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Phantasy Job

April 24, 2014

The man behind the world’s best mascot, revealed.

Encased within the green, snouted head of his alter ego, the sound is slightly muted. Still, Tom Burgoyne can hear the jet engine din of millions as the championship convoy of flatbeds slowly lumbers up Market Street on the morning of Oct. 31, 2008.

Standing atop the lead truck, dancing and waving and swirling that famous fuzzy gut for multitudes of adoring fans, Burgoyne’s heart picks up its rhythm in anticipation of what’s coming. And when the parade eventually rounds City Hall and prepares to make one final serpentine bend onto Broad Street, it comes into view. The sculpture. His sculpture.

It’s called “Triune,” a bronze, sinuous, post-modern work of art at the southwest corner of City Hall, and when Burgoyne catches sight of it through the woven mesh of his mascot eyeholes, he sees that it’s covered with fans cheering on the 2008 World Champion Philadelphia Phillies. In an instant, Burgoyne travels back in time.

When he was just 14 years old, Burgoyne was photographed atop the very same sculpture — hands triumphantly raised in celebration against the backdrop of a sheet on which was painted “Phillies 1980 World Champions.” Other fans surround him and a look of absolute bliss can be seen on his then-bespectacled face.

The photo was eventually used for the back cover of a special 16-page Inquirer insert celebrating that historic victory in 1980. The image had always been special for Burgoyne, a Jenkintown native and lifelong Philadelphia sports fanatic. But now, blissfully anonymous inside his legendary costume and riding an overwhelming wave of fan appreciation, the memory of the photograph takes on an entirely new meaning.

“When I looked at that statue and saw that it was overflowing with fans now waiving at me … well that was just too surreal,” recalls Burgoyne inside his dressing room at Citizens Bank Park. “I grew up adoring the Phanatic. But never in my wildest dreams did I think I would actually become him.”

To the uninitiated, this basement-level chamber at Citizens Bank Park is not Burgoyne’s dressing room. Rather, it’s home to “the Phanatic’s best friend,” an endearing conceit meant to keep the magic alive for children — and perhaps some adults — still innocent enough to believe that the pot-bellied creature who has proudly paraded himself at every Phillies home game since 1978 is a living being unto himself. But for now, on this cold, snow-covered morning in mid-February, there is no illusion. Burgoyne is more than happy to give a peek behind the fuzzy green veil.

“I have no problem pulling back the curtain,” says Burgoyne, whose face of 48 years is soft, welcoming and malleable. Almost cartoonish with animation and punctuated by wide eyes perpetually inflated by the joys of life. “Sometimes it’s nice to actually talk about me inside the costume.”

Perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise, but Burgoyne’s spirit and personality quite closely resemble those of the iconic character he’s inhabited since first donning the costume as the backup Phanatic in 1988. Quick to laughter and self-deprecating asides, there’s something inviting and untarnished about Burgoyne, as though 25 years of wearing the costume has somehow shielded him from life’s prodding cynicisms.

“People always ask me what it’s like to do this when I’m having a bad day,” says Burgoyne, dressed casually in jeans and white sneakers. “I could be having a terrible day, but as soon as that head goes on it’s not a bad day anymore. I don’t want to sound cliché, but that’s the truth.”

Despite his conviviality, there’s also something intimidating about meeting Burgoyne. Since 1994, when he stepped full-time into the role once filled by David Raymond, the Phanatic’s original game-day animator, Burgoyne has given life to one of the most iconic characters in sports. And when one walks into his dressing room and catches a glimpse of the costume dangling lifelessly in a large corner cabinet, a bit of existential disquiet takes over. Because who really wants the magician to show us how he does his tricks?

But here’s the thing: The Phillie Phanatic is more than just a trick. Sure, one could argue that Burgoyne is the soul of the character; the one who breathes comedic life into an otherwise lifeless, 35-pound shell. But at the same time the Phanatic has a soul all his own, which exists not because of Burgoyne but, rather, almost despite him. Consider, for instance, how Burgoyne talks about recently sitting down to watch five years worth of new Phanatic video footage:

“Watching those videos was a blast. He just cracks me up,” says Burgoyne with a chuckle. “When I watch him, I don’t see myself. I see the Phanatic.”

