The Astros' beloved mascot Orbit was inspired by the Phanatic
When Orbit debuted in 1990, the mascot's popularity made Houston's players green with envy.
What if the Astros had a new mascot?
It’s the question Houston Astros marketing Vice President Ted Haracz asked himself while watching a Tucson Toros minor league exhibition game in 1989. He was enthralled by the team’s mascot, a bull named “Tuffy.”
Houston had experimented with mascots over the years (including Chester Charge, Astrojack and Astrodillo) but none really stuck.
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In order for this to work, the mascot would have to make deep inroads with the community. The mascot could go to schools and help endorse an FBI-sponsored anti-drugs program.
Hal Katzman — who had been performing as Tuffy — was called up to the big leagues to help design the mascot and perform at games and community events.
Local children submitted drawings to aid in the team’s designing of the mascot, and in an ad campaign, they were called on to select the mascot’s head, torso and feet from a variety of options. But the contest was “rigged,” Katzman now says.
“I designed the costume. It was rigged. We had a contest in the Houston Chronicle, design the new mascot. Well, I had already drawn something, I draw a little bit. And so I designed this alien, this cherubic little alien, and we gave the people of Houston in the Chronicle a choice of three heads, three bodies, and three sets of feet. Well, of course we know what won, it was what we wanted,” Katzman told me in a 2018 interview.
But what to call this mascot? Katzman initially toyed with the idea of using initials and calling the mascot A.T., short for Astro Terrestrial.
“But when Orbit was submitted, I tried to picture a 5-year-old or a 4-year-old, or even younger trying to say your name,” Katzman said. “I thought Orbit would be easy to say.
“So as I went around in-house to every member of the Astros and said, 'we want your input — by the way, my favorite's Orbit,' they said 'fine.' So essentially, I designed him and named him.”
To construct the costume for the green amorphous space creature, according to a Houston Chronicle report, the team turned to Houston’s Stardust Productions, which also constructed props and robots for the movie “RoboCop 2.” Thankfully, Orbit faced a much less dystopian future. But there would be a sequel.
For Orbit’s persona, Katzman looked to his own childhood for inspiration. He grew up outside of Philadelphia idolizing the Phillies’ mascot, the Phanatic, with its green fuzz, stomach-bouncing, tongue-lashing zaniness.
The Phanatic would terrorize opposing players and pull off elaborate pranks. During the lean years, the Phanatic was more entertaining than the team.
Such was the case with Orbit, whose first game with the club came on opening day, April 9, 1990.
Like the Phanatic, Orbit took delight in razzing players and coaches from other teams. Orbit riled up Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda by ripping up Dodgers pennants in front of him and got sprayed with water by Kal Daniels.
“I took it as the highest of compliments when the players wanted to mess back, because it validated that this guy's legit, he's good enough to waste our time with,” Katzman said. “If I was lame, they would have ignored me.”
One of the ways opponents got back at Orbit involved getting his attention — another player would sneak up behind the mascot and get on their hands and knees, and then the player in front would push over the foam creature. The Giants’ Will Clark knocked over Orbit that way.
“He leaned down while I was prone on the ground, and in his Mississippi accent, said, ‘I got the Chicken, I got the Phanatic, and I got you,’” Katzman said of Clark.
But even though fans enjoyed the space-themed creature, and opponents went along with the joke, the Astros players weren’t happy because Orbit was taking attention away from them. So one day before a game Orbit was playing to the crowd, when Katzman, through the foam costume, felt something. He was getting hit — by baseballs. And they weren’t being playfully tossed, either. These were coming at full speed.
“I look over and son of a bitch, if it isn't my dugout,” Katzman said. Ken Caminiti was one of the players hurling baseballs at him, using his cannon against his own team’s mascot.
The next day Katzman went to his supervisor and complained, highlighting how confusing it was for children in the stands to see Orbit getting pelted by baseballs from Astros players, and oh yeah how if one of the balls had hit Orbit’s mouth, he’d probably need reconstructive mouth surgery from the damage it would cause.
The frosty relationship with the players would thaw in time. Katzman devoted lots of energy to school visits and public events. He’d appear as himself, speak to the crowd, duck away to put on the costume as the crowd watched a video, and a few minutes later, there was Orbit bringing the energy.
“It was just great community outreach that I fell in love with,” Katzman said.
Katzman continued doing similar outreach in various forms after he stopped performing as Orbit after a few seasons. He looks back fondly on his days as the original Orbit.
“I took a great deal of pride in being as visible and as present during the game as possible,” he continued. “I never stopped greeting people up and down the aisles, and my neck and my knees are still paying for it to this day.”
Orbit continued with Houston through the 1999 season but didn’t make the trip to Enron Field when the team moved in 2000. In the years that followed, a groundswell of Orbit support bubbled up online. Astros fans missed their green fuzzy out-of-this-world mascot. A Facebook group was launched, “Bring BACK Orbit,” and in 2012, the team finally listened to those calls.
Orbit was back, with a new color (lime green instead of neon green) and a new look. Orbit has since become one of baseball’s favorite mascots.
The man who developed the original Orbit is proud to see the mascot’s enduring popularity and impact.
"I guess it had been so many years that I just kind of sloughed it off. And then I watched him in highlights, and I had to tip my cap to him. Whoever's in there knows what they're doing,” Katzman said.
“It's a part of my past that I still have lots of wonderful memories about."