A.J. Mass spent a few years playing Mr. Met in the 1990s and published the book Yes, It's Hot in Here about his time playing the character. We spoke recently about his time in the costume, the history of mascots, and the game of baseball in general, among other things.
Thomas E. Harkins: We’ve all seen the story by now about how the Secret Service warned you not to go near President Clinton back at Shea Stadium in 1997. Tell me about that night.
A.J. Mass: It was a scary situation. We didn’t know that President Clinton was coming; it kind of was a last-minute thing. He wanted to give a little speech, because Jackie Robinson’s Number 42 was about to be retired throughout all of baseball. So they spent all night erecting these metal detectors and checkpoints all over the stadium. You didn’t even recognize it; it looked more like LaGuardia Airport than it did Shea Stadium.
Mr. Met is walking through, and I couldn’t fit through some of them because they were smaller than the normal size detectors. And when they wanded me, it went off, because there’s screws and washers in my head, and NYPD, they’re good guys, they’re joking around, going, "Oh, Mr. Met, he’s packing heat, let’s get him up against the wall!" And I have to go through this eleven or twelve times just to get to where I needed to go. And lines started backing up, and people who were paid to protect the president were not exactly amused by the whole affair.
Eventually they just told me to bypass everything. This one guy said, "Mr. Met, do whatever it is you normally do. Don’t stop at the checkpoints. But, we have snipers all around the roof of the stadium just in case something were to happen; approach the president, and we go for the kill shot."
The greatest thing about it is just as he finishes saying that—and he repeated it for emphasis—around the corner comes Governor George Pataki. And he said, "Hey, Mr. Met!" And he comes towards me and I’m just in the costume, sweating bullets. I’m thinking, ‘I know he’s not the President, but he is the governor; are they going to just wound me? I was just so freaked out by the whole thing I just got out of the suit. I went to my locker room, I took the suit off, and I just watched the whole thing from behind home plate as myself, and I didn’t put the costume back on that day.
Harkins: You did manage to get your picture taken that day with Rachel Robinson. And she really seems to have taken a shine to Mr. Met, even though your supervisors, for whatever reason, seemed a little nervous about you going near her. But she really seemed to be very friendly and enjoyed the whole thing. Is that right?
Mass: That’s kind of what I tried to get across in the book is that, in a way, it was a compliment. But most of the people that I worked with, when they saw Mr. Met, they would talk to Mr. Met in this sing-song-y voice, like I was some kind of five-year-old. Like, "Mis-ter Met, don’t go bothering Mrs. Rob-in-son! She’s very important. Do you know who Mrs. Robinson is?" And it’s really bizarre, because I had an office in the stadium. If anyone had any concerns about anything they knew where to find me. But I found people talking to me that way when I was out of the costume, too!
It was like, ‘Really?! Like, Hello, I’m a college-educated person in here. I’ve been here for four years. I’ve never done anything ridiculous. Why are you talking to me like I’m an idiot?’ And like I said, in a way it’s a compliment, because the character I created in the costume was this child-like persona, so the fact that they were talking and interacting with me that way was actually okay. I get it, but there’s a point.
Harkins: That speaks to a recurring theme, the odd psychological effect that the uniforms—or the costumes—have on people; both the people wearing them, and the people responding to them. Any thoughts on why people change their demeanor when they’re around mascots? Once you reach about 12, you’re not shocked at the sight of a mascot anymore, or think it’s a magical creature. What do you think that suggests about human nature?
Mass: But in a way it is a magical creature, because — and certainly this is the case for teams that have had a mascot for a long time — the mascot is the same exact mascot that has been there. If you’re in your 40s now, and you were at the games as an 8-year-old and you saw the mascot, and now 30 years later you see the mascot again, that is a kind of magic; the creature is still there; the character is still there. And it does take you back a little bit to you being a child. You know, the players have changed, the managers have changed, wins, losses come and go, but the mascot is eternal. And that does make them someone that can cause people to regress a little bit, I think.
