“No man is an island, entire of itself,” poet John Donne wrote in 1624. But what of a large anthropomorphic seal? What of a humanoid with a disproportionately huge baseball for a head? What of a fuzzy, snout-nosed unidentifiable mass of green?
When baseball returned for its abbreviated 2020 season last week, photos of team mascots in empty stadiums began making the rounds. Once surrounded by tens of thousands of cheering people, they are now adrift and alone, seemingly dejected, a poignant and eerie visual metaphor for our entire changed world.
Also, it’s just pretty fucking funny to watch a mascot do the wave alone.
Before we get carried away projecting our own feelings of isolation onto Mr. Met and Lou Seal, I called up one of the mascots to hear what it’s like to do that job right now. Specifically, one of the most infamously rowdy mascots of all time: the Phillie Phanatic. Tom Burgoyne, whose official title is the “best friend of the Phillie Phanatic,” has been doing this gig as a backup since 1989 and full-time since 1994. Never in his over 30-year tenure has he encountered anything like this.
“Weird and strange doesn't even begin to describe it,” Burgoyne said. “Definitely very unusual, very surreal.”
Still, he’s not as sad as the photos would have you believe. “[The Phanatic] is representing all the Philadelphia fans,” he added. “So it's quite an opportunity, but also a responsibility. The Phanatic has to do his best to make sure the team knows that the fans are still behind them.”
When the league started discussions about bringing baseball back, the initial health and safety plan deemed mascots nonessential and excluded them from returning. That decision was reversed in late June, but they’re still not allowed on the field. Aside from standard social distancing precautions, there was one immediate change in the Phanatic’s pre-game routine. “They actually moved the Phanatic's dressing room,” Burgoyne said. “The dressing room was on the service level and fairly close to the clubhouse. We moved it to right off the main concourse. That was a big change.”
The shift was more profound when it came to the actual action during games. On a spiritual level, mascots are constantly improvising and responding to the energy of the crowd. “A mascot’s role is that he's the life of the party and he goes where the party is,” Burgoyne said. “Normally the Phanatic is getting mobbed by fans. Posing for pictures and high-fiving and giving hugs, messing around with all the folks in the stands. And he feeds off the electricity of the crowd.”
Many of the segments that would otherwise fill his workday have been eliminated: greeting fans before the game, shooting the hot dog cannon into the stands, doing whatever else it takes to become the most-sued mascot in sports. Now, there’s also a greater likelihood that the camera will fall on him during the game because there’s absolutely nothing else going on in the stands. His audience now consists of the millions of people watching at home, plus all the extra amplification from social media.
So far, he’s been filling the time by attempting a futile wave and taunting cardboard cutouts of opposing teams' fans. And, like many other great performers of our time, the Phanatic will be exploring Instagram Live opportunities. “I'm pretty energized right now, just to be able to come up with some new routines and knowing how it's going to look on TV or online,” Burgoyne said. “But I'm really energized by it all, in a weird way. Not the energy that you would normally get from the crowd, because there's nothing better than that. But from a creative standpoint, it's got the juices going a little bit.”
When I asked Burgoyne if he was worried about getting sick—especially as the Phillies had recently played the Marlins, a team grappling with a widespread coronavirus outbreak, and there have been renewed calls to cancel the season altogether—he mostly stuck to the MLB line, saying, “I'm impressed with how the Phillies have handled the protocols and restrictions and the disinfecting and we're doing our best to social distance. I really feel it's a safe environment.” (This interview was conducted before a Phillies coach tested positive and weekend games were postponed.)
My most pressing question, of course, was whether he’s been wearing a mask under the mask. That would be a no, but: “We do have a big mask that covers the Phanatic’s snout.”
Originally Appeared on GQ