The grand question, of course, is why. Why does the Phanatic have a personality so tangible and endearing that even the man inside the costume often refers to him in the third person?

“I thought I stunk. But then they selected my video and offered me the job. And it was a dream come true.”

To be sure, Burgoyne isn’t falsely humble about the importance of his role in the Phanatic’s endurance and popularity. Still, he always comes back to the same point: It’s the Phanatic that people love. Not him.

© Shea Roggio Photography

“Even after I took on the role full time, I don’t think the Phanatic evolved a bit. And I think that consistency is a key to the popularity and success he’s enjoyed,” says Burgoyne, an otherwise anonymous and nondescript married father of three sons who calls Montgomery Township his home. “When I took over for Dave, one of the best compliments I ever got was that there had been a change, but there was also no change at all.”

Fade in on April 11, 1994. The Phillies’ home opener against the Colorado Rockies is minutes away from commencing, and to the outside observer, nothing has changed. The Phanatic sits atop his requisite four-wheeler inside a truck tunnel at Veterans Stadium, revving his engine in preparation for the big entrance. For Burgoyne, however, this is anything but business as usual.

“There was a little pressure there, sure. I guess I had some butterflies,” recalls Burgoyne of his very first game-day appearance as the Phanatic. “But as soon as I was out there I just slipped right into it. I knew what to do.”

Of course he did. In many ways Burgoyne had been preparing for this moment since he was a senior at St. Joseph’s Prep, when he decided to take on the role of his high school mascot, the Hawk, in 1983. “I was always the class clown. I loved making people laugh. So when they needed someone to be the Hawk it was pretty unanimous,” he says. “And I loved the Phanatic so much that I figured I would more or less mimic him.”

In 1984 Burgoyne enrolled as a business and marketing major at Drexel, and even though he attended as many Dragons sporting events as possible, his mascot days, he thought, were behind him. After graduating in 1988 Burgoyne went to work in sales for Wallace Computer Services, but six months into the gig he decided he needed a change. So he began scanning newspaper classifieds, which is when he stumbled upon two life-changing words: “Mascot Wanted.”

In what he describes as a “fun, jokey sort of thing,” Burgoyne sent his resume and cover letter to a P.O. Box, never actually expecting anything to come of it. But then, two weeks later, he got a call from the Phillies. They wanted him to audition for the job of backup Phanatic.

Competing against more than a dozen other men, Burgoyne’s interview and audition were positively surreal. In addition to asking him about his background as a Phillies fan — you better believe he showed them the “Triune” sculpture photo from 1980 — they also made him dance, out of costume, to Sam Cooke’s “Twistin’ the Night Away.”

“That was kind of weird,” recalls Burgoyne with a laugh. “Going through Drexel and the whole co-op experience, I felt like a professional interviewer at that point. But I definitely had never danced in front of other people for a job.”

After lunch they asked the candidates, one by one, to come back into the audition room, this time donning the iconic Phanatic costume. There they videotaped Burgoyne and put him through a series of hypothetical game-day scenarios, gauging his improvisational reactions.

“You had to show emotion, because the Phanatic is very expressive,” says Burgoyne, whose only comedic training had been a voracious childhood appetite for “The Three Stooges.”

“I thought I stunk. Well, at least that I hadn’t been very good. But then they selected my video and offered me the job. And it was a dream come true.”

For the next five years Burgoyne served as Raymond’s backup, averaging 255 annual appearances as the beloved character at everything from summer festivals in Amish country to carnivals, birthday parties and weddings. In addition, Burgoyne also spent three years in the Vet’s multi-media control room as the ballpark’s in-house DJ while also working in the Phillies marketing department, helping set up promotional appearances for the Phanatic on television and radio.

Finally, after the 1993 season ended in a devastating World Series loss to the Toronto Blue Jays, Raymond announced he would be stepping down. Naturally, Burgoyne was chosen to fill the Phanatic’s size-20 sneakers full-time.

“I had been the backup for five years, so I knew the character by then. But just before that first game, sitting on the four-wheeler getting ready to go out, it did dawn on me that, wow, this is different,” he says. “Dave took such good care of this character. Now it was my turn to carry that torch.”

When the Phillies moved from Veterans Stadium to their current home at Citizens Bank Park in 2004, Burgoyne admits he was a bit concerned about the Phanatic’s future.

