The return of baseball means the return of fans to stadiums that have now been empty for a year and a half. There was only one group of people I wanted to talk to about this: MLB mascots.
The images of homeless pets trying to entertain rows of empty seats last season haunted me; the idea that they try to adapt to a scenario with Some fans, but still with restrictions, it was strangely compelling. But most teams keep their pets out of the media to preserve a certain air of mystery, and with request after request, I was turned away. “Unfortunately, Mr. Met doesn’t speak,” the Mets communications director wrote, which, fair, who could argue with that? However, there was one pet who accepted an interview: Phillie Phanatic.
Tom Burgoyne started out as a backup fan in 1989 and has had the full-time job since 1993. His official title is “fan’s best friend,” to keep a bit of that aforementioned mystery, and as such, he tends to talk about your “friend” in the third person. For the start of the 2021 season, he talks about doing his job with and without fans.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Sports Illustrated: It seems like a lot of the work is about the fans and how you interact with them. How did you try to do that when the fans weren’t there?
Tom Burgoyne: Well, first of all, we had our cuts, like many ballparks did. So for the Phanatic, he’s always looking to entertain and have fun and make people laugh, and he thought maybe he could have a little fun, you know, playing around with those cutouts. So we had some opposing fan cutouts planted there so the Phanatic could still shoot silly ropes or have fun or just sit in front of one of those fans. Of course, he tried to get everyone to do the wave, that didn’t work. He went out to sell programs, he was a seller in one of the games and nobody wanted to buy programs from him, he did not understand. He had pizzas delivered, and ended up with about 15 pizzas all himself; I was offering portions to all the cuts, but no one wanted a portion. And luckily, you know, the cameras caught it every now and then, so at least the people at home could see that the Phanatic was still having fun.
SI: Obviously, difficult circumstances for it, but I imagine it is the most creative thing you have ever had in your work, right?
TUBERCULOSIS: Yes. I’ve been doing it for a long time, 30 years, this is my 33rd season. And it really was one of those things that I think you have to think outside the box a little bit and think, oh, this is something different. . We usually have a pretty set schedule for where the Phanatic goes. He’s in the crowd, of course, but you know, times are set between innings, and last year we threw that out the window. It was a fun year, in a weird way, in the sense that it made us get a little more creative. But he’s certainly a lot better with the fans, that’s for sure.
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SI: Did anything about that experience surprise you?
TUBERCULOSIS: Only loneliness. And the Phanatic looked around a bit: when you listened to the television, the music and the noise of the crowd sounded real, but in the ballpark, it sounded a little hollow and empty. So that emptiness, you know, it was very strange. I was surprised at how that made me feel.
SI: And after all that, how did it feel to be back for your first spring training game, you know, to finally be in a stadium with people and do your job differently?
TUBERCULOSIS: Yes, in spring training, it was great to have people; When the door opened, I was there with my cell phone camera, and I took pictures of people entering the stadium, and everyone was so happy in that first game. I can’t wait to have people in the park, but it will also be a different year. Yes, the crowd will not be that big, but we must also be careful. We have a lot of social distance restrictions, obviously here at the ballpark we have zippered seats so we will have capsule type seats. And usually the Fanatic, when he’s down there, he’s a rock star. You know they corner him, I tell people it’s like A hard day’s Night, one of those Beatles movies where the Fab Four run away from their fans. The Phanatic is simply harassed that way. And it’s great, pose for pictures, high-fives, hugs and kisses. He’s spilling popcorn on people. But it draws a crowd, so we have to be careful where the Phanatic goes this year when it’s in the crowd. There’s going to be a bunch of quick hits, and then, you know, they’ll disappear and then another quick hit, just be careful. Of course, we will have someone who will always be close to the Phanatic; We will always have someone to help him out of the crowd, and she will have to be a little more vocal this year. Only, Hey make sure you keep your space, in a nice and quiet way, you know, and I think people get it. Come to the Zealot in his mask. I hear parents all the time say: Oh kids, you know, the Zealot has his mask on, we can’t get too close, but we can still get a picture.. There is only a little bit of that happening. But it’s still good.
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SI: Yes, I imagine that implies a different kind of creativity; last year was figuring out how to do this without any fans, and this is how you do it with fans that you can’t interact with in the same way. way.
TUBERCULOSIS: Absolutely. It’s a different year than last year, and it’s certainly different than not having any restrictions, so it will be a bit different. The Phanatic appears once in a live game on the field and then once in the dugout, so there are two moments during the game where you never know what will happen when the Phanatic comes out. He could shoot hot dogs; you could have a dance team lined up, or some kids; he can have his inflatable characters, called the Galapagos Gang, on the field with him; you can have a referee stationed there or an usher. So there are many things that we would normally do. But this year, they won’t allow anyone in the field other than Level 2 or Level 1 employees, people with those kinds of credentials. The Phanatic is a Level 2 employee; Basically, you can be in the field, but you won’t be able to do all the things you would like to do. So instead of always going to the field and doing the exact same thing, we actually have a dance floor that is being built right on Ashburn Alley, behind section 148. It can be seen from the entire seating area, so the Phanatic will use it. We’ll use that stage a little bit for a few different things, and it’ll be on the field before the game, and maybe a little bit during. But a lot of times, we have this dance floor, and we thought it might be a good way to get around some of the restrictions on the field.
SI: How was the brainstorming to solve that?
TUBERCULOSIS: Yeah, I came up with that idea: get to know the NBA, see what they had to do because they were under the same restrictions, I noticed some of them had stages where they had national anthem singers and whatever they were doing before. -play. So I got together with our entertainment group, and I think we were all on the same page that we were going to have to have some kind of area, because we can’t use the field. That area will also be used before the game, for any on-field recognition we would have done on the field, or maybe a national anthem. And then i said Well we can turn that stage into a dance floor. I have a disco ball, I’m trying to fix something so that we can have some kind of arm that stretches across the dance floor, and we can hang it up when it’s time for the Fanatic to do his disco dance.
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SI: And looking back at all of this, from what you did last year to how you are thinking this year, does it make you think differently about your job?
TUBERCULOSIS: I think only about the streak I’ve had with the Phillies, and also the streak that the Phanatic has had, and what the Phanatic represents to the fans. It’s such a loving thing. I have written a book about it; it is about that love that inspires the Phanatic. I mean, he’s out there hugging, high-fives, people just go crazy over the Phanatic. They carry their things. They want photos. He is a rock star and keeps people in the downtime. Yeah I think last year when the Phanatic was doing its thing people would laugh and watch it on TV or online, it was great. In tough times, it’s nice to have the Phanatic making people laugh. So I feel blessed.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.