Fans know their favorite teams are full of drama, on the field and sometimes off. Players come and players go, but at every game there’s at least one real character whose only job is to be a good sport. Commentator Victor Wishna explains in this month’s edition of 'A Fan’s Notes.'
Who says there’s no good news anymore?
You may have missed this, but just last week the Kansas City Royals’ own Sluggerrr — you know, the 6-foot-9 lion who dances on the dugout between innings — was inducted into the National Mascot Hall of Fame.
Yeah, that’s really a thing. And as of next year, it will be a place. A new 25,000-square-foot, multi-million-dollar hall will open in Whiting, Indiana, 20 minutes outside of Chicago.
Sluggerrr joins an elite group. Out of an estimated 5,000 costumed mascots in American pro and college sports, less than two dozen have made it into the hall — voted in because they “demonstrate a major impact on their sport, and/or community.”
Besides every Royals home game, Sluggerrr makes about 500 appearances each year, including the “Strike Out Bullying” campaign he brings to local schools.
Nice to know we can still look to sports for compelling examples of character.
Yes, mascots seem silly. By design, sure, but also as a concept that has its roots in superstition — something fans know well — and that dates back more than a century. The word mascot itself derives from the French term for “magic charm.”
Early teams such as baseball’s St. Louis Browns would adopt dogs and boys that they believed brought them good luck. In 1908, the Chicago Cubs introduced a small taxidermy bear — did I say silly? I meant creepy — and later replaced it with the real living thing, a practice that continues for a number of teams.
But mascots as we really know them today — that is, adult humans sweating under pounds of colorful foam and felt — began in the 1960s.
Which came first? The Chicken — the San Diego Chicken, of course, whose antics drew huge crowds at Padres game and inspired the Phillie Phanatic. Both would be recognized as charter inductees of the hall of fame. They perfected the mascot mystique: dancing, prancing, pranking opponents, entertaining the kiddos, and launching hot dogs and T-shirts into the stands.
Since then, there’s really been no limit to just how far teams — particularly college teams — will go. It ain’t just Tigers and Wildcats, or for that matter Jayhawks or Kangaroos. There’s Hokies and Hoyas and Horned Frogs. Yet even the infamous Stanford Tree or Sammy the Banana Slug of UC-Santa Cruz has got nothing on The Fighting Okra of Division II Delta State in Mississippi.
And sports teams are hardly the only institutions with mascots. From countries to military units to corporate brands, there is a need to forge identity through symbols that represent strength or resilience or just good humor.
Of course, sometimes — too often — mascots have crossed the line from archetype to stereotype. Our Kansas City Chiefs have come under pressure to change their name. (I’d sure support them if they did.) And thankfully, they ditched the white guy in a headdress, riding Warpaint, in favor of the cuddly, cartoonish K.C. Wolf, who, by the way, was the first NFL mascot inducted into the hall, back in 2006.
The best mascots are among the game’s most valuable players. They take that sense of loyalty, unity, and belonging that sports is supposed to engender and humanize it — okay, human-ize may not be the right word, but they certainly connect with fans.
Just consider the statement that a grateful Sluggerrr himself issued after the announcement, via the Royals media department: “I take a lot of pride in being one of the mane attractions at Kauffman Stadium. I’d be lion if I said this wasn’t one of my proudest moments as the official mascot of the Kansas City Royals.”
With all of the fretting over free agency, we don’t know which fan favorites will still be around come spring training. But one thing is sure: every time we go to the park, we’ll see a real Hall of Famer.
Victor Wishna is a writer, editor and sports fan. He lives in Leawood.