Truth be told, I don't get sports. Watching grown men run willy-nilly in one direction, and then just as swiftly in the other, is an activity whose appeal frankly eludes me. But there's one annual athletics event I wouldn't dream of missing: the Celebrity Mascot Games.
Once a year, the games pit pro and university mascots against each other in a program of high-speed relay races and other winkingly loony contests of (broadly defined) skill. That makes sense to me; the furry, funny creatures on the sidelines are always the hardest-working members of any sports squad, and watching them compete is my equivalent to attending the All-Star Game -- except that I never have to temper my enthusiasm with a mental reminder that the son-of-a-bitch I'm cheering for could go on strike at any time during the evening.
Last Saturday's rumble at the Orlando Arena introduced a new underdog to the roster. As the foam-and-fiberglass champions rushed out onto the field, I kept my eyes peeled for Star, the winged horse who was to represent the newly launched Orlando Miracle women's-basketball franchise. Never having seen Star, I hoped she would prove a fearsome addition to the proceedings, a rookie who would soundly trounce her more experienced adversaries and perhaps even strip down to a Nike sports bra in triumph like soccer's Brandi Chastain. All in the name of O-town boosterism, of course.
So much for that. Star was instead a woefully meek powder-blue critter -- My Little Pony in gym shorts. From her first tentative steps into the fray, she did a whole lotta nothin' for her team. At one point, she was hopelessly faked out by her opponent in a simple game of dodge ball, a development that left her sitting on the ground in an overwhelmed, girly-girl funk until the Tampa Bay Lightning's Ladybug came over and offered a consoling pat on the shoulder. Who was in those suits, anyway? Phyllis Schlafly?
Going plum logo
No such reticence was exhibited by the male mascots (or at least the ones who appeared to be male; it's sometimes hard to tell under all those feathers). When they weren't pummeling each other with their oversized mitts or assaulting the human referees, they amused themselves by molesting cheerleaders and chasing women in the stands. The Carolina Panthers' Sir Purr -- a jet-black kittycat in a headband -- reveled in repeated hip thrusts, sticking his obviously non-fixed nether regions in the face of everyone who came near him. That kind of behavior would get Dennis Rodman sent to the showers, pronto.
My favorite as always was Lil' Red, the University of Nebraska camp follower who's meant to be some form of overgrown toddler. A perpetually deflating mass of rubber, Red walks with a loping, top-heavy gait that makes him resemble a drunk condom. He's equally useless, this time dashing his team's hopes in the Wacky Wheelie Wobble by tumbling dazedly out of his wheelbarrow almost as soon as he was placed into it.
With so much larger-than-life action going on, who needed real people? Though I admired WESH Channel 2's Bill Shafer for again securing hosting duties, I really could have done without the grotesque turquoise zoot suit he had picked out for the occasion, which one ref rightfully assessed as making Shafer look like "the mascot for the Mafia." I guess word hadn't yet reached the news desk that swing is as dead as a doornail.
The event came to a dead stop at halftime, when the locally based girl group R.E.A.L. took over the field for a miniconcert that seemed to last forever. The latest stop on a promotional itinerary that's taken the sassy songbirds everywhere from the House of Blues to boat shows, the slick but tiresome set sent audience members to the concession stands in droves. Two songs of squeaky pop would have been fine; any more was just a convenient excuse to grab a Coke and a smile.
The fur flies
The genuine smiles came back with the start of the second half, as a virulent-but-fun protest was lodged by members of the Blue Team. (The event's four teams are traditionally set apart by color, but there's no apparent rhyme or reason to the assignments. Half of the characters are red to begin with, and no identifying markers are worn.) Certain they had been cheated in the wheelbarrow race, the Blues pelted the refs with Silly String to reinforce their demand of a recount. The crowd erupted in a righteous frenzy. Only two words suffice here, and I think those words are "nail-biting excitement."
Winless after three contests, the Red Team all but kissed victory goodbye when it lost the crucial tricycle race. The reason? Lil' Red again, whose off-balance physiognomy caused his trike to tip over and unceremoniously dump him out onto the astroturf. This guy falls down on the job more often than Keith Richards.
When the final votes were tallied, it was no surprise that the Red Team had tied with the Blue for runner-up, leaving the Gold and Green teams the dual victors. It's another mark of my estimation for the Mascot Games that they don't sully themselves with the "everyone's a winner" cop-out that usually makes family-oriented entertainment such an anticlimactic drag.
A spontaneous chant went up as the combatants retired to the sidelines. It wasn't the Orlando Magic's Stuff whose name the crowd was intoning, nor that of the Orlando Predators' Klaw. No, the hometown mob was shouting its affection for the visiting Lil' Red, who had clearly won everyone over with his charming inability to do much of anything.
A sport that embraces utter incompetence is one I can support without reservation. I was almost moved to ask Red for an autograph. But I was too afraid he might fall on me.