Oriole Bird unmasked by fall on field

Mascot: Injured in action, teacher has spent his summer finishing a children's book and getting physical therapy.

August 20, 1999|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,SUN STAFF

John J. Krownapple never told his fifth-grade pupils that he wore an oversized bird suit and big floppy shoes on nights and weekends.

When someone would become suspicious and question him, the 24-year-old Howard County elementary school teacher would talk his way around the truth.

"That's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard," he'd say. Or, "Don't you think I have papers to grade?" Or, "The Orioles have a bird?"

Then, three months ago, everyone found out: Krownapple, who teaches at Triadelphia Ridge, was taken to a hospital after falling 10 feet in full costume as the Oriole mascot from the right-field stands at Camden Yards during the ninth inning of a game against the Chicago White Sox.

Krownapple, one of three men who work as the Oriole mascot, says he was pushed off the wall while high-fiving fans, an incident he says kept him out of school for more than a week, in a wheelchair for more than a month and unable to put on his black-and-orange bird suit and entertain fans at the ballpark.

"It's a job where people either love you or people want to do something stupid," he said in an interview at his home in Columbia's Hickory Ridge village, an Orioles game on the television in the background.

Krownapple suffered a broken and severely sprained left ankle, a bruised right heel, soft-tissue damage and torn ligaments and tendons as a result of the fall on May 4. He is in physical therapy three times a week for one to two hours a day. After two months in a boot-type cast and one month in a plastic "air" cast, he wears an ankle brace. He will probably have surgery, he says, though his doctor can't guarantee success.

"I can't see [the ankle] being good enough and healed enough to go back this season," Krownapple said.

In the stands during games, he has come to know which goofy mascot tricks work: rhythmic clapping, tickling fans, pretending to chomp hungrily on their heads.

In the classroom, Krownapple has become something of a mascot, too. Last year, he and fellow Triadelphia Ridge teacher Kevin Mulroe created two characters, Hank and Cletus, as a way to introduce a social studies unit on the American West.

To the pupils' delight, Krownapple and Mulroe dressed up as the melodramatic, mismatched pair. Hank's recipes for pemmican -- "a perfect blend of dried meat and suet, of protein and melted animal fat" -- became the topic of their creative writing assignments; Cletus' misadventures helped them learn geometric concepts such as diameter.

Finished book

Stuck in bed recovering from his injuries, Krownapple was able to finish "Pannin' for Rocks: A Story of the 1849 California Gold Rush," co-written with Mulroe, which chronicles Hank and Cletus' adventures in the West (the authors are shopping for a publisher). A second unpublished book, "The Muledruff Trail: A Twisted Tale of Epidemics Along the Oregon Trail," was finished recently.

"If you use humor, you just get [pupils] involved," said Krownapple, who is illustrating the books. "If you keep the joke going, they just always want to know what's next."

Terrapin turtle

Krownapple first became a mascot as a sophomore at the University of Maryland, College Park on a dorm room dare. He tried out for the job, thinking he'd do it "just for a story," but came to like traveling with the football and basketball teams and suiting up as Testudo the Terrapin.

A few years ago, Krownapple feared he might be crushed on the job after the Terps upset the top-ranked college basketball team in the country, the Tar Heels of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, at home in College Park.

The crowd descended on the court, picked him up and passed him around in victory. He felt people tugging at the turtle's head, making it hard to breathe (the costume head is held in place with a chin strap).

"I panicked," he says. "I saw my life flash in front of me. Luckily, I made it to the other side" of the court.

At Camden Yards, the mascot's job -- that includes running up and down stairs, high-fiving fans and being generally goofy -- can be so demanding that two men switch off during one game. Krownapple compares wearing the oversized bird suit with "wearing a carpet around you with no ventilation."

"I lose like 10 pounds a game," he said. "It's very, very physically demanding."

Krownapple, who is helping Howard County rewrite the fifth-grade social studies curriculum, is receiving workers compensation from the Orioles, which helps pay his medical bills, and is seeking lost wages from both his jobs.

He filed a lawsuit last month in Baltimore Circuit Court seeking $200,000 in compensatory and punitive damages from Louis G. Vitagliano of Philadelphia, the man accused of pushing him from the wall.

Vitagliano has been charged in criminal court with reckless endangerment and second-degree assault and is scheduled for trial Sept. 16. If convicted, he could receive 15 years in prison and a $30,000 fine.

Purple heart

To honor his injury in the line of duty, the Orioles gave Krownapple a jersey with a purple heart stitched on the sleeve. His pupils -- who had to take the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program test without him in May -- sent hundreds of get-well cards.

One girl wrote him a book of poems about the alleged offender, called "The Evil Man," including a poem called "The Greatest Oriole Bird That Ever Flew."

"They learned a lasting lesson on empathy, on compassion toward other people and responsibility," Krownapple said. "They just didn't understand why this guy would do it. And I couldn't really answer it."

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