Cat on the Field? Now You’re Talking My Language!

What unfolded in the bottom of the sixth at Coors Field on Friday night was melodrama of the highest tier. There was the astonishingly rapid unraveling of Trevor Bauer‘s no-hitter: a walk, a homer, a walk, a homer — within 10 minutes, what had been a dominant performance was utterly spoiled. Then came David Price’s first on-field appearance with the Dodgers, his first pitching appearance since 2019 — and within 10 more minutes, the Rockies had hit another two long balls. What had been an unassailable 10-0 lead became, out of nowhere, an entirely assailable 10-6 lead.

As Price pitched, a grey blur darted across the backstop. “Did you see the cat?” my brother texted me — and I hadn’t seen it. A moment of inattention was enough to miss it. But it didn’t matter, because, in a matter of minutes, the cat bolted onto the field. The baseball game had been one thing; quickly, without warning, it had become another. And now, it had stopped. The field was transformed into a venue for people to watch the cat.

The cat was an ominous figure, a fluffy gray shadow, its teeth bared in fear as it loped over the infield dirt. It stopped, eventually, in the outfield, where it assumed a defensive resting position. For a moment it sat there, panting, while the thousands of people surround it roared, willing it onward to whatever escapade might lie ahead. The cat was very frightened, as one might well expect.

Last month I considered the figure of the goose on the field. The cat on the field is a far more familiar one, and despite its ecological niche as an adept and incredibly destructive predator, that familiarity makes it much less threatening. Cats, even those that are presumably feral, aren’t chaos agents in the way that geese obviously are. When you look into the eyes of the cat on the field, you don’t see opaque, gleaming beads with unknown motives; a cat on the field has never inflicted the kind of territorial violence that the Salt River ballpark goose did. A cat on the field is a sympathetic character, even as it inevitably claws the shit out of whatever unlucky groundskeeper eventually scoops it up. The clawing, like the sprinting and the panting and the hissing, is an expression of fear that we can understand. After thousands of years of human-cat social relationships, we have learned to sympathize with the way the cat expresses itself.

The interconnectedness of people and cats has made the cat on the field something of a regular oddity, a tale that is repeated and refreshed in the imagination with every new feline that finds itself under the lights. There was, of course, the Cubs-Mets Black Cat Incident of 1969, with the cat — subsequently named Jinx — coming to embody the kind of cosmic doom that held the Cubs pennant-less for decades. Thirty years ago, a cat ran into the A’s dugout at Oakland Coliseum; the cat was adopted by Tony La Russa, who then started an animal rescue that still lives on today. There was the so-called Killer Kitten of the Kingdome, who did not take kindly to the ungentle handling of a stadium employee; in more recent years, we’ve seen the grand-slam-preceding Rally Cat, the charismatic ginger cat running across the field at Angels Stadium, and the cat that climbed the Marlins Park home run sculpture (tremendous stuff by the cat; RIP to the home run sculpture).

What seems undeniably true about ballpark cats is that they have tremendous crossover appeal. The highlight videos of the Rally Cat and the home run sculpture cat have millions of views each, and the GIFs on Twitter circulate well beyond the realm of what one might consider Baseball Twitter. More than half a century ago, they even made a movie centering around baseball cat — Rhubarb, about a cat named Rhubarb who inherits the ownership of a baseball team. Hijinks ensue, and the movie ends with Rhubarb getting married, which, you know, why not? As Cliff Newell, writing about the movie for the Kerrville Times in 1990, put it: “For baseball/cat lovers this is the ultimate movie. Look at your own cat and imagine it owning a baseball team. It is thrilling beyond belief.”

It’s this imagined relationship that makes the cat on the field so compelling. Most people have known a domestic cat or two in their lifetimes. One sees a cat in this strange environment and can imagine what it would be like for one of the cats we’ve encountered, whether as friend or foe. Would they be scared? Thrilled? Prickly? Cats have learned to inhabit the structures provided by humans, even when humans lose or abandon them, even when they’ve never learned to trust humans in the first place; in chaos, they instinctively seek shelter, the hope of food and quiet and safety. When they are on the field, it is because they are in a situation of utter panic, the exact opposite of what they need.

And we cheer them because we want them to find the safety they’re looking for — because we are used to relating to their feelings — even as our presence and our jeers are what contributes to their distress. We want to believe that the cat running onto the field, probably living out a more frightening experience than it could have imagined, will help it to a better life. We want to believe in a story with a guaranteed happy ending: the thrill of a feline baseball team owner getting married, or a cat in the grass causing a grand slam, or even that terrified little creature getting scooped up and placed in the loving home of some cat-loving player or groundskeeper. We look for a case of human intervention doing what it’s supposed to do — a relationship working successfully.

The Coors cat, panting, its long fur matted, eventually took off again. It was caught by a shockingly short-sleeved groundskeeper on the warning track, where it was carried off the field. Apparently, they took the cat outside the stadium, where it escaped, leaping off into night. There will be no movie-script ending for this particular cat. As the video of its journey through the ballpark makes its way onto compilations, it will carry on in its strange, uncertain life, searching for peace in the darkness. And so, too, will the other cats in all the other ballparks — looking, in the end, for somewhere safe.

RJ is the dilettante-in-residence at FanGraphs. Previous work can be found at Baseball Prospectus, VICE Sports, and The Hardball Times.

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1 year ago

Love the Always Sunny headline.

And also everything else about this.

1 year ago
Reply to  eely225

I have found Cheeto fingers on my walls to be a nice decorating touch