At 48 years old, Jeff Lecious still gets a laugh out of the Phillie Phanatic.
“I remember the first game the Phanatic appeared,” says “Precious” Lecious, a lifetime Phillies fan. “It was the late ’70s on my black and white TV in my bedroom, Monday Night baseball. And I was all: Who’s this?”
An anteater? A monster? A Snuffleupagus?
The official story, or at least the one the Phillies are sticking to, is that the Phanatic is a flightless bird from the Galapagos Islands. Tom Burgoyne’s story is that he has been a “good friend” since 1978, when he answered an anonymous newspaper ad for “mascot wanted.” For 23 seasons, Burgoyne has trained for opening day.
“The Phanatic loves to dance,” said Burgoyne, who talks about the character in the third person. “He’s always hitting the YouTube and the iTunes, finding out what’s new and what kids are listening to. The Phanatic likes to be current.”
This season, Lady Gaga will be back on the Phanatic’s play list. Fans can expect a reappearance of Lady PhaPha, the Gaga-esque transgender incarnation of the Phanatic.
The Phanatic is a rare sports mascot that bears no resemblance to the team name: He’s not a lion, nor a pirate, nor a dandy (as in “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” a short-lived New York mascot). He’s a thing. A thing everybody loves.
“He’ll give you a kiss whether you want it or not,” said Kristy Lynn Kuhn of Blackwood, N.J., another lifelong Phillie fan who has been the object of the Phanatic’s very public displays of affection. “I’ve danced with the Phanatic. I’ve been picked up by the Phanatic–in the best way possible.”
Unlike most other mascots, the Phanatic isn’t smiling. The costume is designed to be expressionless, with no laughing mouth, no furrowed eyebrow, no flaring nostrils. Because the costume is not locked into any one facial expression, the Phanatic can use body language to express a range of feelings.
“He wears his emotions on his sleeve,” said Burgoyne, whose clowning reflects the mood of the crowd. “Sometimes if a Phillie strikes out, he looks like the most depressed guy in the world–he’s got his head in his hands. But then the next batter is up and he’s excited again.”
Burgoyne performs as the Phanatic at all Phillies home games (two other people can don the costume as needed for publicity events). He usually stays on the field for 20-minute intervals, retreating to his dressing room to cool off and drink water. The baseball season is a long time to spend inside a very sweaty costume, but he says opening day always feels fresh and hopeful.
“When your team takes the field for the first time, when you see that green grass–we’ve all had a difficult winter, it’s almost magic how the grass can be so green here,” said Burgoyne. “When the team comes out, the crowd is at its loudest. You can hear the ice melting away–spring is here and baseball is here.”