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Dogs bring bats, joy at Trenton ballpark

Derby, Rookie entertain fans of all ages as Thunder bat dogs
Pitcher James Reeves poses with bat dogs Rookie (left) and Derby for a 2018 Thunder promotion. (Kelsie Heneghan/
September 7, 2017

"One out." Derby and Rookie get up, their tails wagging in anticipation of what's to come. They've had a season full of game days in the books, but that doesn't take away from the excitement of their job. Their duty. "Two outs." Rookie gets his leash put on; he knows

"One out."

Derby and Rookie get up, their tails wagging in anticipation of what's to come. They've had a season full of game days in the books, but that doesn't take away from the excitement of their job. Their duty.

"Two outs."

Rookie gets his leash put on; he knows it's almost time. He starts heading for the door, but stops once he realizes his human, Eric Lipsman, dropped the leash. The 3-year-old looks around, then realizes he has to wait for the final out of the top of the first inning before he can assume his duties as one of the Trenton Thunder bat dogs.

While his father, Derby, lies back down, Rookie paces, waiting for the final out. The wait seems like eternity as three more batters come to the plate. Finally, radio announcers Adam Giardino and Jon Mozes proclaim through speakers above that the Reading Fightin Phils' half of the inning is over.

It's time. And Rookie knows it. "Three outs" means everything to the pair of golden retrievers. As handler Jeff Hurley goes to grab Rookie's leash, the Phillie Fanatic walks by and says hello to the dogs.

Hurley -- whose other job is the Thunder chief operating officer/general manager -- and the younger dog follow the visiting mascot down the hallway that leads to the dugout. With a casual mix of players, trainers, mascots (the Count from Sesame Street also made an appearance) and animals, the corridor feels more like it belongs backstage at Saturday Night Live than at a Double-A stadium.

Rookie ignores any commotion, though, as he pulls Hurley to the dugout and up the steps as they get into position on the field. Lipsman -- who is also known as senior vice president of corporate sales and sponsorships for Trenton -- stays back as to not be a distraction to the working dog.

For the next three outs, Rookie patiently waits with Hurley until the play is over and he can run to get the bat -- always by the barrel side, so not to taste the pine tar. After a 1-2-3 half, the dog runs back into the dugout where Lipsman is waiting to praise him for a successful day of work.

Rookie wasn't always batting 1.000, however. At just 16 months old, the puppy made his highly anticipated Double-A debut on Opening Day 2015. But perhaps it was too soon. With ESPN cameras rolling (for an E:60 special on the family business), Rookie trotted off toward home plate, but then kept going as he ran laps around the field.

"He wasn't anywhere near ready," Lipsman said. "He was a year away from being ready, but they wanted to get it on film and, of course, he ran around to center field, running all over the place. So it was a fun thing, the fans loved it, the TV audience loved it, but it might have set him back a little bit."

Perhaps it was the bright lights or the pressure to follow in his father's (and grandfather Chase's) paw prints. Whatever it was, the prospect wasn't ready for the Eastern League.

Lipsman and Hurley continued to work with family trainer Shelly Leibowitz to figure out how to get Rookie up to par with Derby. In the training facilities, the pup was perfect, he got the bats with no problem. But as many Thunder players know, what happens in the cages doesn't always translate.

One potential problem was the noise. But since fans were never going to stop cheering for a golden retriever carrying a bat on a baseball field, they had to find a way to get Rookie adjusted to all the support. One day, everyone in the front office took the field, acting as baserunners, fielders, batters and umpires. With music blasting over the PA system and the staff cheering, Rookie experienced a simulated game. Slowly but surely, with appearances here and there over the 2015 and 2016 seasons, the dog gained the maturity that comes with age and experience, until he was ready to be an everyday starter this year.

Rookie has matured so much that even when a dog in the stands heckled/barked at him during a Bark in the Park game earlier this year, he wasn't fazed.

Joining his ever-professional father, Rookie and Derby are two of the biggest stars in Trenton right now. The pair visits schools and pet fairs in the offseason, poses for meet-and-greets with adoring fans and have been featured in major national publications. There are even stuffed animals and T-shirts with their faces on it.

From the moment they get to ARM & HAMMER Park in the morning, they are constantly greeted. The pair make their rounds throughout the stadium before Derby settles in for a nap, while Rookie continues his Mayor-like duties.

