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The Life

November 8, 2002
Creature discomforts
ESPN The Magazine

You may have read about the canning of John Routh, the original Billy The Marlin, and his subsequent threat to take the Florida Marlins to court. You may have even laughed.

Billy the Marlin
Canned Marlin isn't nearly as good as fresh.
Before you dismiss Billy's plight as absurd, though, one word of advice: Walk a mile in his head.

I have, or at least in the head of his spiritual, organizational and marine biological brother, Hugh Manatee -- the mascot of the Marlins' Class A Florida State League affiliate, the Brevard County Manatees. Having survived a one-day stint as Hugh (May 5, 1997), I can assure you that Routh was woefully underpaid at $75,000 a year. And to think the Marlins wanted even more bang for their bill!

How is it that I came to don a manatee costume? Well, it was for a story on mascots commissioned by Life magazine. Dave Raymond, the original Phillie Phanatic, put me on to the Manatees because 1) the general manager had a sense of humor, 2) the costume was great and 3) it was in Florida. "You should sweat a little," he said. "Suffer for your art." He also left me with Yoda-like advice: "May the farce be with you."

I arrived the day before my gig. The guy who usually wore Hugh offered to be my wrangler -- the mascot escort -- and offered up the head to take back to my motel that night. "Takes some getting used to," he said. It wasn't the weight of the head so much as it was the smell. While Hugh's costume could be washed, his shell of a head couldn't be. So there was not only the cumulative effect of a hundred nights of head sweat inside, but also the sickly sweet aroma of Glade potpourri -- sprayed on to mask the stench. I dutifully donned the head while watching TV that night. I felt like I was scuba diving inside a wedding in a locker room.

Being built somewhat like a manatee, I found the costume much more to my liking. And, in fact, I quite enjoyed my first few hours as Hugh Manatee. It being Cinco de Mayo, I got to smash a pinata and watch the adorable children scurry after the candy. I pie-in-the-faced a coach for his birthday. I pushed a bed around the bases in a race sponsored by a motel chain, and heard the crowd laughing when I collapsed on the bed -- on purpose -- at third base. So far so good.

Here's another fact of mascot life: You can't talk. Seems obvious enough, but try holding a squirming baby while Mom gets just the right angle for that very special -- LADY, I DON'T KNOW HOW MUCH LONGER I CAN HOLD YOUR CHILD BEFORE IT FALLS TO THE CONCRETE SO PUSH THE DAMN BUTTON ALREADY!!!! -- photograph. That downside was offset by this other fact of mascot life: You are a chick magnet.

Hugh Manatee
Could this be a Wulf in Manatee's clothing?
But just when I was beginning to consider a change in careers, I was told it was time for the moving company promotion. This required Hugh to ride around the stadium in a miniature moving van, throwing frisbees to the crowd. I had actually practiced this beforehand, throwing the plastic discs with my manatee "flipper." No problem, I thought. Then I got into the van and discovered that my release point was shoulder-high. Problem. Then the van started moving, creating an aerodynamic situation for which I was not prepared. Disaster. I thought I was throwing my frisbees into the crowd, but they only ended up coming back onto the field. At one point, I was so flustered, I threw them INTO THE BACKSTOP. For the first time in my life, I was booed by a thousand people.

And my night was not over. I went up to a corporate box for a birthday party and was chastised by the kids for the misspent frisbees. (I pantomimed "torn rotator cuff".) During another vehicular promotion, the Manatee players doused me with a tub of water. After the game, another pinata was set up. It took me a few swings this time to open it up, and I watched as the miserable brats fought over their future dental cavities. As I showered after the game, one of the players said, "It isn't easy, is it?" I summoned up enough energy to shake my head.

Took me a few days to get over that smell of potpourri and head sweat, too. And once my olfactory sense recovered, I was left with undying admiration for the person who had to put on that head every night.

Years later, I was in a Manhattan ballroom at an ESPN function when I caught that scent -- and my night as a manatee came rushing back to me.

I sniffed. I turned around.

Mr. Met was standing behind me.

So, Billy The Marlin ... If you're looking for a character witness, give me a call.

Steve Wulf is executive editor of ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at

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