Sometimes that’s good, sometimes that’s bad. But, you do get a lot of really immature reactions. I’ve seen really tough guys—even cops—come up and hug Mr. Met. That’s great. That’s awesome—when it’s done in a positive way. I’ve also seen drunk people, and especially in a place like New York City where you have two teams. Yankee fans don’t particularly care for Mr. Met; they’re Yankee fans! A lot of other mascots don’t have that problem. When they’re in their home stadium it’s kind of like a safe zone, but that’s not true in New York.
Harkins: I love the historical aspects of the book. It’s interesting that you’ve traced the concept of the mascot back to medieval times, and tied it in with Fillip Maria Visconte and the evolution of playing cards; specifically those trump cards, which evolved into the Joker cards that we’re all familiar with today. And the jokers, of course, are also related to the idea of the jesters, or fools, who entertained royals at court. How did you make that connection when you did your research? Was that something that you knew all along, or something you just delved into when you were preparing your manuscript?
Mass: I didn’t know it when I set out to find the origin of where mascots come from. Certainly the concept of mascots didn’t really hit America right away. If you go back to the original mascots in baseball, the costumed creatures were certainly in the 1970s, but before that you just had lucky people, picked out of the crowd. Like there’d be a young child, an orphan, who was sitting by the dugout, and they waved to the player who was in a slump and they’d get a base hit, and that guy would give him a ticket for the next game because he was a good luck charm. That was kind of where mascots come from in America. I asked, ‘Where did that concept come from?’ And when I went back and researched the origin of the word, I discovered that there was an opera in France a long, long time ago called La Mascotte, about a magical creature who gives good luck. And I’d go back further and say, ‘How far can we take this back?’ And we did get all the way back to the days of the Tarot Cards, and the original trump card.
Harkins: Why is it that there’s so much superstition in baseball? It seems more so than in other sports. Who could forget the scene in Bull Durham, with the chicken bones and all of this other crazy stuff that the players were doing? What is it about baseball that there’s so much superstition surrounding the sport, and the people who are involved in the sport?
Mass: I think baseball is unique for the most part in sports because it’s a team game but played by individuals. Everyone gets their own turn at the plate, and you’re on display by yourself. I think that kind of lends itself to the kinds of the rituals that you get. I mean where you do see the same kinds of superstition in other sports, are those moments where individuals step out from the team. For example, a basketball player shooting free-throws; they all have their own unique, individual rituals at the free-throw line. And certainly the most ritualistic of all the players on a football field is the field goal kicker, who goes out there, by himself, to do that thing that only he can do; and there’s all sorts of rituals that they have. So I think it’s that individuality on display, and it’s on display in baseball all the time, which is what I think lends itself to players having that superstitious nature.
Harkins: Max Patkin, also known as "The Clown Prince of Baseball" was really, for all practical purposes, the forerunner of the modern sports mascot, would you agree with assessment?
Mass: Yeah, I think he’s the one who kind of took that . . . he’s kind of the missing link in between those "lucky orphans" we were talking about earlier to the costumed creatures. I don’t think he would have considered himself a mascot, and I don’t, either. But he was the first one who was actually a performer at a baseball game.
Harkins: Was he actually paid for his work? Or was he just sort of adopted by the team as a cheerleader?
Mass: He was hired by Bill Veeck, who was always at the forefront of entertainment. He was hired as a coach, but not seriously as a coach. I think that was just to get it past the league commissioner and everything without them catching on. He was hired to perform and do the schtick that he became famous for. But technically he was on the payroll as a coach.
Harkins: Now some would say that the 800-pound gorilla in the room is a guy who has enjoyed a resurgence of notoriety —or infamy—since your book came out, Ted Giannoulas, The San Diego Chicken. He’s been performing for 40 years, right?
Mass: Yeah, he’s been doing it quite some time. He’s pushing 60, and he doesn’t do it as much as he used to. I think last year he may have had . . . certainly less than 20 minor league events. Obviously he can’t do a full schedule anymore. I haven’t seen his schedule yet for this year, but I can’t imagine it’s more than that.
Harkins: I have to say that he does come across in the book as a somewhat less-than-endearing character. What is this guy’s deal?