"He is the most social dog there is," Lipsman said. "He loves to just be with people; he loves to let everyone know when he arrives."

Rookie plays with toys and any ball he can find, and Derby occasionally steals the toy. As front-office staff and players walk by, they each say hello to the dogs, sometimes stopping to pet them or take a picture. Of course, if someone stops petting them before they are ready, both dogs will paw the person until he or she continues.

"It's hard to have a rough day," Hurley said, seemingly with no pun intended.

The sentiments are shared in the clubhouses, too. Visiting teams such as Portland entice the dogs to spend some time with them, while Thunder athletic trainer Jimmy Downam keeps treats in his desk. When players are allergic, like current Thunder third baseman Dante Bichette, Lipsman makes sure the dogs are never in the clubhouse at the same time as him to ensure safety.

Over the years, Yankees prospects and rehabbing stars have loved spending time with the three generations of bat dogs, starting with Chase in 2002. Above Derby and Rookie's dog bowls hang pictures of them with the likes of Alex Rodriguez, David Robertson and Reggie Jackson -- Mr. October even has a bobblehead with Derby.

When Chase passed away in 2013, previous Thunder players, including Phil Hughes, tweeted their thoughts while the Yankees community had an outpouring of affection toward the dog. Lipsman noticed the impact the dogs have had on players, adding to the home-away-from-home feeling that can be necessary to succeed in the Minors.

"That's pretty cool to have dogs around. I'm a dog guy, I have a dog at home, who I don't get to see a whole lot during the season," said current Thunder pitcher James Reeves, who misses his chocolate lab, Sully. "So it's always nice to have a couple of really cool golden retrievers around the clubhouse."

Derby and Rookie got to visit some of their old friends when they got the call to Triple-A. After the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre front office heard the Trenton front office was making a trip to a RailRiders game, the senior affiliate had to ask, "Are you bringing the dogs?"

Lipsman said, 'Let's do it,' and with that, the bat dogs got their first promotion. Only one problem: the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre home dugout is on the third-base line, whereas Derby and Rookie were used to the first-base side in Trenton. Lipsman and Hurley knew this could pose a problem, but they hoped for the best. On July 18, Derby got the night off to relax, so it was up to Rookie to represent the family name at the Minors' highest level. What followed was not part of his training, but it was viral gold.

"Instead of getting the bat, he ran right to the mound, got the ball from the pitcher, [Gabriel Ynoa]" Lipsman said, "[Ynoa] got a new ball from the umpire, Rookie dropped the ball and went back to [Ynoa] and said, 'I want this one.'"

Although Derby and Rookie were immediately sent back down to Double-A, the RailRiders invited them back as guests -- not bat dogs -- to the Triple-A National Championship later this month. With all their gaffs, the canines never get in any real trouble, as the umpires and even the Yankees front office enjoy their antics.

"I know [general manager] Brian Cashman has said on many occasions he would love to try to have them get the bats at Yankee Stadium, but Major League Baseball just would never allow that," Lipsman said.

At nine years old, Derby continues doing the job he loves, the job his father, Chase, passed down to him and the job his brother, Ollie, did in New Hampshire until his retirement in 2013. After his son warms up the crowd in the first, Derby goes out in the second.

"I'll bring him onto the field. I'll pat his head, give him a kiss on the nose, wish him good luck and that's a routine that we've always had," Lipsman said. "And actually it started with Chase."

For reasons beyond what vets and trainers can figure out, Derby always knows when it's the third out. With a slower pace earlier in the inning, he puts all his energy into getting the final bat of the frame. The third out is also when umpires throw the ball onto the mound for the next pitcher -- something that still makes Derby act like a puppy.

"The umpires, we tell them before the series starts to hold the baseball until the third out's over and Derby has started to carry the bat. Sometimes they won't do that -- they'll just throw the ball right back, and then Derby will ignore the bat and run and get the ball," Lipsman said. "The fans go crazy. He gets more applause for doing that than he does when he brings the bat back."

After the second inning is over, Derby returns to the office where Rookie is waiting, tail wagging. Their ARM & HAMMER bibs come off, signifying the end of their workday. They eat dinner, then go outside to run around, play with each other and go to the bathroom.

Because at the end of the day, they are still just a couple of dogs.

Kelsie Heneghan is a contributor to Follow her on Twitter @Kelsie_Heneghan.