Risky Business: Mascot Injury List Mounts

The Anaheim Mighty Ducks' Wild Wing was saved by a fire-retardant costume, but the Cleveland Indians' Slider had nothing to stop his great fall and wound up as Bigfoot on crutches.

Surely, you've read the horrible news; seen it on television; discussed it with your friends. Some of you probably laughed, the way Ken Griffey Jr. did last Oct. 14 when he saw Slider, the Cleveland Indians' frumpy fuchsia mascot, somersault off the right-center-field wall in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series with the Seattle Mariners.

Must have been part of the act, right? Do a little dance, sling a few hot dogs, attempt to do a stunt you've never done before, and tumble onto the field during play.

Only this wasn't an isolated incident. Across the country, mascots have been goin' down. In Toledo and Seattle; Anaheim, Calif.; Denver, and Corvallis, Ore.

Long injury report

The past six months reveal the troublesome trend:

Aug. 28, 1995: The Detroit Tigers are in Toledo playing an exhibition against their top farm team, the Toledo Mud Hens. Alan Trammell is at the plate; Muddy the Mud Hen is on top of the home dugout. Muddy is doing his dancing thing when, suddenly, he falls about seven feet and smacks his head on the dugout steps. Hospitalized for four days, the bird suffers a concussion and a sprained left arm.

Oct. 7: In perhaps the most-watched mascot mishap of the year (because it was captured on videotape, of course), the Mariner Moose is "water-skiing" around the field during the middle of the fifth inning of the Mariners' playoff game with the New York Yankees. The Moose, who's wearing in-line skates, releases the rope that's towing him behind an all-terrain vehicle and slams into the left-field wall, breaking his lower left leg. He's hospitalized for three days after doctors repair the leg with a six-inch steel plate and six screws.

Oct. 14: Slider's injury. Even today, four months after he blew out his right knee after tumbling off the wall, the mascot appears unaffected. "Yeah, I tore four ligaments," Slider said last week, "but Baerga got a hit."

Oct. 18: Nothing major, only a few ruffled feathers on opening night for Wild Wing, the Anaheim Mighty Ducks' mascot. Still, it's a horrifying sight - the duck tripping on a spring of a trampoline, then flopping onto a device spewing flames. The duck is lucky. His suit is flame-retardant. A month later, Wild Wing suffers another close call when the mechanism that lowers him from the rafters malfunctions, leaving him dangling 50 feet above the rink. He's hoisted back to safety, and the crowd applauds.

Oct. 21: Oregon State's mascot, Benny Beaver, suffers a few facial scratches after the Beavers' 13-12 loss to the California Golden Bears. Witnesses say Golden Bear offensive tackle Tarik Glenn, who is 6 feet 6 and 330 pounds, becomes agitated when the beaver taps Glenn on the shoulder with a giant plastic hammer after the game. Benny's head flies off when Glenn shoves him (actually her - OSU student Marri Hollen is the woman inside the costume) against a wall. Benny's not happy, but is otherwise unharmed.

Oct. 22: The Denver Nuggets' Rocky the Mountain Lion breaks three bones in his back while attempting to dunk a basketball over eight cheerleaders. The stunt fails when Rocky doesn't get high enough off the trampoline and tumbles onto the hardwood. Team officials report Rocky is fine now.

Sure, there probably are more cases of mascot injuries and neglect out there, but you get the picture. Pretty weird, eh? Since when has being a mascot become so hazardous?

Pro's tricks dangerous

We're not talking so much about the college scene, where most mascots are skit-oriented and don't perform dangerous tricks.

No, the real Evel Knievels are found today in the professional ranks. And that's where the injuries are coming from. Not all are so daring. For example, Roary, the Lions' new mascot, and Paws, of the Tigers, are fairly docile compared to, say, Sir Slam A Lot of the Pistons, who plans to add a new stunt soon - rappelling from the catwalk at the Palace.

But as daring as Sir Slam A Lot may become, he can't come close to the feats performed by his feathered cousin to the south, Muddy the Mud Hen.

"I do stuff that makes absolutely no sense," said Rob Fairchild, 24, of Toledo, who portrays Muddy. "I'll hang from my feet from the rafters, climb the fences. You know when Sergei Fedorov shoots and misses and you hear this big, `Ohhh . . .'? That's how it sounded when I fell off the dugout. You know, I was the first pro mascot to get hurt this season. People want me to work it into the act now."

Which brings us to another question: Why?

Chicken started it all

Gone are the days when the mascot's only function was to roam concourses and saunter up and down the steps between innings, hoping no one pulls its tail. Besides serving community-relations functions for teams - visiting hospitals and schools or attending store openings - most of today's professional mascots are part of a team's payroll and have become full-scale entertainers.

The guy generally credited with creating mascot mania is the Famous Chicken (formerly the San Diego Chicken) - a.k.a. Ted Giannoulas. He was a college student in 1974 when he first donned a chicken outfit and handed out candy eggs for $2 an hour at the San Diego Zoo. His popularity grew from there.

Today, Giannoulas - one of the few professional mascots who doesn't mind being quoted by his human name - makes well into six figures each year and employs a seven-person staff.

He's also undoubtedly the most self-assured mascot around.

"I know a lot of these guys will tell you they're inspired by the success of the chicken," Giannoulas said. "My act is based on comedy. They're not funny, so they do circus acts - bungee-cord jumping, jumping off a trampoline, jumping through a flaming barricade. They do physical stunts.

"I'm not trying to be boastful, but there are basketball players and there is Michael Jordan. There are hockey players and there is Wayne Gretzky. There's been a hundred Dracula movies and only one Bela Lugosi. A lot of people want to be in the same sentence as the Chicken."

Phanatic most popular

Giannoulas said his character has been only slightly hurt maybe twice, but he never missed a day of work because of it.

"And I wasn't doing anything I really shouldn't have been doing," Giannoulas said. "In 1987 at a St. Louis Blues game, I remember I was dancing to `Zorba the Greek.' I'm going down the aisle, but I misgauge the steps and tumble all the way to the boards. I got a standing ovation - and a broken foot."

The most popular mascot in baseball is the Phillie Phanatic, which enters its 19th season. He has been portrayed for the last few years by Tom Burgoyne, who prefers his character to live a clean life with no threat of broken bones.

"It's a shame to me that it seems like if a (mascot) makes `SportsCenter,' another guy feels he has to do something outrageous, too," Burgoyne said. "And all of that toilet humor the Phanatic has stayed away from - crotch grabbing, roughhousing. The most dangerous thing the Phanatic has done was slide down a wire in a Batman costume from the top of the stadium to the dugout roof. But I've never gotten hurt. Some guys get into a costume and think they have an air of invincibility about themselves - but stupidity, I think, could be part of it."

Going for the ring

The Toledo Mud Hens know that Fairchild could have been seriously hurt when he fell from the top of the dugout.

"Had it not been for the costume, the fall could have snapped his neck," said Jeff Condon, Mud Hens assistant general manager.

In Cleveland, the man who has portrayed Slider since 1990 said he knows there's a fine line between fun and just plain dangerous.

"I'm 29 and Slider has taken both my legs," he said. "I had surgery on the other (knee) in 1990."

So why do it?

"I started as a character at Kings Island," Slider explained. "I've been Yogi Bear, Fred Flintstone, Captain Caveman. I have a salary and benefits. I'm holding out for the ring."

As one famous frog once said years ago, "It's not easy being green."