Earlier this week, the Trenton Thunder announced that Derby, the team's beloved team bat dog, had passed away at the age of 9. This sad news resulted in a flood of condolences from across the country, an outpouring of grief that spoke to the profound impact the ebullient golden retriever had on the Yankees' Double-A affiliate's game day experience.
Thunder general manager Jeff Hurley said that "Derby was one of the biggest parts of our identity." Indeed, he was. Among other things, Derby was the star of an ESPN E-60 segment, the subject of a children's book and a frequent focus of the Thunder's most notable promotions. Last season, for example, the team gave away a bobblehead featuring Derby and his "best friend," Reggie Jackson. And twice they wore jerseys with Derby's face on them.
Derby's importance speaks to the outsized roles of dogs at Minor League baseball parks across the country. Some, like Derby, are trained to retrieve bats and deliver water to the umpires. Others enliven the ballpark with their simple, joyful presence.
The passionate public response to Derby's death was motivated, at least in part, by the strong bat dog tradition the Thunder have established. Derby carried on in the footsteps -- or "paw steps," using the Thunder's preferred terminology -- of his father, Chase. Chase and Derby shared bat dog duties from 2010-12, when Chase retired due to arthritis. Chase, who debuted in 2002, made his last public appearance at a "retirement party" thrown in his honor on July 5, 2013. He died three days later at the age of 13.
Chase's poignant onfield party resulted in the Thunder winning the 2013 "Promo of the Year" MiLBY Award.
"Chase was more than just a dog," said Thunder senior vice president of corporate sales Eric Lipsman, who served as Chase (and Derby's) caretaker. "He had those piercing eyes and he'd look at you right into your soul."
The Thunder's bat dog legacy will live on through Rookie, Derby's son and Chase's grandson. The canine family's onfield lineage expanded out of Trenton. Derby's older brother, Ollie, served as the New Hampshire Fisher Cats' "Big Paw-Pi" before retiring at the end of the 2016 campaign.
In 2006, four years after the Thunder acquired Chase, the Greensboro Grasshoppers debuted their own bat dog. Over the ensuing 11 seasons, they have been perhaps the only team to rival the Thunder for commitment to the bat dog tradition.
It began with Miss Babe Ruth, a black Labrador who was 9 months old when she took the field for the first time in July 2006. She quickly became a fan favorite and worked 649 consecutive games before retiring in 2015 (at which point, her ball bucket was donated to the National Baseball Hall of Fame). Miss Babe Ruth transitioned into a new role as special assistant to team president Donald Moore. In this capacity, she's served as a goodwill ambassador, greeting fans on the concourse at First National Bank Field and making occasional public appearances. Some Greensboro residents desire more out of Babe, however. In November, the Grasshoppers reported that she received two votes in the city's mayoral election.
For a large part of her run as a bat dog, Miss Babe Ruth worked alongside her brother, Master Yogi Berra. Master Yogi died last August at the age of 9, six weeks after being diagnosed with cancer. Master Yogi Berra's signature between-inning promotion was to chase a tennis ball shot out of a modified T-shirt gun. On one memorable evening in 2009, the dog was ejected from the game after relieving himself on the field in the midst of this endeavor.
The Grasshoppers currently employ the services of Miss Lou Lou Gehrig, a black lab who took over the bat dog role upon Miss Babe Ruth's retirement.
Master Yogi Berra isn't the only canine to relieve himself on the field. Deuce, an English yellow Labrador, has worked as the Myrtle Beach Pelicans' bat dog for the better part of a decade. In 2009, he "lived up to his name." A third instance occurred the following season at a Northwest Arkansas Naturals game. The culprit was a shelter dog who was on the field as part of the team's "Adoptable Pet of the Game Promotion."
Such promotions are common in Minor League baseball. In at least one instance, the team running the promotion adopted a dog itself. That was the case with the Reno Aces, who took ownership of Princess the pit bull. Initially, the team agreed to foster Princess until she found her "forever home." But after no takers were found, the Aces took her on as a member of the front office family. Princess mingles with fans on the concourse at Greater Nevada Field and has become so popular that the Aces began selling Princess plush dolls at the team store.
There are other notable Minor League ballpark dogs and many more will make their presence felt. One glimpse of the future can be found in Frisco, Texas: the RoughRiders have Brooks, who's been in training for a bat dog role. But as this tweet from last season indicates, he has his work cut out for him.