The recent national pastime of mocking the Chicago Cubs' new mascot has gotten so out of hand Cubs brass has had to rally behind Clark the Cub.
"I'm disappointed at some of the unfortunate images that went from negative to despicable," lamented Julian Green, vice president of communications and community affairs for the Cubs.
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Yes, Clark looks as if he ran away from that TV commercial bear family that uses super soft toilet paper while doing what bears do in the woods. Yes, the overly cutesy young Clark isn't wearing pants, which means that downloading his image would get your computer confiscated by federal agents if bearophilia were a crime. Yes, the Cubs unveiling a new mascot is the equivalent of the Titanic crew announcing that the dining room now boasts crazy straws at every place setting.
But worst mascot ever? Never. I know better because I've rooted for worse. The mascots I remember from high school and college could be enshrined in a Mascot Hall of Shame, which would be crowded.
For decades, the Olympics have been able to unite the world by giving us mascots that can be mocked in every language. This year's Sochi mascots (a bear, a hare and a leopard) might be the most dignified to ever grace the Olympics. They would be at home in a Kung Fu Panda movie or Coke commercial and are an upgrade from London in 2012, when the mascot was Wenlock, a metallic-looking cyclops topped by the light found atop British cabs.
The official mascots of the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver were Quatchi, a bigfoot, and Miga, what you'd get if a Kermode bear mated with a killer whale, an event that would draw far more spectators than curling. The Nagano Olympics in 1998 gave us four crudely drawn owls named Sukki, Nokki, Lekki and Tsukki, who went on to greater fame as characters in Angry Birds. Roni, the raccoon-costumed mascot for those Lake Placid Olympics in 1980, only came forward as a replacement after an actual raccoon named Rocky dropped dead.
Amik the beaver presided over the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal. He had a rainbow stripe around his midsection, which made him look as if he were roadkill from a gay pride parade. The Bejing Olympics in 2008 sported mascot dolls that resembled Pokemon characters and were spun off into their own cartoon show. Just like the favorite toys of Americans, they were made in China. WhatiZit, later shortened to Izzy, was the much-maligned mascot for the 1996 Games in Atlanta. The official Olympics mascot website notes Izzy was "an unusual mascot in that he is not an animal, nor a human figure, nor an object."
Clark the Cub actually bears a strong resemblance to Misha, the cute Communist bear for the 1980 Moscow Olympics. Misha and Sam, the eagle mascot for the 1984 games in Los Angeles, soften the host nations' Cold War images by smiling and going pantsless.
While many mascots go commando when it comes to fashion below the waist, the Chicago Bulls' Benny the Bull (named by Forbes last year as the third most popular mascot in the United States) wears shorts -- if only to prevent farm-smart fans from calling him Benny the Steer. The Chicago Bears' Staley, also pantsless, might not qualify as popular, but he doesn't inspire ridicule. Same with Tommy Hawk of the Blackhawks, or any of our suburban minor league mascots. In addition to making folks forget the ill-fated Ribbie and Roobarb, White Sox mascot Southpaw wears pants and a shirt, which makes him better dressed than some Sox fans.
Even good mascots can be poorly presented. Northwestern University's bigheaded, muscular Willie the Wildcat is a vast improvement over the Willie unveiled during a homecoming game against Ohio State in 1980. Confined in an ornate circus train cage, the 1980 Willie was to be unleashed after the first Northwestern score. Sometime in the second half of a humiliating defeat that wasn't as close as the 63-0 score would have you believe, NU celebrated a rare first down by opening the cage to reveal a Willie that resembled the cartoon Pink Panther, only less threatening. In a form-fitting purple leotard, that Willie pranced around scratching like a mildly miffed house cat.
Still, he was a less unsettling mascot than the one I cheered during my high school days. Located in the southern half of Indiana's Newton County, my South Newton High School proudly claimed the nickname Rebels. We hung banners promising, "The South Will Rise Again." Our school newspaper was "Stars and Bars." An actual confederate flag waved from our flagpole. At halftime of basketball games, a little person from my oldest sister's class donned a confederate uniform and ran around the gym. Local liberals, if there had been any, would have been happy that we weren't the Fighting Klansmen.
My suggestion senior year that we become the South Newton Figs and seek funding from Nabisco was rejected. But I'm happy now to see that my old high school, while still the Rebels, has rid itself of most of its confederate remnants. It has a new school flag without a strong association with slavery. The mascot unveiled in 2011 is named Sir Newton, a brilliant move that should have resulted in a nickname change from Rebels to the South Newton Laws of Motion, or at least the Apples. Instead, Sir Newton resembles a Yosemite Sam whose anger-management issues mean he did not qualify for a concealed carry permit, forcing him to wear a ribbon instead of a gun belt. But he is an improvement.
My high school is proof that mascots can evolve. So can Clark the Cub. By the time Clark celebrates a Cubs World Series Championship, not only might today's fans have forgotten why they mocked the young bear, actual bears may have evolved into a new species of bears that live in the sea and mate with killer whales.