Fans who waited through a two-hour rain delay at Henley Field on Thursday night didn't get to see their Lakeland Flying Tigers complete the Florida State League's first no-hitter of the year -- the bid was broken up in the seventh inning -- but they did enjoy an unscheduled on-field appearance.
Henley the Eighth, a cat who resides on the premises but had not previously shown much interest in baseball, waltzed onto the field during a break in the action in the bottom of the seventh.
"Randomly in between batters, she just kind of slowly walked out onto the field," Flying Tigers assistant general manager Dan Lauer said. "The batter in the on-deck circle walked toward her, and she sped up. When she was past him, she just walked casually toward home plate. The ump stopped the game as soon as he saw.
"What was left of [the crowd] loved it. They were laughing. They were eating it up."
The cat delay did not last long. Home plate umpire J.C. Velez gestured for Henley to leave, but got no response. Lakeland bat boy Griffin Ryan scooped her up and handed her over to GM Zach Burek. Before the Flying Tigers finished their 5-0 win over Jupiter, Burek escorted her back to her bed, where her four kittens awaited their mother.
"All the kittens are already spoken for -- people have claimed them," Lauer said. "She lives in the outside part of the stadium where the grounds crew shed and office are. She's got a box with towels where she sleeps and where she nurses her kittens. They've got food and water and everything. The grounds crew takes care of her. There's a litter box she uses out there."
The Lakeland club's regular home, Joker Marchant Stadium, is undergoing major renovations this season, pushing the Class A Advanced Flying Tigers to Henley Field, which originally opened as Athletic Park in 1925. With a capacity of 1,000, it still has something of a classic feel.
"It's the old, original ballpark that the Tigers used to train in," said Lauer, who filled in as the PA announcer Thursday night. "They played here back when Joker Marchant was getting renovations in 2002, but this is all of our staff's first time working here. It's a small old-school park. Babe Ruth, Al Kaline, those guys all played in that park. It's a very intimate atmosphere."
In addition to Hall of Famers, the park boasts a rich history of wildlife inhabitants.
"She's named Henley the Eighth because she's the eighth stadium cat that has been there," Lauer said. "Apparently, there's a whole history of animal mascots that used to be at the park, and there used to be a donkey at some point.
"This particular cat has been here about eight months. She just showed up one day, I guess."
She's clearly made herself at home. In fact, she may know more about the ballpark than stadium personnel do -- how exactly she was able to get onto the field during the game remains a mystery.
"We keep all the doors shut," Lauer said. "I know last night I was sitting in the little office getting some work done, and I had the door open. She went right out on the field and walked around and was just doing her thing. When we don't have a game and there's nobody around, they let her walk around, because there's no traffic, nobody driving here. But we have the doors shut during games."
Was it pure coincidence that Henley the Eighth made her appearance a half inning after No. 16 Miami prospect K.J. Woods singled off right-hander Willy Paredes to end the Lakeland staff's chance for a no-hitter?
"I think she was excited about it," Lauer said. "It was a combined no-hitter, of course, because of the rain delay [in the fourth]. We went from no-hitter to no-litter."
Last year on the circuit, an alligator surprised Rays righty Brent Honeywell, but the Flying Tigers aren't too concerned about other fauna messing with Henley the Eighth.
"We haven't seen anything else," Lauer said. "At Joker, the big birds all nest up in the light towers, but we haven't seen that here."