They had trained together five days a week for nearly six months in the backyard solitude of Josh Snyder’s rural home. And although Milo the golden retriever seemed to have this baseball bat fetching routine down pat, Snyder still worried how his best friend would react when it came time to perform in front of thousands of people at a Rochester Red Wings game at Frontier Field in the summer of 2018.
“I had a lot of sleepless nights leading up to Milo’s first game,’’ Snyder recalled the other day. “I was a nervous wreck.”
When it came time that night for Milo to retrieve his first piece of lumber, the golden took four steps toward the batter’s box before doing an abrupt about face and heading back to Snyder sans Louisville Slugger. “Milo gave me this look that said: ‘Ah, sorry Josh, but I’m not doing this,’’ he said. “The bat boy went out and got the bat, and my heart sank.”
Mighty Milo had struck out. But baseball, like life, is a game of failure and second chances. And Milo would make the most of his.
Snyder, who grew up with goldens and is a professional dog trainer, decided to “go for broke” on Milo’s second attempt and remove his leash. Untethered, he trotted confidently onto the diamond, grabbed the bat with his teeth and returned it to Snyder. The crowd roared its approval, Snyder breathed a sigh of relief, and Milo received a yummy treat.
A star was born.
“The rest was history,’’ Snyder said. “From that point on, he’s been pretty much perfect.”
He’s batting a thousand – with his owner and Wings fans.
After a season in which Rochester shuffled through a franchise-record 77 different players and won only 39 percent of its games, some diehards believe the team has gone to the dogs. And, while there might be some truth to that, it’s also true that a dog has come to the rescue, with Milo’s fun fetches providing a respite from the disappointing play of the two-legged ballplayers. Our furry friend clearly has captured the fans’ fancy and become one of the franchise’s most beloved figures.
In recent years, Milo has been feted with T-shirts bearing his likeness, a “bobble-tail” ballpark giveaway, and a ubiquitous presence on the Wings clever and thoroughly entertaining Facebook, Instagram and Twitter pages. Heck, he’s even starred in a recent, paws-on-the-podium press conference.
“We thought he would be a hit with the fans, but we never expected his popularity to reach this level,’’ said Wings General Manager Dan Mason. “Any time we post something on social media, the hits really spike. People love seeing him on their computer and phone screens and at the ballpark. Shoot, we could be losing a game 18-0, and the instant Milo goes out to get a bat, the whole place goes crazy and acts as if we are up by 18.”
The idea of a bat dog was the brainstorm of Tim Doohan, the Wings’ wonderfully creative promotions director. He had seen another minor-league team have success with a canine fetcher and made inquiries with Off Leash K9 Training of Rochester, where Snyder works. Snyder’s boss asked him if mild-mannered Milo might be a candidate, and after deliberating about it for a week, decided to give it a try.
“My background was in obedience training, not what we called “force fetch,” so this was going to be my first time teaching retrieval,’’ he said. “I basically tried to make it a fun game for him. I wanted him to look forward to doing it. That was the biggest thing. I wanted it so that every time he saw the bat, he’d get really excited, and realize it was a game we were doing; a game in which he’d be rewarded with treats.”
Over time, Milo got the hang of it. “We started with him just picking up the bat at my feet and handing it to me,’’ Snyder said. “Then, I’d place it three feet away and six feet away and 10 feet away and long distances away and have him bring it back. Before his first Wings game, we went to some Little League practices, so we could get him used to doing it with a bunch of people around. Eventually, it became second nature.”
The bond between Snyder and Milo has played a role in this successful collaboration. They trust each other implicitly. They truly are best friends. “I can read him very well, and vice-versa,’’ he said. “If I’ve had a really bad day or I seem out of it, he’ll sense that, and plop down near me and paw me and give me his full attention. We are very much in tune with each other.”
There is a goofy side to Milo that Snyder adores. At the first sign of snow, the golden will race to the door and barkingly demand to be let outside immediately so he can “make snow angels.” Though six years old, Milo occasionally behaves like a puppy, zooming all over the place. And he thoroughly enjoys being a celebrity. “He’s a people lover, so when we’re at the ballpark, he’s in his glory,’’ Snyder said. “He likes his fame, but not in an arrogant way. There are times when he’ll strut out to get the bat and throw it into the air and catch it. He can be a ham.”
That’s OK with his growing legion of fans and with the Wings, who will be utilizing Milo more than ever in 2022. “The Goodest Boy” will be at the Wings home opener Tuesday, April 12, against the Buffalo Bisons – one of six appearances he’ll be making this season. There also will be “Pawtographed Poster” and Milo Cap giveaway nights, as well as two “Meet and Pet” games in which fans can have their photograph taken with Rochester’s most famous pooch.
As in years past, proceeds from Milo’s appearances and merchandise sales will benefit local charities. Flower City Group will donate $50 to Bivona Child Advocacy Center and the Society for the Protection & Care of Children for each bat he retrieves. In 2019, Milo helped raise more than $3,500 for the Wounded Veterans Foundation – a cause near and dear to Snyder, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who served deployments in Afghanistan and Romania. Last season, Milo raised more than $2,300 for T.A.P.S. (Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors).
“It really blows my mind to see how popular he’s become and the good we’ve been able to do as a result of that popularity,’’ Snyder said. “He’s always been a special dog to me, and it’s nice to see the community feel the same way about him.”
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.