Mass: Any discussion of The Chicken I have to preface by saying that on the field, and what he did in the costume, without him I would not have been Mr. Met, because there wouldn’t have been a Mr. Met. Everything he did on the field was fantastic. And some of the skits and the stunts that he did were amazing, and innovative. So all due credit to Ted, as a performer. However, he doesn’t want to share The Chicken with anybody. And he’s gone on record as saying that 'when I die, the character dies.' And it’s all about ‘me, me, me.’
I witnessed it first-hand when I dealt with him when he came to Shea Stadium to perform one day alongside me; at least, you know, that was the theory. He wanted to be the focus, the center of attention the whole time. And I thought, ‘Well maybe that was just a one day (thing); maybe it was just he and I didn’t get along.’ But I have yet to find anyone who has dealt with him, among my mascot brethren, who has anything but that impression of him—that he is just a very selfish performer, and outside of the suit is not a very pleasant person to be around. Now maybe he just doesn’t like other mascot performers, and I’m sure he has his good days as well, but I have yet to have anybody tell me about them.
Harkins: When you were playing Mr. Met, did you have an origin story that you followed?
Mass: Certainly in my incarnation of Mr. Met I was hired by the Mets. Plus, I grew up within walking distance of Shea Stadium. I was a Mets fan. So for me, because I was the person creating this character in 1994, my goal for this character was that he was going to be the world’s biggest Mets fan, and he wasn’t going to do anything that wasn’t pro-Mets. You know, if we were losing eight-nothing, I was going to walk around depressed. Like that’s what I felt a Mets fan would be doing right then and there. So I think that he connected with the fans. They saw themselves through Mr. Met. But that was just because I was creating a character, and I was able to portray that. I don’t know if the people that followed me approach it the same way. I don’t know what Mr. Met is like today, because I don’t go to games as much as I used to.
Harkins: Why do you suppose the Mets shelved the character? He just sort of faded from view right around the time they won the championship. But there was a guy, walking around as Mr. Met, back in the 60s—for a time, anyway.
Mass: Yeah, Dan Reilly was in the ticket office, and they kind of took the cartoon character who had been on the programs in ’62 and ’63, and now that there was a new stadium—they weren’t in the Polo Grounds anymore—they decided, ‘well, let’s do this.’ And it was good for awhile. But it was this cheap, papier maché thing, and he could walk on the field and wave, he could do parades and things. But when suddenly the team is not the lovable losers anymore, and people are actually buying tickets to see Seaver and Koosman, and John Matlack—the team was winning, so there was no need for anything else. And the feeling was that he was more prop than performer at that point, so it kind of just got on the back-burner.
Harkins: It seems like the Mets hatched an idea, but they didn’t really make that connection to use Mr. Met as a marketing tool until you came along.
Mass: Well, sure. But because the first two really big mascots that broke onto the baseball scene were the Chicken, on the west coast, and the Phillie Phanatic, on the east coast, you know, SportsCenter wasn’t around back then. You didn’t see highlights. So if you didn’t go to the game, you didn’t really know what these mascots were doing. So there is that aspect of it. But also, they were pretty wild for their time. The San Diego Chicken was doing some raunchy stuff out there in San Diego, I mean, you know, pulling girls’ tops down. Because of the military presence there he was a little more of a sailor personality than, perhaps, family-friendly. And even the Phanatic, who was much more family-friendly, but, you know, he was doing disco dancing, and Dave Raymond was trying to feel his way through some of the skits that he was doing, and it was a little more aggressive, I think. Those two mascots, certainly—the Phanatic, even to this day, he comes across as more of an aggressive mascot. And I don’t think that’s what the Mets really wanted for their environment, so that’s why they probably resisted for quite some time. And, in fact, when Mr. Met came into play, like I said, I was not portraying it as one of these aggressive characters. I don’t know that I could; that’s just not in my nature. He wanted to make sure that after we lost 103 games in 1993, and Vince Coleman’s throwing firecrackers in parking lots, and Brett Saberhagen is spraying bleach at reporters, he wants to get some fan-friendly, and kid-friendly entertainment in here.
