THE GREATEST SYMBOL OF TERROR FROM MY CHILDHOOD
By: Bob Stallsmith
It was summer, and my family was enjoying a baseball game at Three Rivers Stadium. It was either the last year that the Pirates were good, or the first year they were bad. My youthful brain was unable to foresee how hard things as a Bucs fan would be in the years to come.
Then it happened. A giant, green, winged monster used its beak to try and pick me up by my head, carry me off, and feed me to its babies. Babies that I am certain make the worst noises, just like most children.
Shaken, I did the only thing kids are good at: I cried. I cried a lot, in public, in front of a bunch of strangers, ruining their evening.
When the topic of sports mascots comes up, one of my friends is always led to this statement: “You know who I hate? The damn Philadelphia Phundamentalist.” I laugh each time as I correct her, “It’s The Phillie Phanatic.” For all the times this has happened, I’m never really sure if she says the wrong name to make me laugh, or if she absolutely refuses to remember the pronunciation. Either way, it’s funny.
Unlike my distrust of old people, young people, and people roughly the same age as me, I have categorically opened up to mascots as years have passed. Age has softened me. I really used to hate mascots. In fact, I dreaded even being near them, they made me uncomfortable. I felt like I had good reason for that response, too, but this is one of the rare happenstances in my life where I have been able to eventually let go of a grudge. Plus, lots of kids around the country have far more terrifying people in costumes than Pittsburgh children need to worry about.
Fortunately, this town isn’t home to anything as bizarre as the New Orleans Baby Cakes’ mascot. That thing is a nightmare come to life at every home game for that team. Google it, I’ll wait…
In the Burgh’ we don’t have to put up with anything too visually scarring. Steely McBeam is the unloved step child of, and most recent addition to, the Pittsburgh professional sports mascot collective. Never having interacted with McBeam, I can only say I have never liked mascots that are people in costumes of larger people, (I’m looking at you Bernie Brewer, you’re the worst). There’s just something unsettling about it. What if, this one time, it was a bird or a lion in a human costume? Are we ready to take that chance? Plus, McBeam’s mouth is always agape, just hanging there in the wind like a whale scooping up krill.
Rumor has it that the NFL forced the Steelers to have either a mascot or cheerleaders. I couldn’t confirm if this was true with a simple internet search, so I quit. You can argue amongst yourselves the merits of each, which are both ultimately superfluous to the sport itself. What we ended up with is an indeterminate creature in a human suit with the chin of a former head coach, but I digress.
Iceburgh is my personal favorite of the three pro mascots that call Pittsburgh home. That is to say, Iceburgh bothers me the least. It seems well intentioned enough, and communicates with whistles and clicks. Real penguins don’t do that, but whatever. Everyone likes penguins, so it has that going for it. Iceburgh could probably bark like a dog and people would still like it. Plus, it looks like it is on track to out-pace Crosby and Letang combined for concussions.
I’m going to assume we’ve all studied the films of Jean Claud Van Damme, and if we’ve learned anything from Sudden Death, it’s a lesson about the potential evil that lies within any mascot. But, the Pens’ person in a penguin suit seemed nice enough during the one brief interaction I had shared with it. I’m certainly glad the Pittsburgh Penguins eventually figured out it is much cheaper to use different people in a suit than to keep replacing actual live penguins.
Do the Pirates still have Captain Jolly Roger?
Does anyone care?
Later in the fall of the same year I was attacked by the giant, green, bird once again. It happened at an assembly at school. There was a surprise for the kindergarteners. A terrible surprise. The parrot had found out where I lived. It came to my school to finish the job. I can only guess I looked delicious because out of all the students there, the great and terrifying fowl came after me again with ruthless determination and chilling accuracy.
There, in the auditorium, surrounded by my peers with my head in the beak of a bird that was clearly out to get me, I again sobbed uncontrollably.
It’s a helpless feeling, being so young with a nemesis so capable of outmatching you both physically and mentally. I didn’t let this stop me from going to baseball games growing up. I just always kept an eye on the bird’s location while in the stadium. And I never felt fully comfortable unless it was on the exact opposite side of the stadium. There hasn’t been any interaction with the bird since, out of what I would describe as a type of respect and understanding that we share now that we’re both equally capable of killing one another. Mutually assured destruction keeps us at a comfortable distance.
As an adult I can logic out that long hot summers of traveling, sleeping in hotels, and wearing a ridiculous bird costume are what make baseball mascots act like such jags. Nevertheless, as a child, the threat the giant bird presented was as real as my tears.
Time warps, dissolves, and replaces memories, and I have certainly embellished and filled gaps. But know this: the Pirate Parrot did put my head in its mouth twice, I cried each time, and I’ll always think its a jerk.