The Hickory Crawdads led 3-0 when Miss Babe Ruth took her customary position beside a dugout in the South Atlantic League baseball game.
Miss Babe Ruth watched Mason Davis of the Greensboro Grasshoppers as he came to the plate.
She quivered with anticipation, eyes riveted on his bat.
Davis cracked a home run to right center. Miss Babe Ruth barked with glee, bounced on her paws and strained at her leash. Grasshoppers president Donald Moore gripped the leash to the black Labrador retriever, then let her go.
Miss Babe Ruth bounded onto the field before 7,823 cheering fans in the Aug. 22 contest. She picked up the bat with her mouth, turned around and trotted back to her owner with her prize. “She loves it,” Moore said. “She gets excited when the crowd gets excited.”
The 9-year-old lab has been the bat and ball dog of the Grasshoppers since 2006. Her job is to deliver a bucket of baseballs to the umpire in the first and fifth innings, retrieve Grasshopper bats in the third inning and run the bases when the game is over.
Now, nearing 70 in dog years, Babe's long and productive career is ending. The local legend will retire after the season's last home game Wednesday.
What a career it's been. Earned a lucrative sponsorship. Won national exposure on NBC Nightly News and ESPN The Magazine. Delivered about 4,000 balls. Retrieved about 5,000 bats. And, with Wednesday's finale, will have worked 649 consecutive home games for the Grasshoppers, Class A affiliate of the Miami Marlins.
Moore said the dog is due retirement as she turns 10 on Oct. 11.
“Babe will be around in some capacity but she will not be working,” he said. “A lot of people are upset about this. I've never seen a 70-year-old bat boy. She's going out in style.”
And she did. At her retirement party at Saturday night's game with Lakewood before 8,673 fans, Babe arrived at NewBridge Bank Park with Moore in a convertible, got a key to the city from Mayor Nancy Vaughan and walked down a red carpet from the pitcher's mound to home plate to deliver the game ball to the umpire.
Babe's an integral part of the team. Fans can order a “Babe Burger” at the concession stand and join “Babe's Buddies” fan club. The dog generated more than $200,000 in sponsorship fees since her first game on Aug. 2, 2006.
Two other labs show their stuff at Grasshoppers games, Babe's little brother, Master Yogi Berra, and her niece, Miss Lou Lou Gehrig. Moore takes all three to the stadium in downtown Greensboro on game days. They lounge on couches or wander in and out of offices.
Grasshoppers manager Kevin Randel said the players enjoy their canine teammates. “The only knock on it is they get little teeth marks on the bats.”
While Babe's a steadfast worker, Master Yogi Berra, 7, is something of a free spirit. He's strictly a ball retriever.
After the third inning of the Aug. 22 game, Moore fired a ball into left field with an air cannon. Yogi dashed through the infield, knocked down a Grasshoppers infielder and kept on going until he got the ball.
In 2009, Yogi was ejected from a Grasshoppers game after he relieved himself on the field, the only dog known to be tossed out of a pro baseball game.
Babe's designated successor is Miss Lou Lou Gehrig, 4, owned by Moore's son, Donald Moore Jr. Lou Lou is already adept at fetching bats and delivering balls. “She's perfectly capable of taking over from Babe,” Moore said. The Grasshoppers also have conventional bat boys.
After the Aug. 22 game, which Greensboro won 7-4, adoring fans gathered around the three dogs. Kids petted and hugged them.
Kendall Mobley of Wake Forest took photos of Babe. “This is the first time I've ever seen a bat dog,” she said. “I thought it was very sweet she could do that. Very sweet.”
Added friend Jordan Powell of Raleigh: “Smart dogs. Gorgeous dogs. Kind of sad. Wish we could see her get up to 700.”
While Miss Babe Ruth won't reach 700 games, her legacy will live on. Her well-worn ball bucket will go to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y.
Susan MacKay, director of collections, said no decision has been made about how or when to exhibit the memorabilia, but it likely won't go on display before 2016, possibly later. MacKay said of the museum's 40,000 artifacts, such as bats, balls and gloves, Babe's bucket will be the only one that belonged to a dog.