Bat dog an inside-the-bark homer

Ripken the Bat Dog has become a wildly popular performer at Durham Bulls and NC State football games, and his younger brother is now getting into the act. (Ripken's Facebook page)

 The most popular member of the Durham Bulls goes by one name and wears a gold chain with a giant gem-studded pendant of the letter R (his initial) wearing a crown. As soon as he steps foot on the field, the cheers from the crowd resemble the reaction to a grand slam or a diving catch.

The most popular member of the Bulls also has a nagging itch on his backside that he needs to take care of right now.


“Ripken, stop,” says his adopted mom. “They’re trying to take your picture.”

Ripken is the eight-year-old American black lab who serves as bat dog at 14 Bulls games this season—about one out of every five home games. His job is simple: When a Bulls player hits the ball and tosses or flips his bat in order to run the bases, Ripken leaves the home dugout, runs onto the field and fetches the bat.

It’s a simple enough skill, but so is the home run and the fastball. Like those pillars of the legends around the sport, Ripken has captured the fans’ attention. Chicks dig the bat dog … but then again, so does everyone else. He’s appeared on the CBS Evening News, the Kelly Clarkson Show, Sportscenter and USA Today. He also fetches the kicking tee for NC State home football games and has dropped the puck before a Carolina Hurricanes game.

When the Savannah Bananas’ traveling novelty baseball act came to Durham for a two-night engagement earlier this year, Ripken got to make an appearance, wearing a canine version of the Batman costume (because he’s a Bat Dog, of course.) He has his own baseball card, and the Bulls sell stuffed plush Ripken dolls in their team store, along with t-shirts bearing his picture.

Ripken’s day job is as a mascot and spokes-animal for Sit Means Sit Dog Training. He is a graduate of the facility, owned by his mom and dad, Michael and Melissa O’Donnell.

Michael began Ripken’s training in their back yard, throwing mini bats for him to fetch. They gradually increased the size, and Ripken showed the dependability and personality that made the O’Donnell’s think he might be able to take the field. O’Donnell had played college baseball and was hoping for a way to stay connected with the game.

Ripken visits the Durham Bulls press box before a recent game (Shawn Krest/NSJ)

The connection was natural for Ripken, as well. Like his namesake, Orioles Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr., as well as baseball legends Ken Griffey Jr. and Barry Bonds, Ripken is a second-generation athlete. His father, Cowboy Kohl, retrieved kicking tees for the Boise State football team.

In 2019, Ripken and Michael got the chance to show their stuff at home games for the Holly Springs Salamanders, a collegiate summer league team in the Coastal Plains League. Following the pandemic, he got the call from Durham and made fetch happen for the Bulls starting in 2021.

Now at the height of his popularity, Ripken and his handlers are facing the same grim reality that all elite athletes do, eventually. He can’t do this forever.

“He’s eight,” said Melissa. “We figure he can do this for one or two more years.”

Rest assured, sports fans and dog lovers, the O’Donnell’s have been hard at work on a succession plan.

They’re keeping it within the family. The first candidate was a nephew of Ripken’s named Rivers. He took to the training, but, as happens with so many promising sports stars, there were off-field concerns.

“His temperament was a concern,” said Melissa. “We found that out when a plumber came to the house. Rivers didn’t like him. We also learned that he doesn’t like people in hats.”

A dog who has issues with people in hats may not be the best fit for work at a baseball stadium, so the O’Donnells moved down the family tree, heading back to Boise to get another descendent of Cowboy Kohl.

Champ is 13 months old and, as the O’Donnell’s proudly proclaim, “a full-blooded brother (same mom and dad) of Ripken’s.” Despite his youth, he’s already broken into the business. Champ worked his first Salamanders’ game last week.

The start to his career was a bit rocky. They tried to attach a Go Pro camera to his back, to get some of the point-of-view video that has made Ripken a social media star, but the dog was distracted by the camera, as well as people in the crowd chanting his name. After the first few bats, however, he got the hang of it and, like his older brother, was able to bring them back to the dugout, free of tooth marks and slobber.

Champ is still a work in progress. The O’Donnell’s aren’t sure when he’ll be ready for a Durham debut. The crowds are bigger and louder there, so he’ll need to become accustomed to keeping his focus.

It’s a problem Ripken doesn’t have. The more people watching, the more he seems to thrive.

“He hears the crowd cheering, and he wants to go to work,” Melissa said.