- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 19, 2002

BALTIMORE Red-faced and slathered in salty-slick perspiration, Steven Butz smells like the tabloid love child of a wet dog and a used jockstrap.

Which is to say, he reeks.

It's a sweltering, sweat-stained afternoon at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, and Butz, the newest Baltimore Bird, has just completed a 30-minute shift.

Retreating to the air-conditioned chill of the mascot locker room where an autographed head shot of Playboy Playmate Heather Kozar shares wall space with a signed photo of Billy the Marlin Butz removes his costume helmet, running a hand through his matted hair.

The resulting eau de armpit spread upon it, ye Right Guards, and despair is weapons-grade funk, enough to send an angry skunk scrambling in the opposite direction.

Butz, however, barely flinches.

"I don't notice the smell during the game," he says, his face buried in a light-green towel. "But at the end, the first thing I'm thinking about is getting a shower. The costume is plastered to you. By the ninth inning, you just itch."

Itchy. Sweaty. And above all, stinky. Such is life in the wild-n'-woolly world of sports mascots, in which physical punishment, grueling working conditions and frequent abuse are all in a day's work.

Albeit a furry, fuzzy day.

"People say, 'Oh, I could be a mascot, I have a lot of energy,'" said Paul Pierson, a mascot with the Atlanta Braves and the Harlem Globetrotters. "Well, you could have a lot of energy. But if it's 80 degrees, you're operating at 120.

"You have to keep your wits about you because you're running up steps with little kids that you can't see all around you. Plus, you have to entertain the crowd, be physically active, worry about breaking a leg. It's not easy."

Behind the mask

Just ask Bromley Lowe. Part of the three-man team behind the Oriole Bird Butz and John

Krownapple are the others Lowe has been shaking his tail feathers for more than a decade, including stints with American University and the Baltimore Ravens.

"Ninety percent of the people who think this would be really cool to do hate it once they get inside the costume," he said. "It's hot. It's claustrophobic. You're the target of abuse."

Start with the heat. A few years back, Lowe became so dehydrated during a Fourth of July parade that he ended up in an ambulance, hooked up to an IV.

The reason for the extra-special, er, Bird-feeding? Try in-costume temperatures that can soar more than 40 degrees above outdoor conditions, turning Lowe's black-and-orange getup into a slow-cook rotisserie.

While dressing before a recent Orioles day game against the San Diego Padres, Lowe took one look at the afternoon heat index 100-plus and winced.

"I just hope I survive out there," he said. "Imagine wearing a black fur coat that encompasses your entire body. It's like doing aerobics in a sauna."

The comparison is apt. Like Tae-Bo or Step, mascot performance requires constant, exaggerated movement everything from dancing on dugouts to pantomiming "Y-M-C-A" for the 1,328,679th time.

Couple that with costumes that can weigh up to 80 pounds, and the result is a crash diet to shame Jenny Craig. According to a John Hopkins Medical Institutions report, the average mascot loses 8.6 pounds a performance.

In liquid terms, that's roughly a gallon of sweat. Night after sticky night.

"Since starting as the Bird, I've lost seven pounds," said Butz, who has been on the job for a little more than a month.

To ease the load, Butz and company usually work Orioles games in pairs, alternating half-hour shifts. Breaks take place in the mascot locker room, which sports a shower, two crash-worthy leather couches and a mini-fridge stocked with 64-ounce bottles of Powerade.

There's also a dressing area, home to an odor-busting fan and a handful of spare Bird costumes.

"We've joked about having the kids in the hallway come in and see the Bird heads sitting on the shelf," Butz said with a laugh. "Children would totally freak out: 'Ah, Mommy, the Bird's been decapitated!'"

Though Baltimore offers some of the best mascot amenities in baseball, Lowe said, game nights remain a grind, particularly when they follow out-of-stadium functions.

In an average year, the Bird makes up to 500 public appearances, clowning around at birthday parties, mall openings and the like.

The upside? Extra pay. The downside? Extra fatigue.

"You do an appearance during the day, and the only thing you're thinking about is 'How am I going to get in a nap before the game?'" Lowe said. "It's exhausting."

After yukking it up for a large group of children during a pregame party last week, Butz slouched on a locker room chair, rubbing the back of his neck.

"[The costume head] is so top heavy," he said. "You bend over, and your back is just like, 'Ahhh!' Usually, I go home and put a heating pad on for an hour or so. That helps."

Lowe should be so lucky. Two years ago, he was decked out in full Bird regalia when he accidentally caught his hand in a spring-loaded steel door.

"It took off the tip of my finger," Lowe said. "It was gross I was screaming, squirting blood. They had to rush me to the hospital. They found the tip in the Bird glove, but they couldn't sew it back on."

Mauled mascots

Lowe's misfortune is hardly unique. Last summer, Dr. Edward McFarland, director of sports medicine and shoulder surgery at Hopkins, presented a first-of-its-kind study of mascot injuries. Among the grisly findings:

•Forty-four percent of mascots suffer from chronic lower back pain.

