SARASOTA, Fla. — Drew Wolcott had picked out the dog he wanted to adopt and was at the counter filling out the paperwork when a remark from the employee at Nate’s Honor Animal Rescue in Florida caused his pen to stop.
Wolcott, the Orioles’ head groundskeeper at Ed Smith Stadium, had been prepared to take the sister of the last remaining dog from a litter. She was the mellow one.
“The lady was like, ‘We’ll see about the last one, cause he’s kind of the one we think was dropped on his head as a child,’” Wolcott recalled.
That’s all Wolcott needed to hear.
“You know what, I hate to do this,” Wolcott said. “But can I see him?”
When the brown and white pup walked out, he had a “goofy little face,” Wolcott remembers. Thatch, as he’s now named, looked aloof, as if lost.
Wolcott loved him immediately.
Almost a year later, not much about Thatch has changed. He’s gained confidence and learned where — and where not — to use the bathroom around the Ed Smith Stadium complex. He’s grown to love each of the members of the grounds crew, welcoming them each morning. And the goofiness that Wolcott fell for is still there in full force.
As if to reinforce Wolcott’s point in the moment, Thatch rolled over onto his back Tuesday morning, limbs flailing in four directions, and began wiggling on the warning track dirt.
“This is why I chose him: rolling around, biting the leash,” Wolcott said, “acting like he was the kid who probably needed the most help.”
Dogs have been integral throughout Wolcott’s life. His mother volunteered at shelters in Howard and Carroll counties. His father once found an abandoned old Golden Retriever when he was out on a run, so he picked it up and ran her home. She was nursed back to health and eventually had a bench named after her in downtown Sykesville.
And in Florida, Wolcott took care of an American bulldog who developed a cancerous tumor in his brain. He and his ex-girlfriend fostered dogs, including a pregnant mother who gave birth to a litter in their bedroom.
So after last year’s spring training ended, Wolcott knew what was missing in his life: a four-legged companion.
Enter Thatch, a one-and-a-half-year-old terrier mix. Thatch has the look of a Jack Russell terrier, although he’s about twice the size of one at 35 pounds. He has the nose of a pit bull, and his eyes look like a Catahoula leopard dog.
“He has a lot of energy,” Wolcott said. “It’s good exercise for him, a good atmosphere, to be able to come out here and run on the fields, hang out with the crew and just kind of having almost the ultimate life. He was probably the one I could relate to the most. Just felt it.”
His name has a double meaning for Wolcott. He is fascinated by pirates, and Blackbeard’s real name was Edward Teach (or Thatch, depending on the spelling). Plus, thatch is a barrier between the grass and soil found on fields.
“You want a little bit of thatch, but too much is a little overwhelming and hard to handle,” Wolcott explained, as he tried to get Thatch to stop chewing straight through the leash he’s not used to wearing when at the stadium. “He kind of fits that a little perfectly.”
For the first few days with Thatch, Wolcott stayed home to develop a bond. Then he brought Thatch to work, introducing him to the biggest yard imaginable — with 400 feet between home plate and the center field fence.
Yet Thatch didn’t know what to do with all that space. Wolcott knew Thatch had been with the University of Florida Veterinary Lab, and he assumed much of Thatch’s younger life was spent in a cage or another confined space. Thatch stuck tightly to his owner.
As Thatch met his new colleagues, he grew more confident in roaming. But he still sticks closely to Wolcott, following at his heels while Wolcott spreads new dirt or lying next to the mound as Wolcott stamps it. At times, early in the morning, Thatch can be seen guarding home plate at Ed Smith Stadium.
The training also began early, but the main focus wasn’t the usual commands of “sit,” “stay,” and “down.” Thatch learned to not dig or use the bathroom on the field, preserving the playing surface for the Orioles.
There are times, though, that Thatch tests out the grass in a way that actually helps Wolcott.
“Sometimes he gets the zoomies on the field and runs around,” Wolcott said. “Small, little, agile legs making some quick cuts, which kind of gives me a good gauge on how the field is playing a little bit. So he’s kind of a work dog, too.”
When Wolcott tells Thatch the word “work” in the morning, the dog becomes excited. When it’s time for the players to take the field, Thatch heads to the groundskeepers’ building. It’s there that each day becomes brighter for Thatch.
Wolcott’s assistant generally arrives first. Thatch has a routine: When he gets to the groundskeepers’ building, he races in, jumps into Wolcott’s assistant’s lap and says hello. Then he jumps down and checks the break room for other friends to greet. During the morning meeting, Thatch won’t head to the fields until he nudges each grounds crew member for a scratch.
And after a rough day, when the skies open up and the fields take a beating, there’s Thatch, bringing “a smile to everybody’s face,” Wolcott said. Thatch doesn’t rake the infield dirt or water the grass — he learned not to do the latter, after all — but he’s as pivotal as any of them.