Minor League Baseball is known for its rich history dating back more than 100 years. While much has been written about the best teams and top players who have graced the Minors, there remain many stories either untold or largely forgotten. Each week, MiLB.com will attempt to fill that gap and explore these historical oddities in "Cracked Bats." Know of any stories to be considered for this feature in the future? Send an email and let us know.
There's a framed T-shirt hanging on the wall of Mal Fichman's home office, one of the many mementos collected during a decades-long career in Minor League Baseball. While Fichman has earned a well-deserved reputation for being a shrewd talent evaluator and having a sharp mind in the dugout, that swatch of cotton represents an evening that took his 15 minutes of fame and turned it into a lifetime of notoriety.
There were only a few hundred people in the stands at Boise Memorial Stadium on the evening of June 29, 1989. But the tale that's told about Fichman's zany escapade has grown to such proportions that thousands now claim they were there to see the former Boise skipper don a mascot outfit and help manage a game against the Salem Dodgers, giving the Northwest League a bit of a cartoon feel for one crazy night.
"If everybody who says they were there at that game in Boise was actually there, we probably would have set an attendance record for the Daytona 500," said Fichman, who managed for 14 years in the Minor Leagues and in independent ball. "I could walk outside today and tell people I know how to put a man on the moon and no one will say anything. They'll just tell me about the mascot costume."
Fichman, a colorful character who spent the past few seasons working in San Diego's Minor League operations department, was ejected in the sixth inning after his second baseman Paul Cluff was tossed by umpire Andy Gonzales. The fact that Cluff, who was by all accounts a mild-mannered sort, got ejected certainly took Fichman by surprise -- enough so that he continued the argument and got himself tossed in the process.
"Cluff was an All-American from Brigham Young, and he was a little older because he had spent two years on a Mormon mission," Fichman said. "But he looked like Opie, and he never opened his mouth. He got adamantly upset if anyone cursed in the dugout. So he hits a grounder, and it's a close play at first base. I was coaching third base, and by the time I got back to our dugout, on the first base side, someone said Cluff had gotten tossed.
"Well, the umpire at first base wasn't very tall. And I went out to him and said that I knew Cluff wouldn't say anything bad. Cluff told me that he was safe. The umpire told me that Cluff said he was safe and that if he [the umpire] were a little taller, he might have seen the play. Well, it struck me and I said maybe he's right. So he threw me out of the game. I'm 5-foot-7, but this guy was only about 5-feet tall."
Under most circumstances, this would be the end of the story. Player argues, gets tossed. Manager defends player, gets tossed too. But Fichman had other ideas. The Boise mascot was Humphrey the Hawk and a fellow named Jason, who also happened to be an offensive lineman on the Boise State football team, filled out the costume at the time.
The getup was heavy and since it had and still has a tendency to get very warm during the summer in Boise, staying in a costume for any length of time wasn't prudent. Fichman knew as much and at one point earlier in the season had mentioned to Jason that he had better take a break occasionally or "he was going to drop dead."
Well, that night, just after the sixth inning, Jason was taking Fichman's advice, hanging out under the stands with the hawk head resting at his feet as the manager was making his way back to the clubhouse.
"I asked him if he was done for the evening and he said 'not yet' but I told him you are now," Fichman said. "So I took the uniform, it was all Velcro, and put it on. Now, Jason was a lot bigger than I was and the costume was rather large on me. You saw through the mouth, where there was mesh that you were also able to breathe through.
"Now the mascot was only allowed in the stands so some people knew right away that something was different because I went on the field. The players, at first, didn't know it was me and I was wandering around close to the dugout in the eighth inning when we had men on first and second. And I went over to the coach who was now managing and I tell him through the mesh to bunt and some of the players [started to realize] it's Mal."
The story gets a little fuzzy after the game ended. The Idaho Statesman reported that Fichman called Northwest League president Jack Cain the next day to tell him what he had done. After hearing Fichman's story, Cain had a good laugh but suspended the Boise manager for one game.
But when Fichman spoke to MiLB.com he said the discovery was made following the game in the manager's office.
"After the game I went back into my office and took the costume off and Jack Cain came down to the clubhouse," Fichman said. "He said something like it was a tough game, but the Hawk was very funny. I had forgotten to take the feet off and he's there and says 'That was you. That's the funniest thing you've ever done. Now you're suspended.'"
Cain, however, remembered the incident differently, saying that Fichman never took off his spikes and his stirrups and it was obvious to the umpires who was in the costume. Whichever way it happened, and the account in the July 1 edition of the Statesman didn't provide a clear answer to the question, it proved to be a very funny evening.
"Life is too short to get angry," said Cain, who is now a senior adviser for the Portland Beavers of the Pacific Coast League. "I think it was great, and it was just one game [the suspension]."
The story, however, doesn't end there. The Statesman ran a cartoon of Fichman dressed as the Hawk and the story was apparently picked up by USA Today, giving it some national steam. By that weekend, when the club was in Eugene, Ore., for a series, it had taken on some additional life.
"We were taking batting practice that Saturday afternoon, and usually the starting pitcher would show up an hour and a half before the game," Fichman said. "Well, he comes walking out in street clothes, and I'm wondering what's wrong until he asks me if I've seen the 'Game of the Week' that afternoon. They picked up the story and Marv Albert was talking about it on NBC.
"There was a story in the Eugene paper too, and the headline had something about 'manager or mascot.' Everyone had a laugh. And the people in Boise made T-shirts and were giving them away. It had a picture on it and my autograph and the only reason I have that T-shirt is because they had me sign a card so they could get a copy of my autograph. There's one T-shirt left, and it's in a frame on my wall."
There have been other skippers who have followed in Fichman's footsteps. Ed Nottle returned to the field as the Tacoma Tigers mascot after getting tossed from a 1982 Pacific Coast League game, while Bobby Valentine returned to the dugout wearing a fake mustache and glasses after getting ejected from a game while managing the Mets.
Fichman, however, has one nifty souvenir from the evening and a great tale that goes along with it.
Kevin Czerwinski is a reporter for MLB.com.