By Paul Lukas
Special to Page 2

It was December 20th, and the Dolphins were wearing those stupid orange jerseys. Fortunately, Uni Watch aide-de-camp Ruth Wedes found something else to focus on. "What's up with the dolphin on their helmets?" she asked.

Ah yes, the Dolphins' dolphin -- a subject upon which Uni Watch was only too happy to expound: "Yeah, the dolphin's helmet has an 'M' on it. He should actually have a helmet with a dolphin on it, like the players do. And then that dolphin would have a helmet too, so you'd have a dolphin with a helmet with a dolphin with a helmet, and so on, creating an infinite regression, which would be so cool! Why didn't they design it that way? What a bunch of idi--"

"No," said Wedes, abruptly interrupting Uni Watch's reverie. "I don't care what's on the dolphin's helmet. Why is he wearing a helmet in the first place? The other teams don't put helmets on their animals."

A quick survey of the league's mascots reveals that Wedes was on to something (she's since been promoted to Uni Watch attaché for her efforts). The animals appearing on the uniforms of the Ravens, Jaguars, Texans, Bills, Broncos, Eagles, Lions, Falcons, Panthers, Cardinals, Rams, and Seahawks aren't just helmetless, they're devoid of any football-related imagery. Same goes for the non-uni secondary logos used by the Bears and Bengals. And the Colts, despite their equine team name, don't even have a logo horse (although they used to -- and he wore a helmet!).

It turns out that the Dolphins are the only NFL team that currently has a football-themed logo critter. And the NFL isn't the only league that prefers to depict its mascots in a non-sporty setting. Here's a quick survey of the animal-adorned teams from the four major pro sports leagues:

Plain animals Animals wearing uniforms or equipment Animals shown with balls or equipment
NFL Ravens, Jaguars, Broncos, Eagles, Lions, Falcons, Panthers, Cardinals, Rams, Seahawks, Texans*, Bills*, Bears**, Bengals** Dolphins None
MLB Devil Rays, Blue Jays, Orioles (on cap), Cubs, Marlins, Diamondbacks, Tigers** Orioles (on sleeve) Cardinals, A's*
NBA Bobcats, Bulls, Grizzlies, Bucks, Timberwolves, Pistons*, Mavericks* Raptors, Hornets Hawks
NHL Bruins, Coyotes, Panthers (primary jerseys), Predators, Wild*, Capitals*, Sabres*, Canucks* Mighty Ducks, Penguins Thrashers, Panthers (alternate jersey), Sharks
*Team name not animal-based, but animal appears on uniform
**Animal not shown on uniform, but is part of team's brand imagery

This lopsided breakdown caught Uni Watch by surprise. After all, everyone knows the best mascot ever is Pittsburgh's skating penguin (whose original, portlier version, complete with a scarf, looked even cooler). All the best humanoid logo characters are athletically inclined, too: Pat Patriot; the Swinging Friar; Lucky the Leprechaun; Mr. Met; the Cincinnati Running Man (not to mention his old-school predecessor); and, of course, Beer Barrel Man (who apparently was a five-tool player, given his depictions here, here, and here). So why aren't there more sporty animals?

As it turns out, there used to be. In addition to the aforementioned Colts, here's a quick rundown of current teams whose animal mascots were once players, not just cheerleaders (with a tip of the Uni Watch cap to the invaluable LogoServer Web site):

NFL: Bears, Cardinals, and Eagles.

MLB: Cardinals, Cubs, Blue Jays, and Orioles (whose logos have also included this, this, and this).

NBA: Hawks, Bucks, and Grizzlies.

NHL: Blue Jackets and Coyotes.

Why have so many teams moved away from athletic animals? "It's part of a larger trend toward more sophisticated logos," says uni and logo designer Todd Radom. "A lot of the old logos were drawn by newspaper cartoonists, but now computers make it easy to do slicker designs. And these aren't just mascots anymore -- they're corporate marketing tools. Something like the old Milwaukee Buck would never be viable today. It would be shot down in two seconds -- they'd think it was too goofy, not aggressive enough."

That's too bad, and not just for fans of animal athletes. In the current marketing environment, we aren't likely to see cool humanoid characters either, like the ones once used by the Steelers and Pistons.

Meanwhile, it turns out that there's something else unusual about the Dolphins' mascot: Look closely and you'll see that his helmet actually covers his blowhole instead of his skull. How's the poor guy supposed to breathe? No wonder the NFL's other mascots don't want to suit up.

Numbers Game
There was a lot of speculation about what uni number Randy Johnson would wear with the Yankees, because his familiar 51 is already worn by Bernie Williams. This got Uni Watch thinking about the rich history of players bartering and negotiating for coveted uniform numbers. The best story ever may be the current saga of the Redskins' Clinton Portis, who initially offered to box a teammate for his number, then agreed to buy the number for $40,000, and is now being sued for non-payment.

As for Johnson, he's going to wear 41. It's not yet clear whether this is a reference to his age or to the number of cameramen he plans to assault this season.

This & That
Several months ago, in a column about retired numbers, Uni Watch opined that teams that relocate and change their names tend to start their retired number rosters from scratch. But reader Ferdinand Cesarano (whose brother Michael is the man behind the excellent Mets Uniform Timeline) has pointed out several such teams that have continued to honor their old retirees.

The Sacramento Kings, for example, have kept 14 retired for Oscar Robertson, who played for the franchise when it was called the Cincinnati Royals. In the NFL, the Titans have kept the old Oilers numbers retired. And in the NHL, the Coyotes (who used to be the Winnipeg Jets) and Hurricanes (formerly the Hartford Whalers) continue to honor their forebears. A chastened Uni Watch stands corrected.

Last month's survey of football facemasks prompted reader Gary Streeting to turn up some great old team portraits that show players posing with strap-on noseguards (see additional portraits here, here, and here). This crude protector, which was patented back in 1891 and was fairly common among high school and college players in the early 1900s, could arguably be called the first facemask, even though it appeared well before the helmet itself.

Finally, Uni Watch's year-in-review item about Quad Cities Swing's uneven numeral sizes led reader Big C to point out that the St. Louis Blues did something similar in the late 1990s. Which in turn reminded Uni Watch that the Islanders had those weird seasickness-inducing numbers during the team's short-lived Gorton's Fisherman phase. Now there's a logo character who could've used a bit more work.

Paul Lukas's cat, Roscoe, does not wear a helmet, although he does like to crash into things. Archives of pre-Page 2 "Uni Watch" columns are available here and here. Got a uni-related question or comment? Send it here.