Harkins: How much leeway did you have to develop the character?
Mass: Well, it’s kind of a catch-22, because they didn’t really tell me what to do—until I did it. And then more often than not they’d tell me not to do it again anymore. [laughs] So, you know, I got to do a lot in terms of forming the character. I don’t know if I hadn’t done it—if they had gotten someone who wasn’t a Mets fan and didn’t care that much, I think Mr. Met probably would have been around for like two years and that’s it. He probably wouldn’t have lasted as a mascot. I like to think that because I was so careful to create a character that the Mets fans could identify with, that it let Mr. Met last.
In that sense, it’s very rewarding that Mr. Met is still here today. Mr. Met was on SportsCenter constantly during my tenure. And in 1998, which was the first year I was not Mr. Met, Mr. Met did not make a single appearance on SportsCenter. Through the grapevine I heard from two people who worked for the Mets, and they were scratching their heads, and they couldn’t figure it out. And it had nothing to do with the performer who replaced me. They just didn’t realize the lengths that I had gone to, to get Mr. Met publicity. Simply put, I went to college at Syracuse University; everybody who cuts highlights for SportsCenter was a graduate of Syracuse University, and was a friend of mine. When I was Mr. Met, they always put me in the highlight film. When I told them, "I’m not Mr. Met any more," they stopped!
Harkins: I’m always going out to Coney Island for The Brooklyn Cyclones, the Mets’ minor league team, and I laughed pretty hard when I saw your book’s title because people are always asking Sandy The Seagull the same question. Is it just the willful ignorance of the people asking the question that makes it annoying?
Mass: I don’t know if it’s the willful ignorance, it’s just that the ones who think they’re so clever asking it. You know, the fact that those people honestly somehow think they’re the first one to ask that question. Really, Dude? It’s like I write in the book, it’s safe to say that if you come into any apartment or house in the country, or any office, you come from outside in the middle of a monsoon, and you’re dripping wet, a puddle of water at your feet, whoever sees you come in the door, dripping wet, will turn to you and say, "Is it still raining out?" It’s like I don’t get it; obviously it’s still raining out! So, you know, I’m encased in this giant thing, you’re sweating—yeah! It’s hot in here, folks.
Harkins: In talking to your peers, were there any common themes that emerged in the culture of the mascot? Or does it really tend to vary team-by-team and culture-by-culture?
Mass: In general, it’s two distinct types of personalities in the suit, and two distinct types of organizations, and you get all the different permutations from that. But as far as people who decide to become mascots, I think it’s generally either people who are introverted, or content to let others have the spotlight, and they get in the costume and now it’s their turn to shine; a new personality emerges. And that’s where a lot of people come from, and certainly I fall into that group. And the other group of people are the people who are ‘Look at me, look at me, look at me!’ all the time, and they put the costume on and it just magnifies it, times a thousand. But, you know, it was already there. And even if they take the suit off, it’s still ‘Look at me, look at me, look at me.’
So I think you get those two different types of personalities, and then you get the two different types of organizations. You get the organizations who are willing to let the performer, and the character, develop over time, and make mistakes. If you have a rookie third baseman, and his first game he makes three errors you don’t cut him; you don’t send him back to the minors right away. You let him grow. It’s the first game. Same thing with a mascot; you know, you make a few mistakes? Okay, let him grow. He’ll develop into that All-Star eventually. Some organizations are a lot more, ‘don’t do that, don’t do that, don’t do that’. Or, like the Mets when I first started, I don’t think they understood what it took to run a mascot program. I am certain that they are better at it now than they were back then. So, I don’t think it’s that the team is necessarily doomed to always be in that state, but certainly during my time there the Mets were an organization which was like, ‘you know, we don’t really know what we’re doing,’ and it made my job all that more difficult.
Harkins: Yeah, it seemed to me that they were walking on eggshells a bit with the character at first. Though perhaps you paved the way for some of these guys who’ve come after you.
Mass: Sure. Part of it was also, I think, just because the Mets themselves were just this hybrid. You know, you had the Wilpons; you had Doubleday. And they were two distinct personalities. And I don’t know that there was necessarily a unifying point of view on the mascot.
