Of all the loyal fans attending home Kent State University and Walsh Jesuit High School baseball games, the one following the action the closest is only 5½ years old (in people years).
Zeus, an English Labrador retriever with a dark coat, has a job to do.
Zeus’ owner, Rick Haught, a Cuyahoga Falls resident who runs Haught Construction, noticed that the surrounding woods at Kent State and Walsh were keeping most of the foul balls that were hit into them during games because people couldn't find them. Lose five or six (or twice as many) balls a game, and the costs start to add up.
Enter Zeus, whom Haught started training at 14 weeks old to fetch baseballs lost in the woods. Five years later, the dog is a mainstay at baseball games. Zeus is so experienced that Rick doesn’t tell him to go after a ball. The English Lab is always on alert.
“When the pitcher winds up, he stops breathing and holds his breath until it's to the batter,” Haught said. “I don't have to say anything to him anymore. He watches the game and waits for a foul ball. Before games, I usually have the catchers pet him. He picks up the scent off of them.”
Zeus has collected more than 1,000 baseballs from the woods. He retrieves them during games or fetches “dead balls” — those that can’t be returned to play — on off days. Statistically, this season was also his best. Zeus broke his old records at Walsh and Kent State. Today, he stands at 100 at KSU (previous record was 89) and 129 at Walsh (previous was 124).
Haught said Zeus is the perfect dog for the job.
“Labs have a very soft mouth made to retrieve birds and fish, so they don't hurt the ball,” he said. “He carries them lightly. And he's a gentle giant. Little kids hang on him and everything. But at the game, you almost can't pet him just because he's so focused.
“Everyone appreciates it and can't believe he does what he does. The coaches thank us a lot.”
Of course, there have been some complaints.
“They're concerned with teeth marks or that he'll get the ball wet,” Haught said. “People say he's running loose. But that's absolutely not true. He's always under my verbal control. Matter of fact, if someone bends over to pick up a ball he's going after, he stops immediately. He knows that's their ball.”
The main question is who enjoys it more: man or dog?
“My wife says I'm enjoying it more than the dog is,” Haught said. “She says I enjoy the praise the dog gets. And I do because I'm proud of him. I enjoy watching him, I enjoy baseball and he gets excited.”
It's even in Zeus' genes.
“I don't think I have enough time to train another dog, but I have one of Zeus' puppies who is a year and a half,” Haught said. “The puppy is already doing the same things in going after foul balls and showing signs of it.”
That's OK, because Zeus is still on the watch. Patiently waiting, holding his breath with every pitch.
Ryan Lewis can be reached at email@example.com. Read the high school blog at http://www.ohio.com/preps. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/RyanLewisABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.