“I didn’t want people thinking he was a Vet stadium creature or some kind of 1970s Muppet,” says Burgoyne. “But they’ve really branded this ballpark with Phanatic stuff, which I was thrilled about.”

A brisk walk through Citizens Bank Park accents the point. For instance, an enormous billboard bearing the Phanatic’s impish visage greets guests who enter through the ballpark’s left-field gate. Once inside, there’s the Phanatic Phun Zone, the Phanatic Attic, the Phanatic Phood Stand and the Kids Corner, which features several Phanatic-themed games for youngsters.

And it seems one can’t throw a dollar dog these days without hitting some form of Phanatic merchandise, which includes everything from the wildly popular dangle hats to iPhone cases, fatheads, stuffed dolls, capes, hand puppets, miniature collectibles, even a DVD called “Time Travelin’ Phanatic,” a short film that follows the beloved mascot on a journey through various epochs of human history.

“The Phanatic is timelessly valuable to us, and he and Tom are as much a part of this organization as anyone,” says Mike Harris, the Phillies’ director of marketing and special projects. “Tom’s a comic genius, and it’s wonderful, from a marketing perspective, to have an asset that’s so loved and endeared and accepted, no matter what else may be going on with the team.”

To that end, Burgoyne credits the Phillies organization for its support of the Phanatic since he was first introduced at the Vet on April 25, 1978, in a game against the Chicago Cubs.

“The Phanatic has always been part of the game day experience. He’s not just window dressing,” says Burgoyne. “And the Phillies have always been real hands-off. They’ve put a lot of trust in me that I know what to do and what line not to cross. And that’s very unique. It’s my gig all the way.”

And make no mistake, the gig isn’t easy. Not only does Burgoyne don the sweltering suit for all 81 home games — often going through five or six sweat-soaked T-shirts per game — but he and his two backups also average 800 regional appearances each year, which is still only a fraction of 40-plus requests Burgoyne receives every weekend during the spring and summer months. What’s more, Burgoyne has only missed eight games throughout his 20-year tenure, six of which came last season after a minor injury kept him anxiously sidelined.

Since 2004 Burgoyne has also authored 12 children’s books, all of which tell a different story about the Phanatic and dovetail nicely with the Phillies’ “Be a Phanatic About Reading” literacy program, which encourages children to read for a minimum of 15 minutes a day. He’s also co-authored two books with his neighbor, author Robert Gordon — More Than Beards, Bellies and Biceps: The Story of the 1993 Phillies and Movin’ On Up: Baseball and Philadelphia Then, Now, and Always.

On top of it all, Burgoyne has recently begun increasing his public speaking appearances to about a dozen a year, delivering a talk called “Find Your Phanatic” to corporations, churches, charities and schools.

“Over the years I’ve gotten more perspective on what this character means not only to me, but what it means to the city and the fans,” Burgoyne says. “I see a lot of life lessons the Phanatic can teach us. I tell people to be passionate about what they do and try to make every encounter with someone positive. Because you’ve got to bring a smile to people’s faces.”

The irony of Burgoyne’s unique brand of fame isn’t lost on him. In fact, he rather enjoys it. Because even though he plays one of the most recognizable characters in popular culture, when he’s not in the costume he can simply be Tom Burgoyne.

“I see what our players go through, the pressure they have even off the field, being pulled in every which direction. And that’s got to be tough, because it’s a no-win situation. You can’t please everyone all the time,” he says. “So yeah, I really enjoy just being a father of three who can walk around the neighborhood whenever I want.”

It can also be fun for those who know the secret of Burgoyne’s double identity.

“My barber knows who I am, and sometimes I’ll go in for a haircut and he’ll say things to his customers like, ‘Did you see what the Phanatic did last night? Wasn’t that something?’ And I’ll just sit there and smile and try to keep quiet.”

And this comes back to the entire premise behind Burgoyne’s perception of the Phanatic. It’s bigger than him. It always has been.

“The impact of this character is out of my control now,” he says. “I’m just carrying the torch and taking care of him. For now. And there will be someone after me. And I hope and pray that they keep it going. Because we wouldn’t want a world without the Phanatic. He’s brought too much joy to have him stop now.”

Feature photography by Shea Roggio / Some images supplied by the Phillies organization

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