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June 22, 2010
The one thing about the Pittsburgh Pirates is that there's never a dull moment. Last week, the ballclub was caught up in the midst of what would become a 12-game losing streak. The club would not fire its manager or general manager, but it did fire one of the costumed pierogis who take part in its nightly Great Pittsburgh Pierogi Race. It just seems the Pirates can’t do anything right.
As for the manager, John Russell, and general manager, Neal Huntington, it turned out as the calls for their heads reached a deafening level, it was revealed the club—secretly, as if they were embarrassed to have done so—had extended both their contracts during the winter.
The losing streak and the public relations blunder were bad enough, but then the Pirates decided that Andrew Kurtz (a.k.a. Jalapeno Hannah, Cheese Chester, Oliver Onion, and Sauerkraut Saul (depending upon which costume he wore that night), had to go. It seems that Kurtz, 24, from suburban New Brighton, Pennsylvania, had made some disparaging remarks about the team that had become the object of scorn throughout the community on his Facebook page, saying “(President Frank) Coonelly extended the contracts of Russell and Huntington through the 2011 season. That means a 19-straight losing streak. Way to go Pirates.” The reference is that it appears the Pirates are well on way to a professional 19th straight losing season this year.
Over the years, the Pirates have given their fans little to cheer about other than their mascots, which includes the Pirate Parrot and the pierogis, but even there they have had managed to screw things up as no other franchise ever has. Before we get into that, however, let us first look back upon the history of mascots in baseball, which brings us to not only the first but the best, the San Diego Chicken as portrayed by the pioneering Ted Giannoulas, who developed a marvelously comical character whose routines would leave crowds, players, and umpires laughing.
Giannoulas even pioneered the troubled mascot, back in 1997, when he was sued for “beating up” a Barney the Dinosaur look-alike during a parody at the ballpark. The lawyers asked $100,000 for each appearance but, in a landmark decision, the court sided with the Chicken after he argued that the act was satire and therefore protected by the First Amendment. Apparently, all men and all chickens are created equal.
The Chicken’s success led to the Philadelphia's Phillie Phanatic, a rare bird, indeed. He and his zany antics were cheered in the city where they once booed Santa Claus and threw snowballs at him, but even the Phanatic found himself in a court of law. He lost a $2.5 million judgment when a man suffered back injuries when the Phanatic hugged him at the opening of a paint store.
As mascots proliferated around baseball, so, too, did the situations. In 1995, Seattle's Mariner Moose, while “surfing” on skates behind an ATV, wound up crashing into the outfield fence and breaking an ankle. The Cleveland Indians' Slider tore his ACL as he messed up a somersault off an outfield wall and Florida’s Billy the Marlin accidently knocked an elderly man unconscious with a CO2-propelled T-shirt. All was not terrible for mascots. In 1999, the Baltimore Orioles mascot fell 15 feet and broke an ankle after being shoved off the right-field wall at Camden Yards by a Philadelphia electrician. In this case, the mascot sued and won $59,000.
Perhaps the best mascot of all-time, though, was the San Francisco Crazy Crab, introduced in the 1970s as the anti-mascot. He made fun of mascots, and the club even ran television commercials with manager Frank Robinson being restrained from attacking him. Upon his arrival at Candlestick Park, rather than being cheered, fans were encouraged to boo and hiss and even began throwing things at this crazy crustacean. The players took note and would dump drinks onto the Crazy Crab, who lasted only one season.
It seemed no mascot was safe. In the early days after their move from Milwaukee to Atlanta, the Braves had a mascot named Chief Noc-a-Homer, who would lead the team onto the field and race to his teepee in left field at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. One day the Cincinnati Reds' bullpen, led by Pedro Borbon, who was so different that once after a brawl with the New York Mets he took a bite out of Cleon Jones’ cap, attacked the Chief and wrestled him to the ground.
But as usual, it was the Pirates who had the most trouble getting this mascot thing right. Even though the Pirate Parrot is indeed one of the game’s great mascots, his roots are tainted. In the early 1980s, it came out that the original Parrot was deeply involved in the Pittsburgh baseball drug scandal. Kevin Koch was implicated for buying cocaine and introducing some players to a drug dealer. He avoided prosecution by cooperating with authorities after it was learned the drug was being dealt within the Pirates' clubhouse at Three Rivers Stadium.
And then, of more recent vintage, there was the incident between Pirates first baseman Randall Simon and the Italian Sausage mascot who was running in the popular sausage race at Miller Park in Milwaukee in 2003. As he came by the Pirates’ dugout, Simon hit him with his bat. As happens with most Pirates’ swings of the bat, the Italian Sausage went nowhere except straight down. Naturally, Simon had hit a woman who was wearing the costume, Mandy Block, and created an Internet sensation with the video.
Simon was taken from the ballpark by police at the end of the game and cited for disorderly conduct. He paid a fine of $432 and issued a public apology, but Block admitted she’d rather have the bat that was used to conk her. That way, perhaps, she could feel like she came out a “wiener.”