My debut as a major league mascot did not go well. I entered San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium in the third inning of a Padres game last September dressed in a neon-green gorilla suit. I glad-handed youngsters and shook my furry buttocks to the sounds of Superfreak. Then I lost my nerve.
I was one inhibited, unfunny ape. I had energy but no gags. I found it hard to be a cutup. I resorted to clapping my hands and pumping my fist. My exertion proved what I had been told: Mascots perspire more than players. Peering out through the peepholes of my dark, smelly, sweaty gorilla head, I saw looks of pity and contempt. A pudgy freckled boy confronted me in the aisle. "Hey, Gorilla," he said. "You suck!"
Chastened, I retreated after a single inning to a trailer in the parking lot for consultation with mascot coach Dean Schoenewald. "You weren't sure what to do," he said. "You need to be more animated. Climb over chairs. Scan the crowd for the old lady wearing the outrageous hat. Don't be afraid to dive into the rows. Remember, there's nowhere you can't go."
For the past two years Schoenewald, at 36 the Chevy Chase of sideline pratfalls, has run Mascot Mania, the world's only school for aspiring mascots. For $795, characters in need of a makeover spend three days juggling, rappelling, bungee-jumping and skit-writing under Schoenewald's critical eye. And, of course, there are stadium excursions. Schoenewald takes his school around the country. I enrolled in San Diego, which seemed fitting, since during the '70s the Padres' Chicken started the modern mascot movement.
Winnie-the-Poohs need not apply. Schoenewald favors high-flying, slam-dunking anti-Barneys capable of upstaging the game. "The greatest compliment of all is to get a player to interact with you," he said. "Whose court is it? It's my court." In his various costumed incarnations Schoenewald has jumped all-terrain vehicles over hockey nets, skydived into infields, confronted umpires with eye charts and chain saws, had pizzas delivered to second basemen, left the field in a hot-air balloon and polished Charles Barkley's head with a towel. His stunts have been awarded CNN's Play of the Day four times. The network nominated his headfirst bungee dive in the San Jose Arena hockey rink for 1994's Play of the Year.
Schoenewald was all business as he watched my classmate Greg Ohlman take a turn in the gorilla suit. Ohlman, 28, is in his second season as the winged mascot of the International Hockey Hague's Grand Rapids Griffins. His experience showed. He kissed hands like a hirsute Romeo, snatched hats and filched tacos from a food stand. "That's it! That's it!" Schoenewald told me as Ohlman did a bump-and-grind to Brick House. "You looked like a man in a costume. He looks like a character that's loose."
Still, Schoenewald saw room for Ohlman to improve. He clucked in disapproval when Ohlman clowned with an elderly gent. Ohlman had broken Schoenewald's first commandment: Ignore men. "They won't give anything up to you," he warned. "The hardest person in the ballpark to make laugh is a 35-year-old white male. Disregard him. He doesn't exist."
Back in the trailer Schoenewald offered Ohlman bits from his own repertoire. "Have you jumped out of a Zamboni? Have you swung like Tarzan across the ice? Never ask permission. Somebody might say no." He extracted Ohlman's griffin suit from its traveling case. "Hey, what if this beak opened and closed?" he said. "You could swallow heads. That would be hilarious!"
Schoenewald compiled his list of dos and don'ts over 18 years as a mascot for 17 teams. "I'm not the life of the party," he said. "Class clowns don't excel as mascots. It's serious work. I've been together with all the best mascots. There was no humor in that room until we put on our costumes. Then it became one wild locker room."
Schoenewald's improbable pursuit began in 1979, weeks after he finished high school in Ocean City, N.J. "I wanted to be the best at something in sports," he said. He spent $1,200 that was intended for college on an eagle costume with furry arms and oversized shoulders. He christened it Birdbrain and debuted it for 30 friends at a coffee shop. Birdbrain met with Philadelphia Eagles executives, but they declined to hire him. Undaunted, Schoenewald fluttered through Veterans Stadium anyway. He never got paid, but he did get noticed by a national TV audience when a drunk Cowboys fan set fire to his left wing during a Monday Night Football broadcast.