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Tino Lettieri bobs and flaps about the goal mouth like a restless parrot in a rain forest. He preens his jersey, swivels his head and paces between the goalposts, his arms akimbo, like wings.
The opposition has been awarded a penalty kick. Lettieri leans down to the parrot just outside the net. "O.K., Ozzie," he says. "Let's go get 'em."
Ozzie doesn't reply. He just stares. Ozzie is a stuffed toy parrot.
"We can do it," says Lettieri. He lays a big smoochy kiss on Ozzie's beak. "We've done it before. It'll be easy." Then he sets himself to defend the goal.
An opponent aims, shoots. Lettieri catches the ball. He gives Ozzie a wink. "Now that I've stopped them from scoring," he says, "will you give me a cracker, Ozzie?"
This isn't Captain Kangaroo's Dancing Bear soccer team. It's the Minnesota Strikers of the NASL. Lettieri, 26, just likes parrots, alive or stuffed. And he's not just a parrot-flake; he's perhaps the best goalie in the league. He led the NASL in goals-against average while playing for the Vancouver Whitecaps in 1982 and '83 (1.23, 0.87), and is second this season, with 1.36, having recently been bothered by a knee injury. Italian born but Canadian bred, Lettieri was voted the league's North American player of the year in '83. "I owe it all to Ozzie," he says.
Make that a pair of Ozzies. Lettieri keeps two real parrots in his Minneapolis apartment. Ozzie is the yellow-naped Amazon. Then there's a red-lored called Lulu. Lettieri doesn't bring the real, live Ozzie to games because yellow-naped Amazons tend to break when struck by soccer balls. In fact, even toy birds are sitting ducks. A fan stole one predecessor of the current stuffed Ozzie, and another Ozzie lost one of his button eyes to an off-target shot. Or maybe it wasn't so poorly aimed. Frustrated opponents have been known to shoot for Ozzie rather than the goal.
Lettieri's parrots have attracted a certain amount of attention, which is why he keeps one around the net. "When I got traded from Vancouver, I could have gone to New York or Minnesota," he says. "My agent asked me if I wanted a little spotlight or a lot. I wanted a lot."
Indeed, Lettieri is just about the only colorful player in a league that needs color desperately. And he markets himself shrewdly. He hands out wallet-sized photos of himself wherever he goes. His uniform is plastered with more endorsements than a NASCAR stock car. Metrodome concession stands offer Ozzie-and-Tino T shirts, hats and jackets, and Ozzie dolls in five different colors. Lettieri gets a royalty on every sale. Last Christmas, Ozzies were the hottest selling toy in Vancouver after Cabbage Patch dolls. Now PARROT POWER has become the Strikers' slogan.
Other teams are running anti-Ozzie campaigns. They've raised banners against Ozzie in almost every stadium and indoor soccer arena; Lettieri has played NASL indoor ball since 1977. In Chicago the Sting passed out crackers to fans. At the '84 indoor All-Star Game there, in which the Sting played the All-Stars, the Sting hired a befeathered mascot to put a hex on Ozzie. Toronto Blizzard outdoor fans placed a miniature casket behind the Strikers' net and stuffed Ozzie inside when Lettieri wasn't looking. Tampa Bay fans pelted Lettieri with stuffed parrots. Elsewhere he has been shelled with peanuts. Some Ozzie haters have gone so far as to mail Lettieri audio cassettes of a Monty Python routine in which a customer tries to return a lifeless parrot to a pet-shop owner who insists it isn't dead. "Wherever we play on the road, fans want to get hold of Ozzie and strangle him," Lettieri says.