As a boy, visits to Veterans Stadium were about hoping and wishing that my beleaguered Phillies would maybe win a game. I witnessed far too many 90-loss teams, the ones that drag you through the summer swelter like the odor of garbage bags on a city street.
Funny, that was a typical smell those days at the Vet, a haze of rot floating near the men’s bathrooms.
If Mom came home from Thriftway with a couple packs of Phillies Franks, I knew I was accompanying Dad for a special Tuesday sojourn to the Vet, a chance to swim in the August humidity and pray this wouldn’t be one of those 10-2 losses. I’d hear Dan Baker pronounce names with perfect pronunciation and pitch. I’d read all the colorful signs for the Bell Atlantic Yellow Pages, Coke and MAB Paints. And a couple times each game I’d see him, the big ol’ green furry thing clapping and whooping it up with everyone else.
I can’t actually remember loving the Phillie Phanatic as a kid. Back then I loved everything, so nothing actually stood out. I probably shrieked and laughed upon catching a glimpse of the furry creature from the Galapagos Islands, a character played lovingly with a little bit of an edge. He’d pull some hammer out of thin air and start bashing cotton dolls. Or maybe he’d pull a Super Soaker out of thin air and spray some poor sap paid to play victim. Then he’d hop on the home dugout and dance with someone typically not prepared for his obvious but always spontaneous hijinks: the lifting of the shirt, the rolling of the belly, the stomping of the feet, the unfurling of the tongue.
It’s all perfect. A little crude in the early days (much like Tracey Ullman-era Simpsons) but perfected as he aged, Phanatic is now a cottage industry. He sells books. He often acts as a master of ceremonies. And his world is populated with as many supporting characters as Springfield. There’s his mom, Phoebe, his cousin, Phred – the Judy Winslow of the crew – and the entire Galapagos Gang, proof that Phanatic may have been the smartest thing on his island. Those guys seem to be more and more active as Citizens Bank Park entertainment, leaving Phanatic to be a spotlight crooner shoved out there every once in a while, a la latter-day Sinatra.
Either way, it’s great. My appreciation of Phanatic has only grown as I’ve aged. Like the best children’s entertainment, there are elements in Phanatic’s shtick that only adults can really understand. There’s a mature nuance in his step, and sometimes it’s overt (like that video we’ve all seen of him unsuccessfully coaxing some poor woman to lift up her top), but watch enough and you’ll see that Phanatic is more and more like a pub-wise Kensington native than a child’s mind in a green suit.
And I think that’s why I love him. I grew up with those pub-wise Kensington folks. They sat on stoops and, with gravelly voices, told you everything they thought and thought everything they said was the truth. The one difference is Phanatic isn’t broke down and busted; instead, he’s still somehow optimistic in the face of everything – including blown saves and comedy-of-errors infield defense. In Phanatic’s world there’s nobody to worry about, nothing but sunshine.
It’s Phanatic’s birthday today, always a big day at Citizens Bank Park. If going by actual time, he’ll be 39, which makes him the same age as some of my friends. And every one of us loves that thing. These days I’ve taken a bigger shining to him. Maybe it’s because I have a kid now, and I bought her a small Phanatic doll a few weeks ago. She’s curious about it, mostly because its odd shape means more parts to put in her mouth. But I think she recognizes the absurdity of Phanatic.
Or maybe she doesn’t. I don’t think any of us really do – we just happily watch and don’t think too much. Which is the best trait of Philadelphians – we have this capacity to turn it all off and revel in absurdity, make it our own, celebrate it to its highest potential. It’s like how I can still remember – and in a way, celebrate – the musty odors of Veterans Stadium, the flickering Bell Atlantic Yellow Pages sign, the emptiness of a Tuesday evening in August 1991.
We all cherish this green stuffed … thing … that behaves like a tipsy showman and wears only a baseball jersey (no pants, just a baseball jersey) because it’s the perfect symbol of our ability to turn it off and enjoy the madness. We have some weird lives, right? Why not escape to the ballpark to watch frequently bad baseball with a creature that’s more gonzo than Gonzo? More id than idiot?
The Phillie Phanatic is really the most Philadelphia thing there is. He fits with the odor of piss and vinegar. He’s lovingly ours.