Greensboro Grasshoppers bring family fun to Gate City

From famous bat dogs to a home run-happy park, Greensboro’s minor league team kicks off NSJ’s tour of the state’s pro baseball teams

First National Bank Field has been home to Greensboro's minor league baseball team since 2005, when the team rebranded under its current name, the Grasshoppers. (Brett Friedlander / North State Journal)

GREENSBORO — A statue honoring a Baseball Hall of Famer stands proudly outside Greensboro’s First National Bank Field.

But the likeness isn’t that of Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Johnny Mize or any of the other star players who have spent time with the team now known as the Grasshoppers on their way up the minor league ladder.

It’s of a black Labrador retriever named Miss Babe Ruth.

Introduced as a novelty in 2006 by her owner, team president and general manager Donald Moore, Babe — as she was known — became a crowd-pleasing fixture at Grasshoppers games. The hand-painted bucket that she used to carry balls to umpires over her nine-year career is on permanent display at the baseball shrine in Cooperstown, New York.

Although other teams, including the Durham Bulls, have since used dogs to retrieve bats and entertain fans during their games, Greensboro was among the originators of the idea.

It’s a tradition that has returned this year after being put on hold for the past two seasons because of the COVID pandemic with the introduction of the Grasshoppers’ newest bat dog, Willie Mae Mays.

“Years ago, I said here we are in the family entertainment business and over half the families in America have pets, primarily dogs. So I just thought it would be neat to incorporate a dog into what we do,” said Moore, who is now in his 22nd season working with Greensboro’s minor league team. “That’s how it all started here.

Willie Mae Mays, the latest bat dog for the Greensboro Grasshoppers, retrieves a bat during a game at First National Bank Field. (Brett Friedlander / North State Journal)

“People get a kick out of it. Some of them come out just to see the dogs. I’ve always said I don’t care why they come, as long as they come.”

Willie Mae is the fifth pooch to serve as the Grasshoppers’ bat dog. She sits patiently with Moore beside the Grasshoppers dugout for two innings per game and retrieves the bats of home team hitters after they’re done using them.

According to an announcement over the PA system she “leads the South Atlantic League in retrieved bats,” a total that was nearing triple digits heading into the current homestand.

While the bat dog isn’t the reason Morgan Ricketts made the 30-minute drive from nearby Madison to bring her children to a recent game against the Asheville Tourists, the sight of Willie Mae running around the bases at the end of the seventh inning was certainly a highlight of the night for 10-year-old Harper and 9-year-old Bentley.

“I love the dog, it’s cute,” said Harper, who plays outfield and shortstop for her rec softball team.

As much of a Grasshoppers trademark as the bat-retrieving dogs have become, Willie Mae is hardly the only reason fans flock to the ballpark.

The list of future major leaguers who have played for the franchise, which has also gone by the nicknames Hornets and Bats, includes Hall of Famers Jeter, Rivera and Mize, along with current major league standouts Christian Yelich, Giancarlo Stanton, J.T. Realmuto and Marcel Ozuna.

Henry Davis, the first overall pick in last year’s MLB Draft, was hitting .341 with five homers before being called up to Double-A last week.

Guilford the Grasshopper works the crowd during the team’s Cinco de Mayo Night at First National Bank Field. (Brett Friedlander / North State Journal)

The state-of-the-art, 7,500-seat First National Bank Field, which opened in 2005, features an outdoor sports bar, a children’s play area, a party deck and 16 luxury suites along with a scenic view of downtown Greensboro.

It’s also a great place to see home runs.

Although its dimensions aren’t out of the ordinary at 315 feet down the left field line, 312 to right and 400 to straightaway center, the ball carries well there thanks in part to the six-story condos that keep the wind from becoming a factor for more than half the field.

The Grasshoppers, a high Class A farm club of the Pittsburgh Pirates, are annually among the South Atlantic League leaders in long balls. This year’s team ranks second behind only the Greenville (S.C.) Drive with 45 through 33 games.

That includes a season-high six — to go along with two by the opposition — in a 13-7 win against Asheville on May 5.

There were so many home runs that night that Don Tilley, the scoreboard operator who also triggers the fireworks that shoot off every time a Grasshopper hits one over the fence, ran out of ordinance.

That did little to dampen the festive atmosphere on Cinco de Mayo night.

Young fans Harper and Bentley Joyce watch the Greensboro Grasshoppers play from the front row of First National Bank Field (Brett Friedlander / North State Journal)

“We have fun here,” Tilley said. “I can’t believe I get paid to do this.”

There’s also plenty to keep even those who have to pay for their entry into the ballpark entertained. The between-innings promotions feature performances by mascot Guilford the Grasshopper and audience participation games led by an ultra-upbeat hype man called “Spaz.”

“Whether it’s the music we play, me being in the stands or doing contests on the field, it’s that fan interaction that makes us special,” said Dan Mackey, who has played the part of Spaz for the past 17 seasons after getting his start while working his way through school as the Greensboro College mascot Leo the Lion. “I think the fans really enjoy the energy.”

Especially when it’s supplied by a dog that runs the bases and gives new meaning to the term Labrador retriever.

Read NSJ’s 2022 MiLB Across NC features: Carolina MudcatsDown East Wood DucksWinston-Salem DashKannapolis Cannon Ballers Fayetteville WoodpeckersCharlotte KnightsDurham BullsHickory Crawdads • Asheville Tourists