The MiLBYs are the end-of-season awards that honor the best players, teams and performances of the Minor League season. For three weeks, fans chose their favorites in 13 categories, and now we're announcing the Fans' Choice winners as well as MiLB.com staff picks for the major awards.
It's a scenario that sounds straight out of Hollywood: a beloved hometown sports icon, severely weakened by old age and illness, musters up the strength for one final public goodbye.
But real life has a way of transcending screenplay stereotypes, as anyone who attended Chase's Retirement Party at Trenton's Arm & Hammer Park can attest. This emotional celebration of the life and times of the Trenton Thunder's bat dog, a 13-year-old golden retriever, handily won the Promotion of the Year MiLBY Award. The corresponding video that the team put together in Chase's honor has won the MiLBY Award for Best Mascot Clip.
Chase had been a Trenton ballpark fixture since the 2002 campaign, retrieving bats from the home plate area and delivering water to umpires. Beginning in 2010 he shared these duties with his son, Derby, and during the 2012 season he had to stop completely due to a worsening case of arthritis. The Thunder knew that his July 5 retirement party would be a bittersweet occasion, but no one could have predicted just how bittersweet it would be. On July 8, just three days after his triumphant last hurrah at Arm & Hammer Park, Chase passed away.
During his decade-plus tenure in the public eye, Chase's on-field antics garnered international media attention (including a memorable appearance on Japanese television) as well as a cadre of A-list friends in the form of Thunder players who went on to New York Yankees superstardom. So how did this all come to be?
"In the late '90s, we started to bring [touring act] Jake the Diamond Dog to the stadium. The fans went crazy whenever Jake was here, more crazy than they would for any costumed character," said Thunder senior vice president of corporate sales Eric Lipsman, Chase's caretaker and self-described "constant companion." "The fan reaction was so positive that our ownership sat down with Jake's trainer [Jeff Marchal], because they wanted to have a dog like Jake here full-time."
The Thunder then made financial arrangements and contacted a breeder before Chase was born in 2000. He spent the first two years of his life on the road with Jake and Marchal and was delivered to the Thunder fully trained in 2002. Almost immediately, Chase became the team's star attraction, doing his ballpark routines on a nightly basis and appearing at community events and school assemblies year-round.
"One of the amazing things about having Chase here on a daily basis was that he became so popular with the players, our guys as well as the visiting ones. As these guys made their way to the Majors they'd talk about him, and one of the great things that happened this year was when he was honored at Yankee Stadium in June," said Lipsman. "All of these players from the Yankees came over to meet him and pose for pictures, guys like Robbie Cano, Joba Chamberlain and David Robertson. They were all so thrilled to see him, and that's just the kind of effect that he had on people."
When asked to talk more about why Chase's presence had such an impact, Lipsman offered the following.
"It's hard to describe, hard to put into words, but he had such a calming demeanor. Over those 10 years, he put smiles on the faces of so many people and meant so much to us. So when it got to when he wasn't doing so well, we just wanted to give him an opportunity to hear the applause we felt he deserved."
This leads us to July 5's MiLBY Award-winning Retirement Party, which was held in conjunction with a Bark in the Park promotion allowing fans to bring their own dogs to the ballgame. The first 2,500 fans received Chase bobbleheads, and Chase's daughter and various grandchildren all assembled for an on-field family portrait. Chase was even scheduled to retrieve a bat for the final time, during the first inning, but this was not to be. His worsening arthritis, combined with an offseason lymphoma diagnosis, had weakened him to the point where even retrieving one bat wasn't feasible.
"[The week of the retirement ceremony] Chase had stopped eating, and he actually had spent that Saturday through Thursday in the hospital," said Lipsman. "We took him out the day before [the ceremony] because the vet said 'Take him out of there, let him be in the place where he's happiest.' So that's what we did.
I think it cheered him up, and we saw a little of the old Chase despite how bad and horrible he was feeling," he continued. "He was the ultimate professional, like 'OK, I'm going to go out there and give it one last shot.'"
Chase then spent the next two days in Lipsman's office as a steady stream of well-wishers stopped by to say a final farewell.
"Every single player [on the Thunder] came in and said goodbye," said Lipsman. "If you ever want to see grown men cry ... there were a lot of tears when these pro athletes and top prospects were in there saying goodbye to Chase."
Chase died on Monday, July 8, and as the news spread through local and then national media, the Thunder front office was besieged with messages and condolences from all over the country.
"Chase was more than just a dog -- he had those piercing eyes and he'd look at you right into your soul," said Lipsman. "He was just incredible, and not a day goes by that I don't miss him."
But though Chase may be gone, his influence on the Trenton Thunder will be felt for a long time to come. Derby continues to perform the bat dog duties once held by his father, and there are hopes that the family trade will soon be passed onto the next generation.
"Since Chase died, Derby's attitude has changed. You can see how sad he is, and sometimes you can see him looking [for Chase]. He needs somebody to be with him, and we think that having a puppy of his own will bring him back to being the happy-go-lucky Derby that we all know," said Lipsman. "So many fans have asked us, 'Are you going to breed Derby? Are we going to get to see Chase's grandson?' We're working on it, because we think that would be a great legacy for Chase."
Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MiLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz.