BJ Birdy was the original mascot for the Toronto Blue Jays, serving from 1979 to 1999. He was ejected from a game in 1993 for "showing up" the umpire, after making gestures the umpire found offensive. He was replaced in 1999 with Ace and Diamond. BJ was created and played by the same person, Kevin Shanahan, for his entire 20-year career as the Jays' mascot. Shanahan lost 3 toes on his left foot in an automobile accident during the 1991 off season, but managed to return as the Jays mascot, missing only the first home game of the season.
Kevin Shanahan was an employee of Ontario Place, a theme park attraction run by the provincial government of Ontario, located on Toronto's lakeshore across from municipally-run Exhibition Place site of Exhibition Stadium, the team's home field at the time. As a University of Toronto student, Shanahan designed and performed in a moose costume at the park, to replace the more "motley-looking thing" they already had. The second moose costume was uncomfortable, so he designed a more comfortable bird costume. A friend suggested to him the Blue Jays might want a mascot. Not a baseball fan, he had never seen a live game. He commented "it didn't take me long to see why a mascot was needed. The game needs a distraction. Otherwise your mind wanders." Shanahan was a part-time science student, before he later dropped out. Previously he had attended Michael Power High School, where he drew comics for the school newspaper.
The team was working on a deal with CHUM Limited to develop a mascot character, after the Montreal Expos had added the character of Youppi! earlier in the year. Mascots are fuzzy animals hired to keep people happy—young people especially—who aren't fascinated by all the statistics we pour at them, or who just get distracted by the time they reach the sixth or seventh innings. Kevin Shanahan, 1998In 1985, the BJ Birdy character was described as "lovable, irascible, curious, impudent, mischievous, and often the victim of his own impulsiveness." Much of the routines were improvised. "B.J. is a reaction character. He's a fan. He wants to know what's going on. He'll duck behind a dugout and then pop up again. He does what a lot of fans would do if they weren't so reserved." The costume had "perfect vision", and was said to be quite agile.
During the 1981 Major League Baseball strike, 22-year-old Shanahan told the Star that he would lose $7000 if the whole season was cancelled. He suggested he might return to Ontario Place, but worried the strike might permanently kill the character. During the strike, he rebuilt his Basil Beaver and Mickey Moose costume heads for Ontario Place, and received a contract to build six more animals in the autumn. By the end of the strike, he estimated a loss of $3600.
The Globe And Mail reported a rumour that Shanahan would not be offered a new contract for 1986.
The character and its actor had a continuously strained relationship with the team and some fans. When receiving complaints from the fans or media on his behavior at a game, the team front office would apparently reply "B.J. Who?" In 1985, he commented: "I'm always walking a fine wire. I found out early that Blue Jays won't back me up, that I'm on my own. So I'm on a balancing act."
On the move to SkyDome (later renamed Rogers Centre), "BJ Birdy" told the Star that the team should keep prices as is.
On April 1, 1985, the first BJ Birdy comic ran in the Toronto Star, created by Shanahan. In a preview article, he commented on the character: "I see him as an underbird but he'll definitely be his own bird. He'll get the odd quip in his favor, he'll second-guess like fans do but, most of the time, everything will fall back on him. Of course, he might develop into something totally different. I have ideas but that isn't to say they and B.J. won't change. Situations that B.J. got into at the stadium were limited but this way the sky's the limit. He can fall off stadiums, go through walls, do silly, little things. There's total freedom." The character often criticized Jays management. The Globe noted that fans "had grown abusive. Broadcasters question the reason for his existence. The team's front office offers only middling support." The newspaper noted a negative bent to the comic, with many strips taking shots at those groups. When Paul Beeston was asked about his opinion on a strip centering on him, vice president he commented "What comic strip? I didn't know he had one." In another strip, BJ Birdy's mother is about to hit mascot-hating broadcaster Tony Kubek on the head. He commented that the strip was based on real situations, "when I distort something, I only tone it down."
On May 22, 1993, BJ Birdy gained wider notoriety when he was ejected from a Blue Jays game against the Minnesota Twins for trying to influence an umpire's call on a caught line drive. In the bottom of the first inning, umpire Jim McKean ruled that Twins infielder David McCarty didn't catch a line drive hit by Roberto Alomar, ruling the play a hit. Although the ruling favoured his team, BJ Birdy was caught up in the excitement of the play and attempted to get the crowd to make the "hit" ruling just as McKean was actually making the ruling. McKean still took exception to the antic, ejecting BJ Birdy from the game, which the Jays still won 7-0.
Over the character's final seasons, Shanahan suggested that Jays management turned down multiple appearance requests for BJ Birdy. The Raptor, mascot of the Toronto Raptors basketball team, was meanwhile gaining acclaim for his acrobatic routines. The Jays noted the admiration for the NBA team's "total entertainment package". The team had its second lowest opening day attendance in 1999, desperately trying to attract audiences. The Star commented that the team's desperation was evident, suggesting that "the nadir probably reached when a van circled the field pulling a flatbed which bore B.J. Birdy, a massive plastic rodent, two dancing bears and a man firing T-shirts into the stands with a bazooka." Shanahan retained ownership of the character, despite initial attempts to sell the rights and costume to the club.
Shanahan was called into a meeting with the senior vice-president of marketing for the Toronto Blue Jays, Terry Zuk; the two apparently had not met before. He was told he was being replaced by two new mascots. Shanahan again offered to sell the costume and copyrights, but the club declined. The team suggested, if it were too hard to hold onto the costume, the Jays Care Foundation would gladly accept a donation; he flatly refused. It was also suggested Shanahan might be interested in training the new performers. Seeking legal advice, he informed the club the new mascots could not debut before his contract expired on December 31, well after the season's end. In response, the club called him at his home in Mississauga, telling him not to appear at the final two regular season home games; he would quip to the media that they were the first "two paid days off after 20 years."
In early December, the story about BJ Birdy's two replacements made the news. Shanahan commented that "there's not a great deal of pain in this. I had a good run. But it bothers me that the Jays talked about it before my contract was up. They gave their word they'd wait until December 31." General Manager Gord Ash contested that "there was no intent to reveal that. We were confronted with the story, it was out from another source and there was no sense having a bunker mentality and denying it."