wanted to be a mascot when he was growing up watching games. But it wasn't such a stretch from acting, his first love, and before long he was hooked.
"I just sort of fell into this," Wicall said. "But now, hopefully, I'll be able to retire from this at 50 years old and say I never worked for a living."
Wicall actually spent two seasons as the Washington Wizards' mascot, Gee Wiz, before taking over as the full-time Coyote. In addition to games, he says he attends around 200 functions a year in costume, many of them charities and hospital visits for sick children.
"The number of children I've seen die from a terminal illness is tough," Wicall said. "But that kind of stuff is just amazing, because when you can make someone in that situation smile, or even laugh, that's when you realize what's so cool about the job."
Mascots these days come from all walks of life, and while some actually make six-figure salaries if they do it long enough for a professional franchise, those jobs are extremely competitive and usually require years of paying your dues. Mike Shank, who dresses up as Anthony the Ant for the Fayetteville FireAntz of the Southern Professional Hockey League, is a captain in the U.S. Army and recently spent six months in Iraq. He gets paid in complimentary tickets, and little else, but he isn't complaining.
"It's an outlet," said Shank, who is originally from Welcome, a tiny town in Southern Maryland. "When I retire from the military in about four or five years, I'm hoping I can step up and maybe do some NHL stuff. But this is all I want to do. I love being around people and kids."
Shank and his wife, Jennifer, made the eight-hour trip from Fayetteville, Ark., by car, on their own dime, just to get a chance to rub elbows with some of the pros. Being a mascot means so much to Shank, after his wife and three children, it was the thing he thought about the most every night, lying in his bed, while he was stationed in Iraq.
"It was a rough time, but that's what we do. It's part of the job," Shank said. "The Army's been really good to me. It's how I met my beautiful wife and got three awesome kids. And it helped me become a mascot. ... I actually kept up with the games over the Internet while I was there. Jen was almost going to send me my jersey to wear around. It means a lot to me."