Here's the first thing you need to know: Chase was a bat dog for the Trenton Thunder, and he was a phenomenon.
Chase That Golden Thunder, the full name of a talented and endlessly loved Golden Retriever, has been retrieving bats the way a bat boy or bat girl would since 2002 for the Double-A affiliate of the New York Yankees. He has appeared on television all over the world for this, profiled by Anderson Cooper, shared a billing on Japanese television with Hideki Matsui, and no wonder: he's doing a job typically filled by a person, and he's doing it in baseball, so this is no fluke.
Earl Weaver once said: "This ain't a football game. We do this every day." Chase did this every day.
Such an opportunity doesn't come along out of nowhere. Back in the late 1990s, Jake The Diamond Dog, a dog capable of various baseball-related tricks, came to Trenton one night, and the crowd response gave Thunder ownership an idea.
"[They] said, 'We would like our own dog here," said Thunder Senior Vice President of Corporate Sales and Partnership (but more importantly, the man who lives with Chase) Eric Lipsman, during a dog-based media availability Friday night. "It's great having you here a few times during the season. But we think our fans would love having a dog here 71 times a year."
That's the next thing you need to know: the fans did. They really, really loved it. The fans loved Chase, loved him when he posed for pictures, or brought water bottles to the umpires, base by base, in a basket, or walked around the stadium and interacted with children and adults alike. They didn't get used to what looks like an optical illusion at first, a dog carrying a bat across a baseball field, and gradually lose interest. Thousands of people loved Chase more every single year.
Chase became the Thunder's biggest star, a source of stability for a minor league franchise, where the best players generally head to Triple-A before the year is out. And when Chase's son, "Home Run" Derby, started joining him in bat dog duties, they loved Derby, too.
"First of all, he's very intelligent," Thunder manager Tony Franklin said, giving an impromptu scouting report on Chase in his office Friday afternoon. "I've never seen him not let anyone pet him."
Accordingly, Franklin had only one question when he heard about Derby: "God, who's gonna replace Chase? It's kind of like, who's gonna replace Derek Jeter? Really. Is the next one gonna be as good?"
Franklin added: "Every player has taken a liking to him." And that was quite clear the moment I entered the clubhouse: the players loved him, couldn't wait to talk Chase up. Thunder outfielder Slade Heathcott, seen here on Media Day back in April looking like a little boy who just got two dogs for Christmas, couldn't wait to run to his locker Friday afternoon, just so he could show me the treats he keeps there for Chase and Derby.
"A dog'll put you in a good mood," Heathcott said. "It gives you kind of a feeling of being back at home." He has a pair of dogs back at home, a Golden Retriever named Benelli, and a black lab named Cadence. It was obvious that Chase had made a new place to live, often thousands of miles away, seem a little less foreign for Heathcott and many other young players before him. Heathcott said that Chase and Derby spent much of their day in the front office, but that Lipsman makes sure to bring them into the clubhouse a few times each day.
"They're great dogs, and it really brightens your day, having them around," Thunder outfielder Tyler Austin added. "Makes me think of my dogs a little bit, makes me miss them a little more."
"They become family," Franklin added. "So you miss family."
But Franklin, who spoke of his own late black lab, Spirit, and Beebe, a shepherd collie, was smiling as he thought of them. So was Austin when he talked about his dogs. Heathcott didn't stop smiling the entire time we talked. And in the executive offices, where Chase and now Derby spend their afternoons, take power naps around an hour before the game, and then get to work, the love for both of these co-workers was obvious, too.
Bill Cook, Thunder Director of Media Relations, has been with the Thunder since 2001, or one year before Chase. He explained that working for the Thunder means working alongside really friendly dogs.
"Most days, they're here," Cook said as we chatted near his office. "In the offseason, when the team's on the road. They're not just here on game days. And there's something to sitting at your computer, you're in the middle of a long day, and here comes Derby coming up and licking your leg. I mean, you've got to stop and pet him! Dogs can be therapeutic, and to have that in the office every day, that's been pretty cool."
Cook was smiling, too. So was little Samantha Smith, age three, petting a sleeping Derby as he prepared for the honoring ceremony for Chase. I took a picture. I didn't have to tell her to smile.
"Everybody connects to a dog," outfielder Shane Brown explained.
Derby had greeted me warmly when I entered the executive offices for the first time on Friday afternoon. Chase wasn't around the office prior to the game, though. And when the dogs gathered in front of the first base dugout, Derby, and a pair of Chase's grandchildren, Chief and Casey, Chase was there, too.
But he wasn't the energetic dog I'd seen in prior trips to Trenton, or in countless YouTube videos. He moved gingerly at times, and was lying down for much of the video tribute. Fans were concerned. At one point, Heathcott bounded out of the dugout and leaned over the prone Chase, making sure he was okay. It was hot, but this didn't seem like a dog struggling with the heat, especially next to the vibrant, younger Golden Retrievers that evoked what Chase had been for so long.
"So what's next for Chase?" one reporter asked.
"Ah," Lipsman replied, uncertainly, and then there was a long pause.
There's something else you need to know: Chase That Golden Thunder has lymphoma.
"It has been a tough week," Lipsman said. "He's had cancer since February. He's struggled through it. He's also got severe arthritis, which is why he was hobbled, and if you saw his legs wrapped in blue, and that is from where he's had intravenous and chemotherapy. But he's a brave dog, and I just wanted him to be out there to hear those cheers."
Chase turned 13 on July 3. For a Golden Retriever, that's about the far end of life expectancy. It's the double-edged sword of Chase serving as the very real mascot and face of the Thunder franchise. You can put anyone in a Mr. Met costume. But Chase is mortal, and time is running out.
"We're just thrilled he made it to this point," Lipsman said. "So the fact that he could be here tonight made us very, very happy."
Perhaps other dogs could have taken on the responsibilities of a bat dog, before Chase, and succeeded. We'll never know. Chase is the first to do it, game after game, for years, delighting crowds, making friends. And Chase's descendants, incredibly, can manage the same feat. The Thunder plan to breed Derby in the fall; soon, a new generation of bat dogs will emerge, beginning as puppies to learn the family trade.
But if Chase hadn't succeeded at this odd job, chances are Derby wouldn't be given the chance to succeed him, nor would Ollie, another son of Chase, be the bat dog for the New Hampshire Fisher Cats.
So bringing ailing Chase out to be adored by fans, the cheers for his tribute video as genuine and sustained as I've heard for any player, wasn't about making Lipsman happy. It was the culmination of a life that any dog, or really, a person, could aspire to: performing a job that led to thousands cheering for you, again and again, making friends and building a legacy that will outlive you.
"I think he loves what he does," Lipsman said of Chase. "Last year, when the arthritis took over, and he couldn't go out there and get the bats, he would see Derby go out to the field, and he'd stand at the door, looking forlorn, saying 'How come he's going out and I'm not?' And we knew.
"And the years he was getting the bats, when it stopped, his mood dropped when baseball season was over. He lived for this. He just absolutely lived for this, lived to be out there on the field."