It's been 10 years since slugging first baseman Bucky Jacobsen played his lone season for the Tennessee Smokies, yet his name lives on at Smokies Park in a most unusual way. During each and every game a "Chicken Run" takes place, in which a bright yellow fowl mascot darts across the outfield while being chased by a crazed pack of young fans.
The chicken's name? Clucky Jacobsen.
If you've been following the promotional side of Minor League Baseball for any amount of time, then you know that the simple question of "Now, why would they go and do a thing like that?" is almost always followed by an equally simple answer: "Why not?"
So why was a chicken costume acquired? It all happened about 10 years ago, when team executives Mark Seaman (now with the Hickory Crawdads) and Jeff Shoaf (currently the Smokies assistant general manager) were shooting the breeze after the game. A very rough approximation of this decade-old conversation, as it was relayed to me by Director of Entertainment Ryan Cox prior to Friday evening's game against the Birmingham Barons:
Mark: Look, there's a chicken costume on eBay. We should get it.
Jeff: Yeah, let's do it.
Mark: Done. But what are we going to do with it?
After what was surely an awkward silence, perhaps one that lasted for days, they decided that the chicken suit would be used as a way to, as Cox explained it, "get as many kids on the field at one time as they possibly could." In this regard, it would be similar to between-innings spectacles that I have seen in High Desert and Lake County, among others, in which a gaggle of children chase the mascot across the outfield. As for which team originated this idea -- who knows? But let's go with the Smokies, simply so it can be said that the chicken came first.
And the chicken's name eventually turned out to be "Clucky," in honor of the aforementioned slugging first baseman. This is a solid choice, though a perusal of the 2003 Smokies roster reveals that other options were available. Chris Dunc-hen? Yadier Fowl-ina? Chris Beak-ly? Kevin Spr-egg? We are only limited by our imaginations.
Like baseball itself, the Chicken Run's ramshackle and perhaps apocryphal beginnings hardened over time into a set of immalleable codified rules. The participants can only be between ages 5-12, must wear tennis shoes and cannot carry loose items onto the field with them (kids being notorious scatterers of debris). But despite a rigid adherence to the above regulations, anomalous -- and therefore memorable -- Chicken Runs are bound to occur. As I was speaking with Cox, team president Doug Kirchhofer ambled over and relayed his favorite Chicken Run story.
"We had an intern in the chicken suit, and he was egging the kids on," said Kirchhofer, the pun seemingly unintentional. "And at the end of the race a pitcher from the visitor's bullpen came out and just leveled him. We had to talk the kid down afterwards. He thought he'd been assaulted; he was so mad that he wanted to call the police. It was a blindside tackle, so as you're running, make sure to look out for your blind side. That's what'll get you."
Kirchhofer's use of "you" wasn't in the general sense. He was speaking to me directly, as I had been picked to run as Clucky that evening. (Community relations assistant Samantha Nicholson is usually tasked with this responsibility, and she had no problem relinquishing it. None whatsoever.) I suited up in the top of the third inning, putting on red socks, a yellow zip-up one-piece suit, and -- by far, the worst part -- a vision-obscuring and stiflingly hot rubber mask. The thought of wearing this mask during a July afternoon in East Tennessee is already giving me nightmares, and I offer my fullest sympathies and respect to Nicholson. She is a stronger person than I am.
During our slow concourse walk to the left-field gate (where the Chicken Run commences), the reactions from the young fans varied. The littlest ones often approached sheepishly and then were delighted by a high five, while those who had reached double digits in age often reverted to cruel taunts.
"Chicken, chicken, I'm going to eat you!" said one boy, who was 11 years old or thereabouts. "You'd be so tender."
The terrifying thought of being torn limb from limb by bloodthirsty prepubescents was on my mind as we lined up by the left-field gate, and I was grateful for the presence of Community Relations Director Lauren Chesney. She ably kept the kids in check as we waited for the (seemingly interminable) top of the fourth inning to conclude and assured me that I would be given a big-head start as "the chicken is untouchable."
But what if I fall? What if I'm not as fast as I think I am? What if the mask obscures my vision to such an extent that everything is my blind side? What if some twisted denizen of the visitors' bullpen possesses murderous intent?
These "what if?" scenarios melted away once the gate swung open, replaced by an urge possessed by all chickens since time immemorial: to get to the other side. And get there I did, moving as fast as my legs could carry me and arriving unscathed in that right field promised land before ducking into the tunnel adjacent to the visitor's dugout.
Clucky Jacobsen, tender though he may be, had lived to see another day.