When Ryan Howard walks through the administrative offices at Citizens Bank Park, the employees get a little quieter at their desks. Some of the newer ones might discreetly crane their necks to get a better look, but for the most part they leave the players alone. Sure, everyone who works in the Phillies' front office is a fan — they love baseball and the Phillies, naturally — but they understand that the players are there to do their job.
The Phillie Phanatic is accorded no such consideration. When the team's mascot lumbers through the Phillies' front offices in his oversized shoes, employees abandon their desks to mob him. Even those who see the beloved mascot every day tend to greet the giant green character with laughter and requests to pose for a quick picture.
This seems about right. The Phanatic is the most recognizable Philadelphia figure since Rocky, after all, and Rocky wasn't real. The Phanatic, though, is part of people's lives in Philly, in a way that transcends demographics, never goes out of style, and unites this cynical city through childlike joy. His appeal is summed up nicely during an appearance at an exhibition game played at Citizens Bank Park a week before the home opener, when a slightly dweeby boy of no more than 9 — wearing thick-rimmed maroon glasses and, inexplicably, a single mitten — declares, "He's just so funny!" between bouts of boisterous laughter.
Not that you'd ever hear about it from the Phanatic. He doesn't speak, you see. Instead, he communicates entirely through pantomime, tongue jabs, and the words of his "best friend," Tom Burgoyne (allegedly the only person who can understand him). Somehow, it works, this Charlie Chaplin means of expressing himself, and it certainly doesn't stop people wherever the Phanatic goes from talking with him. At a recent luncheon for radio executives, a professional woman gushed to the Phanatic: "You just made this 44-year-old woman's dream come true!" He doesn't reply, of course, but the hug he offers shows his gratitude.
It's not just women and kids who love the Phanatic, though. "I think guys love to put themselves in his shoes sometimes and think, 'Boy, I wouldn't mind being the one flirting with the girl or sitting down next to her,'" Burgoyne explains. And yet, husbands and boyfriends don't get jealous of the Phanatic's effect. In fact, if the Phanatic lingers long enough, or if the guys have had just the right amount to drink, most are not above thrusting their camera phones at anyone within arm's reach to request he or she take a picture of them with the Phanatic.
His supersize presence can be a bit much for some small children, but for the most part, the Phanatic has been almost universally beloved ever since the Phillies first introduced him, in 1978. "It was clear within a couple weeks of when we introduced the character that it was going to work," says Chris Long, who did the bookings for the mascot in the early days and who now serves as the director of entertainment at Citizens Bank Park.
Burgoyne was a seventh-grader when Phillies intern Dave Raymond created the overnight sensation that is the Phanatic. At the time, the only other mascot in Major League Baseball was the Famous Chicken — who was actually affiliated with a San Diego radio station — that performed at Padres games.
As a kid, Burgoyne had loved the Phanatic's persona, a combination of the Three Stooges and Daffy Duck, but it wasn't until many years later, after attending college at Drexel, that the Jenkintown native "met" the costume that would change his life. The "Help Wanted" ad he responded to hadn't mentioned the Phillies or the Phanatic. Yet after trying out, Burgoyne was hired for his dream job.
He spent five years as the backup to Raymond before taking over full time in 1994, a role he has taken to calling "Phanatic's best friend." He maintains the character/life separation for several reasons. The Phanatic helps bring families to the ballpark, for one, and the Phanatic's origin myth is a necessary fiction. Who wants their kids finding out Santa isn't real just before having their picture taken with him? But he mostly does it out of respect for the entity of the Phanatic himself, the notion that the character was here before Burgoyne arrived, and will probably be around long after.
Everyone involved with the character prides himself on the consistency of Phanatic's persona. He's not just a costume; he's a character. Although Burgoyne works to keep the routines current, for the most part he lets the Phanatic's spontaneous interactions come from a place that feels honest to the mascot's mischievous and childlike personality. Apparently, being the darling of a fiercely loyal city makes it hard to grow up. "He doesn't know any better!" Burgoyne says ruefully of the Phanatic's behavior. "He loves it, being out with the fans. He was named after the fans... He loves being the center of attention. He's got a little bit of an ego."
And who wouldn't have? There were years — back when the team wasn't the juggernaut it is today — when many fans claimed they came to the park just to see the Phanatic. And as the team got better, the Phanatic's renown only grew. Now he performs 81 nights a season for a sold-out crowd, and makes dozens of other appearances throughout the year. And at almost every event, Burgoyne says, "if the Phanatic stands still for 30 seconds, he's gonna have 100 people around him. I liken it to the Beatles in 'Help!'''
