May 23, 2007

Summer Fun Guide: Fans’ best friend - Jake the Diamond Dog is a longtime Slugger Field favorite

From cow-milking contests to cap days, baseball fans have always gotten more at the ballpark than just the game.And nowhere are game-day promotions a bigger part of the baseball experience than at Louisville Slugger Field, where the Louisville Bats have enjoyed unbridled success as one of the top-drawing clubs in all of minor league baseball. Baseball is the main thing. But the show also includes the antics of Myron Noodleman and the Famous Chicken. In June, the L.A. Lakers Girls will appear at the park. And the other night they even had a guy named Mad Chad juggling chainsaws!All good acts. But if the club ever creates a Between-Innings Hall of Fame, the original inductee would be Jake the Diamond Dog.You’ve probably heard of Jake. He’s the happy hound who brings a baseball to the pitcher for the first pitch of a game, picks up an occasional loose bat and waters the umps between innings. The reddish-chestnut-colored golden retriever is a Sunday afternoon fixture and fan favorite — going back even before the Bats were the Bats and moved into Louisville Slugger Field.When the original Jake the Diamond Dog passed away this winter at his home in Lima, Ohio, word reached Louisville, and fans overwhelmed owner-trainer Jeff Marchal with heartfelt condolences.The new Jake, who served a two-season apprenticeship with the old Jake, has taken up where his predecessor left off. And even learned some new tricks.“The old Jake was never interested in catching a Frisbee. He just sort of disdained it,” said Bats photographer Stan Denny. “But the new Jake is a little more frisky, and he loves to chase down those long line drive tosses. I think the fans like that because they have dogs at home who can catch a Frisbee, too.”But not like the new Jake.“He’s good at it, all right,” said Marchal. “But he does it in his own way.”One of Jake’s duties between innings is to haul chilled bottles of water out to the umpires. The men in blue get a kick out of Jake’s water deliveries. Especially on a hot day.But they don’t get to toss the Frisbee with the canine king.“The veteran umps know Jake won’t bring them the Frisbee,” said Marchal. “But sometimes I’ll catch a rookie ump who will try to talk Jake into handing him a disc. But Jake won’t give it to them.”Marchal explains that when umps seek his advice on how to persuade Jake to give them the Frisbee, he tells them to stroke the dog along his back four times. Then will Jake hand over the Frisbee?Marchal chuckles. “Of course he won’t.”When an ump grumbles, Marchal tells him that he is stroking Jake the wrong way. “Then I stroke Jake four times — but whisper ‘drop it,’ to Jake — and he’ll drop it right in my hand.”Such moments make baseball the Summer Game.And the Louisville Bats operate at the highest level of the minor leagues, with players moving up and down from the majors. While the club takes winning very seriously, the team’s fortunes vary, season to season, with the level of talent. The rosters of all minor league clubs are entirely staffed by their big-league affiliates — in Louisville’s case, the parent club is the Cincinnati Reds — and a minor-league team can’t just go out and hire, say, a clean-up hitter, when it needs one. (Like the Bats needed last year.)This season the Reds have stationed 21-year-old fire-balling prospect Homer Bailey in Louisville — on his way, they hope, to future stardom on the mound in Cincinnati. The Bats also have a top-hitting prospect in Joey Votto. But if the young stars are good enough, they move up to the big leagues after a season or so. (Super slugger Adam Dunn was only here a month!) What that means, explained Bats assistant general manager Greg Galiette, is Triple A clubs like Louisville can’t operate the same way as major league clubs.“Minor league baseball is all about promotions — about the experience of being at the ballpark,” said Galiette. “It’s the family experience, and the young adult experience — socializing at the ballpark. Baseball is part of it, but not as much as in the major leagues, where fans come out to see the name players like Ken Griffey Jr. and Adam Dunn. We’re lucky if we have a top player for two seasons. So we promote the things we can count on.”Like Jake the Diamond Dog.Jake is actually the third in a line of golden retrievers that Marchal has trained for diamond duty. Marchal said he got the idea for a baseball act when he was living in Florida, working in a drive-thru convenience store. His faithful friend, Jericho, kept him company at work.“One night,” recalled Marchal, “I asked a customer if it would be all right if Jericho came out and got his money. The dog came back with some dollar bills and I put the order in a bag with the customer’s change, and Jericho took it back to him. The guy loved it.”Soon Jericho was a star attraction.“The store had two drive-thru lanes,” he said, “and customers would buy something in one lane, then circle around and come back through the other lane — just to see Jericho again.”Of course, the store’s owners threw themselves into a tizzy worrying about liability, and fired Jericho. Marchal quit, too, but took his dog’s act on to ballparks in Pompano Beach and Ft. Myers — where Jericho became Jericho the Miracle Dog.Eventually, Marchal moved to Lima, Ohio, and trained Jericho’s successor, Jake the Diamond Dog, who quickly built up a following with fans of such teams as the Ft. Wayne Wizards and Kane County (Ill.) Cougars. Galiette heard about Jake when he performed with the Nashville Sounds.“Originally,” said Galiette, “Jake appeared on Friday nights of every home stand, but we’ve switched him to Sundays, which is more of a kids’ day. What we want to do is brand each day at Slugger Field.”For example, there is Thursday Night Happy Hour, with $1 beer, which initiated $2 import beer night on Fridays. Of course, Fridays are also fireworks nights at Slugger Field. Galiette said a poll showed Louisville fans’ three favorite promotions — by far — are the Famous Chicken, fireworks and Jake the Diamond Dog.The Bats also prefer promotions that feature spiffy Slugger Field. On a recent Friday night, some 1,500 Boy Scouts were in attendance as part of a crowd of 12,000 at the park. The scouts marched in parade, then after the game (and fireworks) camped out overnight on the grassy outfield expanse at Slugger Field — complete with a late night movie shown on the giant scoreboard screen. The next night was the Girl Scouts’ turn.Finally, on Mother’s Day, Jake the Diamond Dog was in the house. Working out of his Diamond Doghouse near the visitor’s bullpen, Jake made his usual fine show. He was even hosed down by a friendly groundskeeper after the fifth inning.After the game, Jake shifted into the stands to meet his fans.“People ask, ‘Can I pet Jake?’” said Marchal. “I say, ‘Sure.’ I tell them to pet Jake like they pet their own dogs.”Jake does seem to enjoy the attention. Just as your Lucy or Hogie or Pedro would. And as long as it’s not an umpire, Jake will stretch his neck out and cock his head to the side when you scratch him down his back.After all, Jake the Diamond Dog’s mission in life is to be fans’ best friend.  Contact the writer at leo@leoweekly.com