Baseball’s chicken turns 35

Published 2:07 am Thursday, June 18, 2009

DES MOINES, Iowa — In the middle of the sixth inning of an Iowa Cubs minor league game last week, a 55-year-old man in a chicken suit challenged someone dressed as Barney the Dinosaur to a dance-off.

The San Diego Chicken didn’t win — it turns out that Barney is a good break dancer — but the chicken got the last laugh: While Barney celebrated, the chicken blindsided him to the turf along the first-base line, delighting the crowd on a gorgeous June night.

For 35 years, Ted Giannoulas has jumped and run — and flattened Barney — at ballparks across America, climbing into a feathered costume to go to work as the San Diego Chicken.

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‘‘It’s the one magic elixir that keeps me young,’’ he says.

Yet the bumps and bruises on Giannoulas don’t heal nearly as quickly as they used to. He is in the twilight of a long and lucrative career playing to audiences large and small, and acknowledged that this could be the San Diego Chicken’s final season.

The gigs aren’t there like they used to be. Nearly every team in the NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB have their own licensed mascots — a trend inspired in part by the San Diego Chicken’s popularity so many years ago — and Giannoulas has cut back his schedule in recent years.

Down from a high of about 250 games each year in his heyday, Giannoulas said he’ll leave his San Diego home for just 50 appearances this summer.

‘‘At the end of this season I’ll make a determination if I think I can go another season. I can’t say for certain. I’ll just see how my body feels, what my energy level might be going forward,’’ Giannoulas said. ‘‘The fun and energy is still at the ballpark. I still get a charge out of it.’’

Being the San Diego Chicken — or the Famous Chicken, as he’s also called — might seem like an easy way to make a buck. In fact, Giannoulas expects to pull in six figures this summer (he won’t say how much).

But it’s a grueling night of high-energy, slapstick comedy for the 5-foot-4 Giannoulas, whose suit gets so hot he jokes his ‘‘eggs come out hard-boiled.’’ And contrary to what many might believe, Giannoulas is the only one who’s ever worn it.

He will perform three to four times a week from June through early September, with nearly every appearance in a different state. He’s helped by a traveling three-man staff to put on what top assistant Dave Barac likens to a ‘‘play in a sports venue.’’