"I just wanted a great dog to take to the ballpark every day. I never expected a legend."
Those are the words of Northwest Arkansas Naturals groundskeeper Monty Sowell, who does indeed spend the entirety of his workday with a local canine legend. That would be Ruby, a 12-year-old black lab who is, arguably, the most popular individual at Arvest Ballpark.
As Sowell goes about his rounds, whether it's on foot or on golf cart, there's Ruby right beside him. She's an unflappable presence, radiating a bemused calm amidst the constant barrage of fans who want to give her a pat on the head and, often, pose for a picture.
Sowell, a native of Arkansas with a deep tan that comes from years of working outdoors, is very accommodating to the fans who seek Ruby's attention. "Can I pet her?" is a very common question, and Sowell's answer is almost always the same: "Absolutely."
He takes an obvious pride in Ruby's ballpark celebrity, which has expanded to the point where not only are stuffed Ruby dolls available at the team store, but they outsell those of Strike the mascot. And in the world of Minor League Baseball, one-upping the mascot is no easy task.
Sowell first acquired Ruby when he was working at a golf course, but it was when he took a job with the Midland RockHounds in 2002 that the legend of Ruby truly began. To start, Midland's First American Bank Ballpark was a perfect environment.
"A dog with the 'Hounds just fit right in," said Sowell.
But then controversy struck as part of a chain of events that, if it were fiction, would sound too implausible to be believed. One evening, Midland hosted the city's dog catchers in a stadium suite and one of them, apparently unable to separate business from pleasure, returned the next day. Here's how Sowell recounts the conversation.
"Well, where's Ruby?"
"She has the day off. We're spraying fertilizer."
"Well, here's a $500 ticket for having an animal at a city-sanctioned event, and another $500 ticket for not having a leash."
The local media caught wind of the story, and Ruby soon became a cause célèbre. One of the local news stations ran a poll asking viewers if Ruby should get a special exemption from the city's ordinances, and the issue was debated on talk radio. The Texas League All-Star Game was fast approaching, and the big question was "would Ruby be there?"
She was. Bowing to the public pressure that resulted from the media exposure, the city granted an exemption and Ruby was named "the official dog of the RockHounds."
A legend was born.
Sowell makes it clear that, when it comes to his places of employment, he and Ruby are a "package deal." After one year in Fresno, the pair moved to Northwest Arkansas in 2007 to assist with the process of constructing Arvest Ballpark's playing field. General manager Eric Edelstein, who also came on board in 2007, said Ruby's presence within the organization "set the tone." For at Arvest Ballpark, an animal-friendly environment prevails.
The stadium is in a relatively rural location, for starters, and the smell of food often attracts stray animals. Edelstein and his staff take it upon themselves to find homes for all of these creatures; one of his own cats was acquired this way, and a team cameraman and former beat writer are among those who have done the same. Most notably, the team took in a mother basset hound and her eight pups prior to the 2010 season.
"We raised them in the visiting shower area," recalled Edelstein. "They were born on January first and needed a three-month home, so for us it was a perfect storm. We got the story in the paper and posted it on Facebook, and they were all adopted within a day. ... It they find a way to us, we find them a home."
This mentality led to the team's nightly "Adoptable Dog" promotion, which is staged in conjunction with two local animal shelters. A dog in need of a home is brought out onto the field after the second inning, then brought to the concourse so that interested fans can get a closer look and, hopefully, decide to give it a loving home. In 2010, on the third day of the promotion, the Naturals got publicity for the program on a level that they never could have planned for.
Mona, the pet of the game, got a case of the jitters after being brought out onto the field and bolted into the outfield. And there, she defecated. The resulting Dog Poops On Field" video clip went viral, and the next day nine people showed up at the animal shelter looking to adopt Mona.
"The first person [to show up] got her, but four or five more dogs were adopted that day by people who had gone in for Mona. That dog saved lives," said Edelstein. "And it was such a great start to the program. The best PR agency in the world couldn't have gotten us that kind of exposure."