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02/01/2008 10:00 AM ET
Minor League Baseball unleashed
Dogs take the field in Trenton, Greensboro, Brooklyn and Altoona
Miss Babe Ruth was billed as "the youngest batgirl in the history of the Minor Leagues" when she made her on-field debut in Greensboro in 2006.  (Greensboro Grasshoppers)

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Within the world of Minor League Baseball, 2008 may very well turn out to be the year of the dog.

For proof of this initially puzzling statement, one need not look any further than the recent press release archives listed right here on MiLB.com. On January 18, the Greensboro Grasshoppers announced that the collar of Miss Babe Ruth (the club's popular Black Labrador) had sold for $290 in a charity auction conducted on eBay.

That same day, news emanated from Brooklyn that the Cyclones had added six-week-old "Maverick the Wonder Dog" to the team's front office staff. Just three days later, the Trenton Thunder proudly announced that Chase, their widely celebrated Golden Retriever, had fathered a litter of puppies. Finally, on Jan. 25, the Altoona Curve proudly unveiled "Bob the Baseball Dog" at their annual Hot Stove Dinner.

This recent confluence of canine-related events helps to illustrate a simple fact: Minor League Baseball is going to the dogs. And all involved in helping to perpetuate this phenomenon couldn't be happier.

The Lead Dog

When it comes to the idea of acquiring a dog to serve as a Minor League team mascot, the Trenton Thunder is at the head of the pack. The Eastern League franchise acquired Chase at the end of the 2002 season and since then have seen the Golden Retriever attain a level of popularity that exceeded its wildest expectations.

"We jokingly call him 'Fran-Chase, because we know he's worth far more to the ballclub than any of us in the front office," said Thunder general manager Brad Taylor. "When we first got Chase, no one had any idea how much we would all come to love having him around, and how valuable he would be to the ballclub."

The idea to welcome a "team dog" into the fold occurred after members of the Thunder front office witnessed an impressive performance by Jake the Diamond Dog (a touring act that is managed by SRO Productions, which was profiled in the previous edition of Minoring in Business). After acquiring Chase, the club contacted Jeff Marchal, Jake's trainer, and hired him to work with Chase, as well. Before long, Chase had become adept at retrieving bats and bringing water to the umpires, among several other ballpark chores. He also quickly endeared himself to Trenton's fan base.

"Minor League Baseball is all about family fun, and there aren't many things that portray that concept better than a dog," said Taylor, expressing a sentiment that was echoed by all of the dog-owning teams I talked to for this article. "He's a big part of our game-day culture."

Over the years, Chase has become a frisbee-catching community icon, and Taylor still marvels at the number of fans who line up at every game in order to obtain his "paw-tograph." He accompanies staff members to a wide variety of team events, and has become a comforting and inspiring figure at local schools and hospitals. The Thunder have staged a wide variety of promotional nights around Chase, including the inevitable bobblehead ("It really was amazing to see adults at the ballpark fighting over a dog's bobblehead doll," remarked Taylor).

Chase even includes Derek Jeter among his long list of close and personal friends. The Yankee shortstop was so taken by Chase during a rehab stint in Trenton that he has since contacted the front office in order to request Chase T-shirts for him and his friends. Perhaps Jeter, like many others before him, found comfort in Chase's calm and unflappable demeanor.

"Players really take to him," said Taylor. "It's just a neat, relaxing thing to have a dog standing by you in the on-deck circle."

Most recently, the Thunder announced that Chase has fathered a litter of puppies, one of whom will be kept by the club and groomed as Chase's sidekick and eventual replacement. This insures that the city of Trenton will be flush with canine companionship for years and years to come.

The Great Bambina

A more recent but no less popular addition to the Minors' ever-growing list of canine mascots is the Greensboro Grasshoppers' Miss Babe Ruth, a 2-year-old black lab. Babe splits her time between Greensboro's NewBridge Bank Park and the home of Grasshoppers president and general manager Donald Moore.

"Before Babe, I had a black lab that lived to be 16 before we finally had to put it to sleep," said Moore. "When we decided to get another dog, I was determined that it would be one that I could take to work."

After going through "extended Spring Training" in 2006, Babe made her on-field debut that July. She was 9 months old at the time, and the Grasshoppers billed her as "the youngest batgirl in the history of the Minor Leagues."

"She's a triple threat, really," said Moore. "She'll spend a couple innings as the batgirl, but she also brings baseballs out to the umpires and runs the bases after the game."

Of course, with any new job, there is always a learning curve. That holds true for both man and dog.

"The first four or five games that Babe was our batgirl, we had a trainer here locally working with her," recalled Moore. "But soon, that responsibility was transitioned over to me. Babe works off of a few simple commands, and 'Fetch' means she should go get the bat."

"But the first time I was supposed to tell her to fetch, I was so nervous and fired up that I just said 'Go get it!', and Babe didn't know what to do and just took off for first base instead."

Babe has since mastered all of her game-day routines, and Moore characterized her 2007 performance as "flawless." Around the community, her popularity only continues to grow.

"She has her own merchandise line and sponsors," said Moore. "And people are stopping by the stadium all the time, if for no other reason than to see Babe."

Rookies

Not surprisingly, more teams have been displaying interest in acquiring canine mascots of their own. As mentioned in the introduction to this article, both the Altoona Curve and the Brooklyn Cyclones recently joined the club.

Steve Cohen, the general manager of the Cyclones, said his staff is still getting used to having Maverick (an 8-week-old chocolate lab) around the office.

"She was in a staff meeting with us this morning, barking and yelping," he said. "It's kind of hard to plan the responsibilities that Maverick will have. We'll just see where it goes. Hopefully the fans can expect her to make an appearance during an inning or two each game. We want her to be part of the atmosphere."

"Of course, down the line, we'd be open to doing promos and giveaway items. Just as long as her head doesn't get too big."

Maverick will soon begin "Spring Training," and the Cyclones hope that she will be ready for game-day action when the New York-Penn League season begins in late June.

Meanwhile, approximately 280 miles west of Brooklyn, "Bob the Baseball Dog," a yellow lab, is learning his trade in Altoona.

"He's just a puppy right now, and he's currently spending a lot of time with the breeder, learning basic obedience skills," said Altoona Curve media relations director Jason Dambach. "Since we unveiled him [on January 22nd] the reaction has been awesome. There's nothing more fan-friendly than a dog."

Dambach, however, is realistic about the impact that Bob will be able to make in his first season.

"It's as if he was a Minor League ballplayer," he said. "Bob will start at the lowest levels and learn the fundamentals, but hopefully within a few seasons he'll be a star. As the ambassador for the Curve, he's definitely going to have to be a hard worker. But there's no doubt that he's going to have a heck of a good life."

As Chase and Miss Babe Ruth have already made clear, canine mascots are valuable, and often indispensable, marketing and public-relations tools. To teams who are considering adding a dog to their front-office staff, Taylor has an important piece of advice.

"The teams who decide to do this need to be really sincere about it," said the Thunder GM. "A dog is more than just an employee. He has to be treated as part of the family. It's a big commitment, but we never could have predicted just how much fun we'd have."

Benjamin Hill is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.