- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 19, 2005

He came, he hatched, he flapped his wings for the puzzled masses. Following the introduction of new Washington Nationals mascot Screech the Eagle, one thing seems clear:

Slapshot has entered the Federal Witness Protection Program and now works nights at RFK Stadium.

The Nationals had a chance. An opportunity to be bold, even groundbreaking. No history. No mandate. Just a tabula rasa, a shot at crafting a mascot that truly embodies the nation’s capital, the most powerful city on the planet.

Instead, we got an eagle. A fat-faced, doe-eyed bird.

How unspeakably lame.

Granted, the Nationals’ front office has been both understaffed and overwhelmed since the franchise moved from Montreal via Puerto Rico. Designing an original, iconic mascot isn’t exactly a top priority. Not when Bob Novak needs better seats.

But still — an eagle? ?El Aguila?

Call it a failure of nerve. Imagination, too.

After all, dozens of eagle mascots already exist, from Boston College’s Baldwin to Swoop of the Philadelphia Eagles. Heck, the District already is home to two beaked boosters, D.C. United’s Talon and the Washington Capitals’ aforementioned Slapshot.

Add Screech to the mix and the Fish and Wildlife service may be forced to take bald eagles off the threatened species list entirely.

Beyond being redundant, the Nationals’ new mascot invites unwelcome comparisons. Talon likes soccer. Slapshot fancies hockey. Given the shabby, ragged history of baseball in Washington, do the Nationals really want to be associated with a sport that can’t draw and another that can’t even put on a season?

Speaking of disquieting associations, here’s a comprehensive list of famous Screeches: (a) Dustin Diamond from “Saved By the Bell”; (b) see a. Diamond, of course, co-starred with Elizabeth Berkley, who later headlined the box-office Waterloo “Showgirls.”

Another bad sign, especially if you’re afraid the Nationals somehow will end up in Las Vegas.

Perhaps this is karmic payback for dumping Youppi!, the former Expos mascot and just about the best thing the club had going in Montreal. Youppi! was furry, goofy, huggable. Children loved the misshapen orange blob, created by Muppet master Jim Henson.

Sadly, Youppi! now languishes in limbo: Some rumors have him on the brink of being sold to the Montreal Canadiens; others place him on the city’s streets, holding a “WILL MASCOT FOR FOOD” sign. No matter. No mercy. The Nationals wanted a clean break, a fresh start.

Question is, why didn’t they make it fresher?

The club could have gone for a giant Gnat. Get it? Cheap pun, undoubtedly, and a bit too bush league for a city like Washington. Then again, a pesky insect could be the perfect symbol for our little, low-budget team that can — first place, baby! — at least until the Nationals land owners and a new ballpark, at which point the team would be free to try something new.

Think about it: Pro franchises change colors and uniforms all the time, the better to bilk — er, serve — loyal fans. But changing mascots? Seldom done and possibly one of the few remaining untapped revenue streams.

Dan Snyder, take notes.

If the Nationals were set on mimicking a local mascot, George Washington’s eponymous George would have made more sense. For one, nothing says Washington like the man himself; more to the point, oversized noggins are always funny. Bobbleheads, anyone?

Now take the next step. Imagine the Nationals with multiple mascots, a whole bevy of Founding Fathers clowning around the ballpark: Thomas Jefferson leading the wave, Benjamin Franklin shakin’ his moneymaker, Peter Gammons as Alexander Hamilton. Game nights would be fun and educational, a boon to visiting student tours. Over time, the Nationals could introduce other political figures — stoic Abe Lincoln, shifty-eyed Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan with a congressionally mandated halo.

Then there’s the best human mascot of all, Uncle Sam. Dancing on the dugout? Winner. Stepping over the dugout with the help of 10-foot stilts? Winner again. Just watch out for foul balls.

Uncle Sam is affordable — no one owns the copyright — and lends himself to idiot-proof marketing. The slogans write themselves: I WANT YOU … to root for the Nationals. I WANT YOU … to hit a home run. I WANT YOU … to pay $6 for a cup of beer.

See how easy it is?

Along the same local, patriotic lines, the Nationals could have appropriated nearby landmarks. Picture a fuzzy Washington Monument with big eyes. A furry Capitol Dome with, um, big eyes.

Perhaps — and we’re just thinking out loud here — a walking, dancing Beltway, red with road rage, showing up 30 minutes late to every game.

Then again the Nationals may have wanted to stick with traditional animals. Fine. How about a Washington Fat Cat? Envision a bloated, overweight tabby, crossed with that monocled guy from the board game Monopoly.

Puffing a smelly cigar, munching on a blood-red Morton’s steak, wads of fake PAC money tumbling from his too-tight britches, the Fat Cat probably wouldn’t appeal to youngsters. But he certainly would strike a familiar chord with the heavy hitters in the box seats, the guys who will be snapping up the luxury boxes in the new ballpark. And at the end of the day, who pays the bills?

Moreover, we’re pretty sure the kids will dig the fake money part.

Or suppose the Nationals were feeling spiteful. With a little extra effort, the team could have whipped up a killer caricature of Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos. Just add:

• A head that only shakes side-to-side (signifying “no!”).

• An ear valve that releases steam whenever the mascot stomps his foot, which would be often.

• A little black bird, perched on his shoulder.

• A doll that looks suspiciously like Bud Selig, crammed into his back pocket.

Of course, the Nationals would have to name him something other than “Peter,” since the real-life Angelos knows his way around a courtroom. Try “Grand Lord Baltimore” or maybe “Earl of Middle Market.”

Either way, the key to an Angelos mascot would be abuse, both sanctioned and unofficial. Encourage little boys to punch him below the belt. Set him up atop a dunk tank. Make him jump through a too-small ring of fire, a la “Old School.” Or just have him and a giant stuffed crab mark off 50 paces, sprint toward each other and collide.

Oh, and then drop a big-screen television on his head. Enjoy your broadcast rights!

On second thought, an Angelos mascot could be considered petty. Not to mention risky, and probably hard to insure. The Nationals were smart to play things safe — though if the goal was selecting a character with a proven track record, one mascot in particular would have provided far more pop than a me-too eagle.

The Bill from Capitol Hill.

Remember “Schoolhouse Rock?” Those musical, educational cartoons that used to run Saturday mornings on ABC? Guess what: so does an entire generation of grown-up Gen-Xers, many of whom have ample disposable income to match their pop culture nostalgia. Hint, hint.

Enter the Bill, a plucky, anthropomorphic scrap of legislation. Ours is a city obsessed with the law — writing, lobbying, amending, vetoing. What better symbol than an actual document, albeit with arms and legs?

Besides, the Bill comes with a well-known theme song, easily tweaked to reflect the Nationals:

I’m just a bill,

Yes, I’m primed for a fall,

And I’m sitting here in City Hall.

Well, it’s a long, long journey,

To a Southeast ballpark,

It’s a long, long wait,

While Linda Cropp can still talk,

But I know we’ll have a stadium some day …

At least I hope and I pray that we will,

But today I am still just a bill.

Does Screech have his own much-loved jingle? Uh-uh. Still, the Nationals likely are stuck with him, which isn’t all bad: If baseball has another strike, Washington’s newest mascot can always moonlight at D.C. United games. No one will know the difference.

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