Harkins: There’s a familiar refrain among your peers about the dehumanizing effect that the suit can have on other people. There are some people that get drunk and mistreat the mascots.
Mass: I was very fortunate. I think, in general, there was just this relationship with Mets fans and people at the stadium that was more friendly. I think that just came across. I did not have nearly the hard time that I think some other mascots have. But, yeah, alcohol is certainly a factor. And once people get drunk, and your team is losing or something, and you paid all this money for your ticket, and, you know, they blame you. That was a little bit few and far between for me. We’ve had stories of other mascots who’ve been shoved off the wall, and pushed down stairs and stuff.
Harkins: Do you have any lingering resentment of the Mets organization about your dismissal?
Mass: When I was Mr. Met I got the impression that they thought that I was looking out for my own interests, and that I was lazy, and that that was kind of like their justification for letting me go. I just think they didn’t understand what it was that I did, and that was my frustration. Being in that costume for 20 minutes is like working a six-hour shift. It’s exhausting, because as soon as you put that costume on, you are on. Everybody is looking at you. You know, somebody is looking at you; you’re on from the moment you get that suit on until the moment you take it off. And you don’t have the luxury of taking a second off and relaxing in that costume. So, you know, it’s the oppressive heat, you’re sweating, you’re exhausted, and you have to continue to perform. And then you’ll get someone who’ll come up to you and they’ll hand you their child!
I just felt that they didn’t understand what it was that I did. But also just because of the way I was fired. There was such a lack of communication. And, you know, they wouldn’t give me health benefits, and we were still negotiating that, and I probably would have come back for one more season because I thought we had a chance of making the playoffs and I wanted to experience that. And, you know, one person in the entire chain of the hierarchy decided to send me an e-mail telling me I was fired, but he hadn’t told anybody else! So I was getting calls saying, ‘So, are coming into work next week? We need ya.’ And I’m like, ‘I was just fired’, and they were like, ‘no, you weren’t.’ So there was that whole thing. Just a lot of frustration with how it was done, not necessarily that it was done. And I never really dealt with it for many years; I just kind of put it away. And, writing this book kind of dug up some of the old wounds, so a little of that bitterness does come across. I’m actually fine with the organization now. I don’t know if they’re fine with me after this book.
Harkins: Are you still a Mets fan?
Mass: It’s nice to watch the Mets now on a regular basis with my son, who’s 9 years old, and he’s a huge Mets fan. And the passion that I see through him has helped me recharge my batteries a little bit in terms of caring about the team a little bit more than I had for a number of years, so it’s all good between me and the Mets.
Harkins: Which organization do you think, in your estimation, has done the best job of maximizing the potential of the mascot?
Mass: It has to be The Phillies. I live in southern New Jersey, so I get the Philadelphia local television. Down here we’re in the Philadelphia market, for TV purposes. And there’s not a day that goes by, throughout the entire calendar year, that you don’t see the Phillie Phanatic on TV.
And it’s not necessarily just on the Phillies’ station. I mean he’s in commercials, he’s in parades; he’s such a part of the community that it’s amazing. I can’t imagine that happening to this level in any other market… without a lot of work.
Harkins: Have you been following how the Brooklyn Cyclones use their mascots? They’re a big part of how they market the team.
Mass: A lot of minor league markets do a much better job, because marketing is all they have. They are not going to get people to come to see the players – for the most part. Especially when the players get too good, they actually leave! So you need to have the on-field presence, and so a lot of the minor league teams do get that. There’s an opportunity there for community-based embracing of a mascot, and I think you do see that on many small town levels especially. And, I mean, let’s face it, Brooklyn is a huge city.
Harkins: Alright, I’ve got to put you on the spot now: how are the Mets going to do this year?
Mass: They’re doing better than I expected right now. I think before the season started I had predicted 78 wins. I’m a little more optimistic now. I can see possibly reaching 83, but I don’t see better than that, no.
Thomas E. Harkins is a freelance writer and former adjunct instructor at NYU's Department of Media, Culture and Communications.