What this Game Needs is More Cats

Thunder, age 19, attended his first baseball game on May 21 and scored a free bandana. (via Ariel Shnitzer)

At age 19, Thunder finally got to see his first baseball game. With an umbrella for shade and a miniature electric fan for air, he braved the afternoon Texas sun and took up a spot on the right field lawn, accompanied by two generations of his family. His mom proudly carried his frail frame into the park and helped him to his seat. Thunder didn’t betray a lot of excitement, but he’s not a demonstrative guy, and this was a milestone event regardless.

That 19-year wait felt especially long for him. After all, Thunder suffers from a chronic neurological ailment. He’s lost nearly half his body weight in recent years, and you can trace the outline of his bones just underneath the skin. His legs, especially, look withered. His skin is unkempt, his hair dandruffy; he carries himself with a stoicism that is both heartbreaking and inspiring at the same time. And yet, there he was on the concourse at Dr. Pepper Ballpark, greeting strangers, posing for photographs, and preparing to take in a minor league baseball game between the Frisco RoughRiders and the Corpus Christi Hooks.

Thunder is a survivor and the kind of presence every ballpark dreams of having. Also, Thunder is a cat.

May 21, was Take Meow to the Ballgame day for the Frisco RoughRiders, the Rangers’ Double-A affiliate, and Thunder was the senior-most feline attendee. I, and at least a few other baseball fans, were in attendance because we felt sure that disaster was at hand. Visions of cats racing across the outfield danced in our heads. The specter of Marlins Park Cat loomed like a dark promise of inevitable chaos, surrounded, in our imaginations, by storm clouds of fur from hiss-filled, claws-out catfights.

It was going to be the meltdown of the year, a downward spiral of antisocial animals, a furor of fighting felines. Except that none of those worst-case scenarios happened, and Take Meow turned out to be, honestly, pretty great. In fact, by the end, most of the cat lovers in the park were telling each other that this should be a regular thing, and that next time, we want to join in.

I’d had a hard enough time convincing anyone to bring a cat. My friends, including this article’s photographer, volunteered their plump, sociable, striped cat Ruby, then immediately thought better of it. My girlfriend had just adopted an easygoing two-year-old, Elsie, who is so absurdly laid-back that she will sit next to working vacuum cleaners, placidly play witness to clattering kitchen disasters, and watch the lawn mower push back and forth. But Elsie has an unfortunate habit, when taken for a car ride, of literally (ahem) pooping herself with fear, and the drive from south Dallas to Frisco is 30 miles. The three-mile drive from the animal shelter home had already provided us with a lifetime supply of malodorous memories.

The undertone in all our decision-making, of course, was that we figured taking a cat to a baseball game was probably a terrible idea even in theory. Even without the fear of fecal repercussions (oddly, we  discussed only what Elsie would do to the car, not the ballpark itself), my friends agreed that, although the idea sounded fun, they didn’t want their own cats to be the Take Meow pioneers. Maybe someone else’s kitties could try it out. But not ours.

Funnily enough, the Frisco RoughRiders felt roughly the same way. When, a few days before the game, I asked Matt Ratliff, senior director of marketing and promotions, what the team was planning, he laughed and answered, “We’re hoping not mass chaos.”

He then explained the rationale for Take Meow to the Ballgame: “We’ve done Bark in the Park here for some years and it’s great, people love their animals.” But, he added, cat owners and cat fans felt left out by the dog days of summer. “We’re excluding a segment of our fan base by not having a cat night.”

The idea started as a joke, of course. The RoughRiders plan their special event schedules in brainstorming sessions that sound like an absolute dream to sit in on – “We definitely have quite a few late nights with myself and our director of entertainment and our entire marketing staff.” The word “beer” might have come up, too – and they send mass emails to the whole organization, looking for more bright ideas. The “bring your cat night” suggestion came, jokingly at first, from one of Frisco’s youngest staff members, radio broadcaster Ryan Rouillard.

“We laughed it off,” Ratliff told me.

But the RoughRiders do have a history of being absurdly cool. Their mascot is Theodore Roosevelt, after all, and they have their own craft beer, Franconia RoughRiders Red Ale, a gently malty Irish-style red brewed by the local indie Franconia Brewing Company and sold in bottles at local stores.

And, so far as they knew at the time, nobody had ever done a Take Meow-style event. The truth is, it’s happened, but only very rarely. The single-A Lakewood BlueClaws (motto: “Simply Clawsome”) had a “CATurday” game in 2016, at which cats paid $2 admission, the team wore hilarious-hideous cat picture uniforms that were auctioned off to rescue charities, and a rescue shelter was on-site offering adoption.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

The RoughRiders, unaware of Lakewood’s experiment, set about planning the event to minimize potential for disaster. Cat seating was limited to the outfield lawns; cat owners were required to prove rabies shots, bring a leash, and sign a waiver. Unlike the BlueClaws, Frisco didn’t want to charge cats for entry: “We don’t charge any animal tickets,” Ratliff explained. “It’s going to be pretty similar to how we run our Bark in the Parks. We’re going to have water available in the outfield. We ask if you have aggressive cats you don’t bring them. We don’t have any breed restrictions with cats or dogs.”

