The other day I needed to ask Barry Zito, the San Francisco Giants Cy Young Award Pitcher for a favor. So when I had the opportunity to talk to his representative, Bill Hertz, Bill explained he was on his way to Arizona to meet Barry and would carry my message. Barry, it seems, like all Major League Pitchers and Catchers had just started Spring Training.
That got me to thinking! So, I asked myself the question, are the only ones who go to Spring Training, Pitchers, Catchers, and position players? I discovered the answer was a resounding "no".
Spring Training is not just for the aforementioned, but it is a time for the Umpires to review old rules, learn new ones and discuss new positions that might be more advantageous to making the right call.
It is also a time of levity and peace when each Spring, hope is eternal. Every team hopes they have the right ingredients to last through a winning series that will culminate in a World Series Championship. For a few, the jovial atmosphere surrounding the training camp will last throughout the season. They are in training as well.
I'm talking about the mascots, the clowns, the assorted humans dressed up as various animals and grotesque figures who over the years have become an enjoyable part of the game.
This column is dedicated to them. The hard working characters, both major and minor league dedicate themselves to entertaining the fans. They add amusement to the afternoon/night's enjoyment. Before the season, they practice their gags, the acrobatic and gymnastic moves and prate falls.
In fact, over the years, in many instances they have become bigger than the game. Quite a few times, teams would hire
them to the game. Not unlike the way, the BBAA (NBA), in the early days, used the Harlem Globetrotters as part of a doubleheader. The Globetrotters were always the featured game. Teams like the Celtics and Knicks played in the other game.
When I was in Armed Forces Radio back in the early fifties, I often hosted various entertainment groups. The USO was one. They not only featured Bob Hope, great singers and many beautiful starlets, they often times brought along guys like Al Schact and Max Patkin.
My younger readers are probably wondering whom, or what I am talking about. Please indulge me as I give you a little history.
Al Schact pitched for the Washington Senators from 1919 to 1921. He had a mediocre record (14-10). However, he established himself a highly regarded third base coach.
In this capacity, he started mimicking the antics of opposing pitchers and base runners In such a way; he not only helped to create havoc among the oppostion, but also became an entertainer to see where fans would come just to see what he was going to do. As a result, he was crowned "The Clown Prince of Baseball". There have since been many imitations.
Max Patkin later became the self-proclaimed, "Clown Prince of Baseball". While pitching for a service team in Hawaii in 1944, Joe Dimaggio homered off this lanky right-hander. Max threw his glove down then followed Joe around the bases. The fans howled and a career was born.
Later in the 1940's Max was hired by Bill Veeck, the Barnum of baseball and a man I worked for, to be a coach for his St. Louis Browns. His job, harass the opposing pitchers. He was a great success and although the team was terrible, the fans poured in to see what Max would do. He never failed to entertain. When Veeck sold the team, Max who had a face seemingly made of rubber that could make a thousand different shapes decided to expand his horizons.
He was thin like Ichabod Crane and wore a baggy uniform with "?" on the back instead of a number. He always wore a hat that was askew. He played Minor League Stadiums throughout North America doing an estimated 4000 appearances. His Hallmark when he had a cameo role as himself in the movie Bull Durham.
Both Al and Max plied their trade, going to Spring training each year with either their respective teams, or anyone of the other 15 teams in both leagues.
Then, one cannot forget my friend Teddy Giannoulas who as the San Diego Chicken built a mascoting empire.
Teddy was student at San Diego University when he was hired by a local station to hand out Easter Eggs to children at the world-famous San Diego Zoo. He does pantomime, slapstick, gymnastic feats to music. His fame became worldwide.
As President of Fox Sports, I was involved in the production of a TV Pilot created by Chris Beard, he of Gong and Laugh-in fame. We did a half hour program entitled the "Chicken and the Cheerleaders".
In addition to Teddy and the beautiful Rams Cheerleaders, it featured Art Metrano and ex- LA Ram footballer Fred Dryer in his first Television appearance. Fred went on to fame as the tough Police Sergeant "Hunter" in the show of the same name. The pilot was fast paced relying on quick skit comedy and blackouts. Unfortunately it never reached the air. I always loved it.
Teddy was so successful that when he re-designed the Chicken outfit, he announced a grand re-hatching and 47,000 people attended the event. His success has bred the current crop of mascots.
Among the most notable are the Milwaukee Brewers Sausages. Before the 7th inning, the P. A. Announcer says, "Sausages take your marks". The four contestants answering the call enter the stadium through the left field fence. They are a familiar sight in a town known for its wieners and beer. The crowd waits in anticipation.
They get set! Guido, the Italian Sausage wears a Chef's Hat. Frankie Furter, the Hot Dog, wears a baseball Uniform. Bret Wurst is in Liederhausen and Stosh the Polish Kilbasa wears a Rugby Shirt. With announcer..."GO", they are off and running along the foul line to the infield. What takes place with these running 7' creatures to the delight of the crowd is right out of a Keystone Kops movie. They stumble, they hit each other, the try to trip the competition. The result is hilarity at every game.
The Pirates have the great Pierogi Race. It follows the same pattern as the Wieners in Milwaukee except they are introduced on the Center Field Cartoons on the Video Board. Like Milwaukee, they have four Pierogis...Cheese Chester with a yellow hat, Jalapeno Hannah has a green hat, Sauerkraut Saul is in red and Oliver Onion wears purple. The Cartoons segue into the live mascots who enter from right field and race around the perimeter ending up at home plate.
Popular with the fans is a once a year home/home competition with the Wieners.
Today, there are so many mascots with unusual names and equally unusual costumes, all designed to capture the spirit of the team's location.
Not to be left out, every Friday Home Game in Kansas City, the Hot Dog Derby features three mascots wearing hats as condiments that supplement the taste of the Hot Dog. One wears a red hat as Ketchup, yellow for Mustard, and green for relish. Mustard currently holds the title as champ. Toronto has the racing Chile Peppers that seems out of place for Mexican Food to be featured in Canada. And so it goes! Many teams have Mascots that wear in specially designed costumes such as the Philly Fanatic.
Baseball, once the National Pastime, is constantly seeking ways to enhance their product. To its credit, Mascots have a definite role in the game.
It's springtime and soon the umpire will be yelling "Play Ball."