•More than half of all mascots have been stricken with a heat-related injury.

•Almost a fifth have sustained knee injuries while working.

"I've broken bones, been knocked out," Pierson said. "Bruises, cramps, the list goes on and on. I even knocked myself out once by running into a goal post. I must have been too excited. I saw black. I saw stars. I barely made it back to the sidelines."

Others have been less fortunate. In 1995, Seattle's Mariner Moose broke his leg after inline skating into an outfield fence. One week later, Cleveland's Slider botched a somersault off a wall, tearing his ACL.

Then there's the former mascot for the now-defunct Baltimore BayRunners, Basil. Two years ago, the grinning sea beastie blew out his knee while believe it or not playing air guitar.

"I've got really good accidental death and dismemberment insurance," said Kirk Johnson, a mascot in the NBA's Eastern Conference. "You never know what's going to happen."

Johnson is only half-kidding: Thanks to an emphasis on trampolines and high-flying acrobatics, basketball mascots have the highest injury rate in the business 4.9 for every 1,000 performances, about the same as male college gymnasts.

In five years on the job, Johnson has dislocated a finger, suffered a half-dozen twisted ankles, smacked his chin and chest on the rim and undergone knee surgery.

"There's some pretty good pounding," said Johnson, a former Arizona State gymnast. "But if it wasn't scary, it would be a boring job."

One of Johnson's favorite non-boring bits involves dunking a ball through a flaming, propane-powered ring.

"The scary thing is that I'm wearing a nylon costume," he said. "So instead of burning, it melts. If something happened, it would melt to my skin."

And stunts gone awry is just the beginning. While performing in the stands last week, Lowe was verbally assailed by a visibly intoxicated woman wearing a San Diego cap.

"What about the [San Diego] Chicken?" she screamed, waving a Padres T-shirt. "He started it all! The Bird [stinks]!"

Miffed at Lowe's indifference, the woman lurched from her seat. Topping off her beer, she stumbled forward, then gave the Bird the, well, bird.

"Ninety-nine percent of the time, everything goes over smoothly," Lowe said. "But all it takes is that one. Say there's 30,000 people out there. If 1 percent are total jerks, that's 800 people who might give you a hard time. And you're an easy target."

Tell that to Krownapple. In 1999, the alternate Bird fell 15 feet and broke his left ankle after a Philadelphia electrician shoved him off a right-field wall.

Krownapple, who spent a month in a wheelchair, later won a $59,000 judgment against his attacker.

"In college, I was thrown into some metal bleachers by a drunk fan," said Pierson, who worked as a mascot while attending Liberty University. "I got up and did the naughty motion with my finger. So the guy he was huge threw me again. This time, I landed on my head. On cement steps. I pulled four muscles in my neck. I'm lucky I didn't break it."

To prevent similar incidents, the Orioles now provide the on-duty Bird with a pair of escorts, dubbed "Birdkeepers." Clad in orange game operations shirts, they tail Krownapple and Co. at all times.

During a game in April, head 'keeper Tom Slevin spotted a teen-age fan getting set to clock the Bird.

"I had to catch his punch before he could swing," Slevin said. "I've never been in a fight in my life. But here, it's my job to get in the way."

Of course, protection has its limits. Following a 1997 home sweep of Philadelphia, Lowe danced with a broom in front of the Phillies dugout a gag that left a Philly's third base coach livid.

Some forty-five minutes later, Lowe was surprised to hear a knock on the mascot locker room door.

"I'm sitting on the couch, and the third-base coach kicks in the door," Lowe said with a laugh. "He says, 'Where's that Oriole Bird?' I'm like, 'I think he left about 20 minutes ago.'"

The coach who will remain nameless paused for a moment, fuming.

"He looks around, sees costume parts all over the place," Lowe said. "Then he yells, 'You tell that Bird that if he sweeps through our dugout again, I'm going to take that broom, snap it in half and shove it up his [expletive]!"

Not about the money

Mascots aren't risking life, limb and the occasional groin punch for money. While a few MLB and NBA performers earn six-figure salaries, most make a modest living.

Working with the Braves, Pierson takes home $65 a game. Peter Lund, a former D.C. United mascot, garnished even less.

"I made $40 a game," said Lund, a University of Michigan student. "That isn't much for four hours of work, especially if I'm promoting 10 companies a night and wearing a Master Card logo on my back."

Despite the drawbacks, Butz said being a mascot is worth the effort and better than a desk job.

"It's so much fun," he said. "Here you are, a guy in a 7-foot bird suit, and if you sign an autograph, it just makes a kid's day. To see the look on their face is very rewarding."

That said, even the brightest gap-toothed smile can't do much about the smell. During a recent around-the-world stint with the Globetrotters, Pierson worked for six consecutive months and only had his costume cleaned once.

"The stench was horrible," he said. "On a scale of 1 to 10, it was about a 50. This is the greatest job in the world, but I'll tell you what: You're gonna sweat. And you're gonna stink."

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