You probably know Dave Raymond. Or, at least, if you’ve paid any attention to sport and particularly American sport over the last 40 years or so, you know Dave Raymond’s work.
Not on the field, though: just to the side. For 15 years, Raymond was the man inside the suit of the Phanatic, the Philadelphia Phillies anarchic giant green mascot, the mascot upon whom most mascots since have been based. And after hanging up the furry suit, Raymond became essentially a mascot consultant: the chances are that if you’ve heard of a mascot in North American sports, he’s the brains behind it.
And as with so many of these things, it all started accidentally. After graduating from college he took an internship with the Philadelphia Phillies, where he worked for the promotion and marketing department. One day, he was asked to take on a slightly different part of the job.
“They didn’t tell me what they wanted me to do right away,” he says. “They kind of explained it briefly and told me I needed to go to New York to get fitted for ‘the costume’. And I was kind of confused, like: ‘What do you mean?’ ‘Well, the mascot,’ they said, but they were not really definitive about what was happening. I thought: ‘Well, maybe if I do whatever it is they ask me to do, then I’ll show them I would be a valuable employee.’”
And so began his life as the Phanatic, a colossal Muppet with an almost spherical belly and an airhorn-shaped nose. When Raymond started, mascots weren’t really what they are today, generally more staid characters who didn’t really do a huge amount. “They were pretty much lumbering, big-headed, cumbersome mascots that didn’t move around a lot: they would wave and take photographs, and then disappear.”
Raymond changed all of that. “The Phanatic’s personality was really a mash-up of the typical Phillies fan and Three Stooges/Daffy Duck-style slapstick comedy. I wanted it to be frenetic because he looked big and heavy, so if I was frenetic and nimble, which I knew I could do in the costume because it wasn’t that cumbersome, that I would surprise everyone.
“The first night, I was told: ‘Go out with the ground crew in the fifth inning, just look like you’re working with them.’ And, by accident, I tripped one of them and they fell which got a big laugh, so that grew into this whole routine in the fifth inning, which remains today.”
Gradually the Phanatic developed its own persona, mugging for the cameras, entertaining kids, commandeering quad bikes and even developing feuds. One in particular stands out, with the great but famously grumpy and rotund LA Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda.
“Tommy was a complicated guy,” Raymond explains. “On one hand, he was one of the most respected ambassadors of American baseball. On the other hand, he had a big ego – just like anybody would in his position. One of his players, Rick Sutcliffe, famously said that 90% of people hate him, the other 10% just don’t know him. I’d always made fun of him because he was a kind of a portly guy, he was bow-legged and pigeon-toed – which is almost physically impossible. So I would go behind him and try to walk like him. I’d stick my belly out and the fans just went crazy.
“I would constantly make fun of him. Everything he did, I made fun of. For the most part, he’d play along but then the Dodgers players started getting me his uniform so I could dress up a dummy I had. I found out that he wasn’t very happy [about that], and was so irritable one night he just had enough and came running out and he tried to beat the piss out of me. And he really was beating the piss out of me. Then he said in the newspaper the next day that the Phanatic’s violence is not good for kids.”
After 16 years as the Phanatic, Raymond hung up the giant green suit in 1993. A few years later launched his own business, Raymond Entertainment, to teach sports teams how to come up with and develop their mascots. Over the years he has had a hand in dozens of the world’s most famous mascots, including Manchester City’s Moonbeam and Moonchester, and most recently Gritty, the ostensibly nightmarish Philadelphia Flyers mascot, who basically looks like an orange, 8ft tall Oscar the Grouch. Gritty became a meme, a horrifying picture that would be shared around the internet and lambasted as a terrifying and ludicrous monster.
But the more he was criticised, the more the Philadelphia fans warmed to him as one of their own. Gritty became a much-loved cult figure, tapping into the traditional Philadelphia sports fan mindset: blue collar, a little rowdy, rough around the edges but fiercely protective of their own. That, Raymond thinks, is what makes a successful mascot.
“Once you’ve introduced the character and you’ve used that story to drive what you do with the character, it really resonates better, it becomes more important. That’s really what the Phanatic did and that’s what Gritty has done. There’s an emotional component that’s purposely included so everybody that gets to know that character really starts to have ownership of the character, even before they know why.”
These days Raymond splits his time between the mascot business and what you might loosely describe as motivational speaking. His speech The Power of Fun draws on his experience as a mascot, telling of how he got over some of the most difficult periods of his life simply by choosing to have fun.
“People tell me how important it has been to them. One person said: ‘I was a 9/11 responder and I wish I’d heard this speech the day after 9/11.’ A young high school girl came up to me, like she was telling me something mundane about her life, said: ‘You know, I’ve been thinking about suicide lately, but I don’t think I’m going to think about that anymore because I really enjoyed your talk.’”
From wandering into a costume fitting room, unsure of what he was really doing, Raymond ultimately changed what mascots are, continues to do so and makes sport a little bit more fun. Just don’t tell Tommy Lasorda.