PHOENIX -- Hang out in enough stadiums at off-hours, waiting for athletes or coaches or managers, and you will see cats. You will see them by the dozens.
There will be kittens lolling in the sun in box seats before a World Series game, oblivious to the pomp building around them. There will be skittish grown cats, probably feral, but possibly just overwhelmed by the cavernous place they've chosen to bunk.
Sadly, there might even be a limp furry body in a corner, and you'll come upon it, knowing that a tour group of kids is coming through in a few minutes. You call someone in security to make sure the kids miss this scene and the animal will be taken away, but the demise fails to shock. The cats always seem so vulnerable.
Then there is the Feline of Phoenix Municipal Stadium. Coming down the stairs from the press box this week, I saw this regal, long-haired, orange and white creature walking toward me. He or she kept meowing loudly, demanding attention.
"Better stay away,'' a ballpark worker said as I tried to approach. "That's a mean cat.''
"Is it a stray?'' I asked, even though the cat looked spectacularly healthy and haughtily territorial. No, I was told. "That's the stadium cat. He's lived here about five years.''
A security worker explained that the animal has a devoted caretaker, a maintenance employee named Jim. The man in question, Jim Folk, answered the security guard's summons and began to explain the history of the cat he calls "Big Orange'' or "Big O'' or just "O.''
Phoenix Muni, it should be noted, has always seemed like an especially nurturing place. Maybe it's because the park sits on the edge of beautiful Papago Park, with reddish sandstone buttes as the backdrop for the outfield. Or maybe it's because the A's have cultivated so much youthful talent here.
The employees at all spring-training parks exude hospitality, but the people at Phoenix Muni make you feel as if you're coming home, even if they've never met you before.
Folk apparently made O feel too at home. She -- Folk assumes "O'' is female, but doesn't know for sure -- technically doesn't belong here.
Over the years, he has trapped other cats and kittens at the stadium, neutered them and then found homes for them. His family, which includes two dogs and two people with asthma aggravated by cat dander, once sheltered a brood of five Phoenix Muni kittens in a bathroom for almost three months.
But O, after apparently bullying another cat away from the park, never had to go. "The stadium manager kind of cut me some slack with running her off because she was kind of taking care of the rat population and the squirrels,'' Folk said.
She's quite fussy about who touches her and when the crowds show up, she often retreats to a crawl space underneath one of the grandstands. Every now and then, she'll appear and Folk might hear: "You've got a mascot.''
But he doesn't believe the players or coaches ever see her, and her reticence probably extends her lease at the park. The kittens, he said, liked to mingle, and that unnerved management. O's not really a mean cat, he said, but it's best to dissuade unfamiliar people from touching her.
"She's definitely got a little attitude,'' Folk said. "Like in the morning, when I quit petting her, she'll swat me and then chase me down and grab onto my leg.''
He pays for her food and listens patiently when the grounds crew says she has used the warning track as a litter box.
"She's pretty fat right now, so I'm cutting back a little,'' Folk said.
The robustness enhances her lioness effect. She has none of the alley roots common among most stadium cats. She owns this place. Folk wonders if he should change the name. He came up with it when he believed the cat was male. Now he believes the opposite, and O doesn't sound quite right. But it is ultimately gender neutral, and so appropriate for the place the cat calls home. O is for Oakland.