The team was very aware of the Marlins incident, in which a loose cat darted across the field and took shelter in the team’s outfield home run sculpture, hyperventilating with fear. But, Ratliff said, they hoped owners would be aware of their own cats’ personalities and selective about which to bring. “There are some [cats] that are incredibly outgoing and incredibly social,” he said, “and that’s the ones we’re hoping to have in the ballpark.”

And – to seemingly everyone’s surprise – that wish came true. Toward the end of the game, a team employee manning the gates told me that only “about a dozen” cats had come to the game; “we were expecting maybe a hundred,” he said, although I’d also heard from Ratliff that “we don’t have a number that we’re shooting for – we just don’t know what to expect.”

The dozen cats took up position in the outfield and didn’t cause a single ruckus. Indeed, they all seemed to have a pretty good time. (It helped that nobody hit a home run.) Two siblings, aged two years and “nine or 10 months,” snuggled up together at the base of the lawn, just along the lip of the outfield wall. Mowgli, an 18-pound boy with piercing ice-cool blue eyes, “was well-behaved,” owner Tiney Ricciardi told me, and spent a lot of time on her lap. Ricciardi, a Dallas Morning News reporter who filed her own cat-picture-filled story about the game, added that Mowgli “darted to hide in the bushes a couple times, but I had the wrong kind of leash.”

Robidas, a truly enormous cat named after former Dallas Stars hockey player Stéphane Robidas, enjoyed lavish attention from cat fans. At the beginning, he was panting in the summer heat, but after borrowing Thunder’s fan for a while was back to relishing all the petting from strangers. As for Thunder, his owner told us that his mellow attitude was because “he’s 19, so he doesn’t give a s—.” She added, “When I heard they were doing this, I got tickets immediately because I thought, everything is always for dogs, it’s so good they’re finally doing something for cat owners too.”

Meanwhile the RoughRiders served up an endless array of cat-themed entertainment for the game. Cats patrolled the video boards; the visiting Corpus Christi Hooks players had their Jumbotron portraits replaced with pictures of dogs, hamsters and goldfish. The Hooks also all got special walk-up music, including the “Hello Kitty” theme song and, about 10 billion times, the “Meow Mix” jingle. (No “Everybody Wants to Be a Cat,” though.)

Two sibling cats on the lawn pose for photos and take shelter from home runs. (via Ariel Shnitzer)

In hindsight, the event’s success makes sense. Baseball has to be the most feline-friendly of sports: not too loud, pastoral in feel, relaxed rather than frantic in pace. You can imagine a kitten pouncing on a golf ball. And, although there aren’t too many cats who like being on leashes, those who do are generally also the same personality type to enjoy an afternoon outdoors, being petted and fawned over and admired by adoring strangers.

Yes, Frisco is hoping to do Take Meow again next year. And yes, we’re planning on going when they do. The owners at the game gave us some valuable advice on leashes and harnesses: there are now “bungee” cat leashes that are accordioned so that an animal can dash a few feet ahead of you without tugging or causing any harm. Getting an appropriate leash is important, as is helping a longhair beat the heat with an umbrella or extra water.

The pet owners had some advice for the Frisco RoughRiders, too. They were generally pleased with the team’s precautions about keeping cats on the lawn, providing plenty of water, and asking for proof of vaccinations. Trusting pet owners to know their animals’ ability to enjoy a ballgame proved a wise decision, too. But the cat lovers saw a major missed opportunity: “At Bark in the Park they have dog rescue,” one told me, “but there’s no animal rescue here today. They need to work with a shelter next time.” That, everyone I spoke to agreed, is a good and important thing to do – that, if the event continues to be a success, it ought to not just be fun for current cat owners but help others adopt, too.

And at the end of the day, my friends agreed that we’re ready to participate. The fur hadn’t flown, the Marlins Park peril had passed. Ruby’s owners agreed they would like to bring her next year, and my girlfriend was suggesting that we start car-training Elsie. (“Sounds great,” I said. “Let’s use your car.”) Ricciardi said she would definitely bring Mowgli again, too. Take Meow to the Ballpark was a small, but significant, success – one that other minor-league teams across America ought to think about emulating.

And what about Thunder? He had to leave early due to his health issues. But in those early innings he enjoyed a bounty of attention and love, plus a cameo on the Jumbotron, at the first ballgame of his life.

Brian Reinhart is the Dallas Observer's food critic. You may also know him from FanGraphs as the "Well-Beered Englishman." Follow him on Twitter @bgreinhart.
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Cat Fan
6 years ago

Excellent article, thank you. It is a pleasure to read good writing.

Frank Jackson
6 years ago

I attended this game and noticed on the way out that there were a lot of left-over bandanas. Don’t know if this promotion will catch on or not. Too bad the Fort Worth Cats aren’t around any more. They would have been the ideal team to do something like this. Maybe next year the Riders can have gerbil day as a posthumous tribute to Don Zimmer.

Alex Bensky
6 years ago

Nice article but it’s a charming idea that anyone can be the owner of a cat, except perhaps in a strictly legal and almost meaningless sense. I asked Ingrid the Wonder Cat, who is sitting right next to me, what she thought about it. Her reply: “If it doesn’t affect my breakfast, my nap time, or my evening treat, I don’t care.”

Marc Schneider
6 years ago
Reply to  Alex Bensky

Very true.

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