As Phillies fans all know, the Phanatic is one of the most beloved mascots in pro sports.
According to Phillies lore, the Phanatic is a huge, flightless bird from the Galápagos Islands who arrived here nearly 40 years ago and immediately fell in love with Philadelphia — and its baseball team especially. He’s been here ever since, cheering on the Fightins through good times and bad.
The legend of the Phillie Phanatic is zealously guarded by Tom Burgoyne, whose official title is “Best Friend of the Phanatic” and — let’s just say — is rarely seen in the same place as the ATV-riding, furry green beast. Burgoyne agreed to be interviewed at a recent Phillies game, talking in between frenetic trips out into the stands with the Phanatic.
According to Burgoyne, he does everything for the Phanatic. “I’m his chef, I’m his spiritual adviser, I do his laundry, I’m his agent. I’m his interpreter — not many people speak Galápagese … it’s a great job.”
The Phanatic lives at Citizens Bank Park, in his own dressing room located between the visiting and home locker rooms. Burgoyne gets to the park three to four hours before game time to help the Phanatic get ready. “He sleeps a lot, so I’m the guy that usually has to wake him up. I gas up his four-wheeler, make sure he gets gas in there,” said Burgoyne.
Burgoyne’s been in this gig for 29 years. The Delaware County native was a class clown (and mascot) at St. Joe’s Prep before going to Drexel University. After graduating and working a few months in a dreadfully dull sales job, Burgoyne noticed a classified ad in the Daily News, “under M, for ‘Mascot.’” He’s been best buds with the Phanatic ever since. Now, he has his own assistant, Christine Powers, who helps manage the throngs of fans who sprint across the concourse in the hopes of getting a high-five and a selfie from the rotund rabble-rouser.
Spontaneous, contagious joy
When the Phanatic emerges from the bowels of the stadium and onto a crowded concourse, fans squeal with delight. Teenagers revert blissfully back into excited kids and run over to see him. Parents grab their children and — with urgent clarity of purpose — shove them in front of the Phanatic, certain of the fond memories being forged in the formative minds. Joyous screams of “Phanatic!” fill the air. It’s about as close as one can get to experiencing Beatlemania firsthand.
Most days, the Phanatic’s performances are unscripted. “When you see the Phanatic out there, and getting the crowd pumped up, or dancing with umpires, or dancing with fans in the crowd, spilling popcorn on somebody, none of that is rehearsed,” said Burgoyne. “That’s just the Phanatic being himself, basically.”
Some performances, especially those involving the Phanatic’s mom, Phoebe, or his lady friend, Phyllis, are discussed in advance. Burgoyne also talks to the Phanatic about what opposing players are better at taking a joke than others. And there are shticks the Phanatic returns to, time and again.
During an early June game against the San Francisco Giants, it’s the popcorn gag. Burgoyne and Powers talk it out briefly before the top of the third inning. “Maybe we’ll do the popcorn tonight? K? Is that a plan?” Burgoyne says, the way you might suggest getting pizza for dinner.
Powers is on board. “That sounds like a plan.”
The old popcorn caper
A few minutes later, the Phanatic is barging through the hallways and onto the concourse, toward a favored concession stand near the first base stands. Powers provides the play-by-play.
“We’re heading out into the stands, we’re going to mess with some fans, get a little popcorn,” she says. “The Phanatic might get confused where his seat is, so you never know what’ll happen with all that popcorn. It might end up on somebody.”
The Phanatic orders three — no, make that four! — boxes of popcorn while fans of all ages swarm nearby. The Phanatic just cut a half dozen people in line, but they’re reacting how one might upon running into an old friend unexpectedly.
Popcorn boxes in wing, the Phanatic makes his way to the stands and into the crowd watching the game, who are oblivious they’re about to become supporting characters in the most entertaining show playing at the stadium tonight. Soon enough, popcorn’s flying everywhere and all over everyone. The crowd loves it.
Soon the Phanatic spies a Giants fan. He waddles over and hides her hat and entire head underneath his Phillies jersey. She laughs, and the hometown fans cheer, and, soon enough, it’s time for the Phanatic to make his way back to his dressing room. He’s bombarded with photo requests with every step.
Days before the interview, another team’s mascot, Mr. Met made national news by flipping off some abusive fans. Before the match, Burgoyne said no one can talk about it. But in the stands, a Phillies fan brings up the taboo topic. “Hey, Phanatic!” The 20-something yelled. “Any words of advice to Mr. Met?”
The Phanatic hangs his neck and shakes his head in almost sympathetic shame — it’s amazing how evocative and emotive a mute bird can be — and the fan gets it. “Yeah, that’s the Mets for ya, I guess.”
The Phanatic isn’t out in the crowd between every inning, Burgoyne said. “Sometimes it’s the illusion that he, that he’s here, there, everywhere. but he always has to take a little bit of a break, get some water.”
Most games, the Phanatic works the bottom of the third, the fifth and the seventh. Often, he makes special appearances across the stadium, stopping by to say hi to a youth group that bought a few dozen tickets, or showing up in an important sponsor’s luxury box to hobnob. Whenever there’s a large number of kids, though, the Phanatic is more likely to show up.
Future fans’ favorite
To Burgoyne, the Phanatic’s most important job may be introducing the next generation of Phillies fans to the sport. “What’s really cool about the Phanatic is he attracts the young fans,” he said. “In baseball nowadays, they say, ‘it’s a long game — maybe a little slower than some of the other sports — maybe fans aren’t into it as much.’”
“I disagree. I think that’s the beauty of the game: the pace of the game …. It’s really cool that some [young fans] learn about baseball — get their first exposure to baseball — through the Phanatic.”
The Phillies aren’t very good this year, but that’s nothing new: They’re the most losing team in all sports history, period. They might not pack the stands like they once did, but the fans still come to Citizens Bank Park on warm summer nights to buy peanuts, eat Cracker Jack and talk about life while the hapless Phils let up yet another run. And despite the lopsided scores, they’ll still smile and laugh, thanks to the Phanatic.
“If people are laughing, even if the Phillies are losing 10 to nothing, then he’s done his job,” Burgoyne said of the Phanatic. “So, I think that’s one of the special things about the Phanatic. People always, always are excited when they’re around him.”
That night, the Phils did lose 10 to nothing. But the Phanatic was still out there, and the people were still laughing. And his constant companion — Tom Burgoyne — thinks he’s the luckiest guy in Philly.