Back in his dressing room, a seamstress is waiting for the Phanatic. Out of a shopping bag comes a mass of gold sequins. Drag is always funny, and after having done a couple of tributes to Lady Gaga, the Phanatic decided to go retro this year. A pair of gold sequined leggings and a matching tunic will be joined by a wig to create a Tina Turner look.
"He's my biggest client," Kim, the seamstress, says as she fights with the leggings.
"Turn this way!" she commands.
"Stop talking with your hands so much!"
The room is unremarkable: a couch, a walk-in closet overflowing with past costumes, and a TV to show the action unfolding on-field during game days.
Only the posters on the wall attest to Phanatic's stardom. One is for the 1998 direct-to-video movie "Channel Surfin' Phanatic," on which the Phanatic is pictured precariously poised atop a surfboard, having traded his jersey for a Hawaiian shirt. Next to it is another poster, featuring a close-up of the Phanatic, palm trees reflected in his sunglasses, for his second movie, "The Phillie Phanatic Goes to Hollywood." in 2006.
While Kim hems, Burgoyne reminisces about filming the movies. His role as the Phanatic's spokesman has taken him to Holland, the Galapagos, Australia (twice), Japan (three times) and Mexico, but he still seems surprised about Phanatic's glamorous life, "We took over a real working movie studio!" he marvels, and that's to say nothing of the red-carpet opening back here in Philly for the movie. This season, six years after the last film debuted, yet another Phanatic film, "Time-Traveling Phanatic," will debut, on Aug. 4, this one featuring a sci-fi theme.
The next day, the Phanatic visits a Habitat for Humanity construction site in South Philly. He's here to help out, but also to lend his star power to the cause. Tom Burgoyne will be giving the keynote address at this year's Habitat for Humanity's annual Building HOPE luncheon, since perpetual silence means the Phanatic has to surrender the spotlight for speaking engagements. That day the Phanatic was shooting a promotional video to be shown at the event.
While the camera rolls inside the dilapidated houses, fans start to gather out front. Even in this unlikely location, behind makeshift scaffolding, the Phanatic isn't exactly inconspicuous, and a glimpse of his green feathers through the window is enough to make people stop whatever else they're doing a take a look.
It's already been a long day. Before heading to South Philly, the Phanatic had celebrated the first day of the baseball season with Mayor Nutter and members of the Phillies' front office, driving around town on the Phillies Rally Trolley, handing out rally towels and leaving traffic jams in their wake. But as the shoot wraps, the Phanatic finds time to indulge the small crowd that has assembled. As he poses forpictures, I'm reminded of something Burgoyne told me about the last day of Veterans Stadium. "I'll just never forget the faces — people leaning over the railing and high-fiving and giving the Phanatic pictures. To see the fans reaction to the Phanatic on that day was just awesome. You saw the closeness that people have with the Phanatic."
The range of ways in which that closeness manifests itself is what makes the Phanatic so special. During the offseason, the Phanatic traveled to New Hope with a phalanx of producers, reporters and cameramen. Also there was Phillies' General Manager Ruben Amaro Jr., who was soon joining the Phanatic in traipsing across a well-kept lawn towards a pale-green house. Amaro knocked on the front door. After a long pause, the door opened to reveal an elderly couple. The husband was wearing a crisp Phillies jersey —No. 25, Jim Thome — that suggested he might have been expecting this visit. The woman was dressed in head-to-toe pink.
"Morning, Sir. How are you?" Amaro said with a grin and a half chuckle.
"Morning!" replied Ray DiCrescenzo, a 92-year-old World War II veteran, as reporters jostled to thrust their microphones close to him. As the couple adjusted to the relentless flash of the cameras, Amaro introduced himself before wishing Adele DiCrescenzo, who turned 90 that day, a happy birthday.
"Thank you, Darling", she said. But then, when she realized the Phanatic was there, she disregarded all demureness. Shrieks of laughter erupted as the Phanatic pushed through and planted a characteristic kiss on the birthday girl.
During the initial rush, reporters rattled off questions in search of a sound bite. Whose Ray's favorite player? (Utley.) Have they ever been to spring training? (They thought about going this year.) Did the Phillies spell the couples' last name right on the back of the personalized jerseys? (They did.) As all this was happening, Amaro hid out on the carpeted stairs just inside the door. But Phanatic was never far from Adele, patiently posing for pictures that have surely be added to others on the couple's kitchen wall. In the face of such commotion, the soft-spoken Adele seemed to find comfort in the presence of the silent mascot. As the couple led the reporters on a tour of the house, she accepted the offer of an outstretched fuzzy green arm for support.
Weeks later Burgoyne reminisces about that visit, about the look on Adele's face. "You're making someone's dream come true," he says with no hint of hyperbole. And if you had seen the look on Adele's face that day, you'd know there's no other way to describe it.