Ripken, a 5-year-old black Lab, is in his second season as the bat dog for our hometown Triple-A team
By Megan Tillotson | Photo by Paxton Rembis, Durham Bulls Production Designer
Ripken doesn’t play your average game of fetch. As the official bat dog on the Durham Bulls’ “paw-ster,” he’s an all-star pooch when it comes to collecting bats from his teammates and bringing smiles to fans in the stands.
During the first few innings of Bulls’ home games, Ripken waits in the dugout until owner and trainer Michael O’Donnell sends him to retrieve a player’s bat. After “handing” the bat back to Michael in the dugout, he awaits his next opportunity to fetch following the next successful play.
Ripken’s baseball career started in 2019 when members of the Bulls management team saw him in action with the Holly Springs Salamanders baseball club and decided to bring him on. Ripken’s signing day was just before the pandemic began, and he officially joined the team midway through the 2021 season when COVID-19 restrictions eased.
As an American black Labrador retriever, Ripken stays active. In fact, Ripken himself would tell you that “working breeds like me require a lot of time and attention, and both mental and physical exercise. So, before you bring a new pup into your home, make sure you do your research to make sure they’re a good fit for your lifestyle.”
When he’s not fetching bats during games, he greets and “signs” autographs for the fans. Some may even catch Ripken performing his second-best trick: standing on top of a fire hydrant. The number of hugs, pets and head scratches he receives each game are hard to count.
“He has no shame in nudging your hand, forcing you to pet him,” says owner Melissa O’Donnell, “and if you’re on the ground, he will crawl right into your lap, roll over onto his back, and look for that ever-so-amazing belly rub.”
There is no shortage of those reaffirming signs of affection in Ripken’s household. He lives with Michael and Melissa, as well as their kids, Faith, 6, and Owen, 3, and senior dog Brushchi, 14. When he’s not working, Melissa says he loves playing with his favorite Frisbee in the backyard.
Melissa says Ripken’s best memory last season was fetching Wander Franco’s bat. The former top overall prospect in baseball was playing for the Bulls while on rehab assignment from the Tampa Bay Rays. “Wander was on his way to first base when Ripken ran out to fetch his bat, catching him totally off guard,” Melissa says. “Wander turned to Ripken and smiled and started laughing.”
It’s a common response from players and Bulls fans alike. “My favorite thing about Ripken is the reaction of the crowd after he fetches the bat,” says Bulls’ Sponsorship Account Executive Kathleen Dwulet, who works closely with Ripken. “Hearing the crowd cheer and seeing the smiles on people’s faces is a great feeling.”
You, too, can catch Ripken in action during the Bulls’ 2022 season at Saturday home games and on select Bark in the Park dates: April 13, May 11, June 1, July 6 and Aug. 10.