Ripken the Bat Dog prepares for another season with Durham Bulls

Ripken the Bat Dog prepares for another season with Durham Bulls

Photo courtesy of Sit Means Sit Dog Training.

By Ryan Pitkin

February 29, 2024

The Durham Bulls are an institution in the Bull City. So is “Ripken the Bat Dog,” an American Black Lab trained retrieve loose bats on the field during games.

Durham has long been the younger sibling city living in the shadow of its capital neighbor, Raleigh. Sure, they have a smaller population and they get second billing at the Raleigh-Durham International Airport, but there are some things that Durham just does better.

One of those things is baseball.

Read More: Who needs MLB? North Carolina has some of the best minor league ballparks in America. 

In 1988, Durham got its15 minutes of fame as the setting for Bull Durham, a rom-com starring Kevin Costner, Susan Sarandon, and Tim Robbins. Costner and Robbins played the hardened vet and new recruit, respectively, on local minor league baseball team the Durham Bulls, with Sarandon completing the love triangle.

Ripken the Bat Dog prepares for another season with Durham Bulls
Photo courtesy of Orion Pictures.

At the time of the movie’s release, the Bulls played in the Class A Carolina League, but have since moved up to the Triple A International League, serving as the farm system affiliate for MLB’s Tampa Bay Rays.

Since 1995, the team has played in Durham Bulls Athletic Park, located in the heart of downtown Durham on the American Tobacco Campus. The historic site is home to contemporary food destinations and entertainment venues but with all the preserved charm of the old brick warehouses that once pumped out Lucky Strike cigarettes.

On June 17, 1993, the Bulls retired the late Hall of Famer Joe Morgan’s No. 18 jersey. It is the first number retired in Bulls History. Other notable professional players to have played in Durham include Bob Boone, Steve Avery, Andruw Jones, Evan Longoria, David Price, Wander Franco, and Lawrence “Crash” Davis

Perhaps the biggest star on the field in recent years, however, has been Ripken the Bat Dog, an American Black Lab who was trained by Sit Means Sit Dog Training in Apex to retrieve loose bats on the field during games.

Set to turn 8 years old this season, Ripken is still at it, and you can watch him prepare for spring training on his Instagram account.

Ripken the Bat Dog prepares for another season with Durham Bulls
Photo courtesy of Ripken the Bat Dog via Instagram.

Pup on the diamond (and football field)

Born on Aug. 1, 2016, in Boise, Idaho, Ripken the Bat Dog, aka Rip, made his way to Raleigh as a young pup. His rookie season as a bat retriever on the ballfield came in 2019 with the Holly Springs Salamanders, an amateur team in the Coastal Plain League that is under the same ownership as the Durham Bulls.

Weighing in at around 70 pounds, Ripken’s interests include frisbees, hugs, squeaky toys, and cleaning up food from under the kitchen table, according to his page on the Durham Bulls website. His hobbies are listed as “fetching bats, fetching frisbees, fetching sticks, fetching balls, fetching…”

Apparently, kickoff tees belong on the list of items Ripken enjoys fetching, as he began retrieving discarded tees following kickoffs at NC State University football games at Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh in 2019.

In fact, it’s on the football field where Ripken can truly get back to his roots, as his dad Cowboy Kohl was once the kicking tee retriever for the Boise State University football team.

Fans don’t just get to enjoy the spectacle of Ripken’s bat retrieval skills during home games at Durham Bulls Athletic Park, they also get to meet him during select events like Bark in the Park.

Five times a year, the Durham Bulls host the event, which invites dog owners to bring their pooch to a game and enjoy the festivities (and maybe a bite of a hot dog?). Dogs require a ticket to attend Bark in the Park and must sit in the lawn or certain assigned sections of the park.

Bark in the Park dates have not yet been announced for the 2024 season, so stay tuned for those updates.

Behind every great dog is a great trainer

Despite his lineage as the son of a kickoff tee retriever, Ripken the Bat Dog wasn’t born with the skills to become a legend of the Durham area. He learned those from Michael O’Donnell, who opened a Sit Means Sit Dog Training franchise in Apex with his wife Melissa in January 2016.

According to the Sit Means Sit website, Michael grew up training his family dogs from a very young age. After graduating from Radford University in Virginia, he relocated to North Carolina and began coaching baseball.

While pursuing a career in sales, O’Donnell worked part-time for the Sit Means Sit Raleigh franchise. After three years, he took the jump, leaving sales and heading to Las Vegas to participate in Sit Means Sit dog training school under the direction of Fred Hassen, the company’s founder.

Ripken came along about eight months after the O’Donnells launched their business, and when he was ready, the family began including him in their TV commercials. Ripken was destined for live crowds, however, and in 2019 he took the field for the first time in Holly Springs.

Now that he’s been in the limelight for five years, Ripken has some company. Not only does he have his imitators — the Bulls’ division rival Charlotte Knights recently announced that their own bat dog, named Dog, will join the team for Bark in the Ballpark evenings this summer — but ABC11 reported in September 2023 that the O’Donnells have already begun training Ripken’s younger brother, Champ to take some at-bats from his iconic older brother.

Champ, who should be nearing a year old now, may get some turns in Durham this summer, though it will take some time to prepare him for NC State football games, which have a more raucous atmosphere.

As for Ripken, he’s taking things in stride. “He kind of gives [Champ] the side-eye here and there,” Michael told ABC 11.

The classic story of the grizzled veteran being asked to make room for the flashy young rookie. Might we have a sequel to Bull Durham on our hands?

This article first appeared on Good Info News Wire and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.Ripken the Bat Dog prepares for another season with Durham BullsRipken the Bat Dog prepares for another season with Durham Bulls


  • Ryan Pitkin

    Ryan Pitkin is a writer and editor based in Charlotte, where he runs an alternative weekly newspaper called Queen City Nerve. He is also editor of NoDa News, a community newsletter in the neighborhood where he has lived for 15 years.

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