In the annals of the professional athletic mascot, the New York Mets may claim the purest expression of the form. Mr. Met isincorruptibly and unpretentiouslya man with a large baseball for a head. With a self-effacing, slacked-jaw grin, Mr. Met resembles an earnest and overeager batboy with a glandular problem. This, naturally, has made him one of sports' most beloved and inordinately pleasing mascots.
Considering he is the product of a city whose leading preoccupation is its unremitting change, Mr. Met's longevity is notable. While his visage has been polishedthe circumference of his well-upholstered globe adding a few inches, his laugh lines gaining latitude over the yearsMr. Met has remained more or less unchanged since he sprung, fully formed, in 1962. His debut predated national popularization of the mascot concept, which is usually credited to the Phillies' deranged Phanatic, a Dr. Moreau orphan who can best be understood as a manifestation of its city's collective id.
"That permanent grin expresses that childlike optimism that comes with being a fan of a team that, more often than not, fails."
Perhaps because he has endured periodic estrangement from his wife and red-stitched progeny, or has for years made his home on the margins, beyond the shadow of Manhattan's skyline, Mr. Met seems accessible to us. As the former Mets knuckleballer R.A. Dickey once offered to the Daily News, "He's not breaking the other team's helmet into pieces. Maybe the appeal is that he's like everybody else. He walks around just like they do." Convivial in the face of abject failure, brow arrested in endless bemusement, Mr. Met is a steadying presence in an unforgiving place. Mr. Met is our best self.
Of course, only so much of the character can come through on paper. Life is breathed into his oversized head by the silent performance of the kind of man who hears the calland dons puffy puppet hands in response. So explains AJ Mass, who occupied Mr. Met's cranial real estate from 1994 through 1997, in his forthcoming book Yes, It's Hot in Here: Adventures in the Weird, Woolly World of Sports Mascots. Mass was the first Mr. Met since the 70s, when the mascot was temporarily phased out.Mass, a nice Queens boy and current writer for ESPN.com, lifts the proverbial and physical mask to explore what he calls the "certain weirdness" of being a major league mascot. The result is a memoir-cum-Mr. Met-genealogy which traces the roots of the character and the intersection of his own turn in the role through a taxonomy of mascotdom, from the royal courts of Renaissance Europe to keg-saturated college campuses. It is studded with profiles of mascots Mass has known and those he has searched out, the quiet practitioners of the art of mugging for a crowd in an anthropomorphized animal suit.
Via email, Mass shared some of his thoughts with Gelf about the allure of the mascot, some less-evocative case studies, and the personal journey of inhabiting an icon. The following has been lightly edited for clarity.
Gelf Magazine: What kind of person does mascoting demand, and what does it take to reach the professional level? Do the people you profile in your book consider themselves performance artists?
AJ Mass: I'd say there are two types of mascot performers. First, there are those who are natural extroverts, who can't help but make themselves the center of attention, whether in or out of costume. When they suit up, they simply magnify that personality to the nth degree.
Then there are thoseand I think this group, to which I belong, is actually in the majoritywho are far more laid-back and happy to be anonymous outside of the costume, but when they do get into their character, it's like a fire hydrant has been opened up and the performance comes streaming out.
The best mascot performers are keenly aware that they are always "on" from the moment that head goes on. No matter where you are in the stadium or arena, you are always going to pull focus. You're always under scrutiny because you can't help but stand out from the crowd. You have to assume someone is always watching you and act accordingly.
Gelf Magazine: Are they unionized?
AJ Mass: Not that I am aware ofbut with all the times that mascots gather together at All-Star Games and at team-sponsored "birthday parties" where they fly a whole gaggle of other characters into town for a special in-game event, believe you menotes on salary, perks and overall treatment are most definitely exchanged.
Gelf Magazine: Can you explain Mr. Met's enduring appeal? He certainly carries himself with a kind of dignity, relative at least to his peersanthropomorphized basset hounds and other slobbering fever dreams?
AJ Mass: Mascots are magic. They're a constant. Players come and go, the team goes through playoff races and last place finishes, but the mascot remains the same. When you go to the stadium and see the mascotassuming that he was there when you were a kidall that nostalgia comes rushing back and unless you're an incredibly cold-hearted unfeeling zombie, how can you not embrace that?
Mr. Met, in particular, resonatesI thinkbecause that permanent grin expresses that childlike optimism (and that's how I portrayed the character) that comes along with being a fan of a team that, more often than not, fails. Let's face it: the Yankees are expected to win the World Series. The Mets? Even when they're in first place, the instinctive reaction of even their most die-hard fans is, "How are they going to blow this one?" Yet there's always the hope that they won't. Mr. Met is the living embodiment of that hope.
AJ Mass: Technically, you can't hate on Mr. Red since he did come first. He was around in the 1950s, at least on scorecards and uniform patcheslong before the Dodgers and Giants even left New York City for California. On the other hand, given that Mr. Metin the mascot form that I embodied in his 1994 return to lifebecame such an identifiable icon for the team, one would have hoped the Reds would have gone in a different direction when choosing a mascot of their own. I think we'll avoid the Warriors-style "come out and pla-a-ay" rumble for the time being, and simply chalk it up to imitation as flattery.
Gelf Magazine: Is there a worse mascot than the NYU Violet?
AJ Mass: At least it's now a bobcat rather than an actual flower. I seem to also recall St. Peter's used to have a peacock whose "feathers" were made out of plastic and looked like a schoolgirl's umbrella. That was pretty sad. But to me, there's nothing more ridiculous than "Big Red" who represents the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers. It's supposed to simply be the top of a hill, but it's hard not to recognize the unintentionally phallic nature of the creature, which kind of makes me uncomfortable when he goes off to hug the kids in attendance.
Gelf Magazine: What did it mean for you to assume the Mr. Met persona?
AJ Mass: It's hard to describe what it meant for a kid who grew up within walking distance from Shea Stadiuma kid who saved up his allowance each week so he could spend all weekend sitting in Section 3 of the Upper Deck after buying $4 general admission seats to watch his favorite team play. Even to just get a chance to walk on the field for the first time in an empty stadium brought with it a certain kind of magic. I remember walking right over to behind first base and standing where Bill Buckner stood on that night in 1986 and just soaking it all in.
Four years of being Mr. Met and dealing with the reality of the business of baseball, and a lot of that luster certainly did wear off. And because of the way my tenure with the team came to an end, it was easy to forget exactly how special my time as a mascot truly was. But, as my sonnow ninestarted to get more interested in sports and began to understand what mascots were and couldn't believe I used to be one, I wanted to be able to share that side of me, long-since packed away, with him.