Hapless stray rehabilitates the Brewers’ image

Graeme Zielinski, Special to WiG

On a recent day before the season started, in the bunkered Milwaukee Brewers interview room deep within Miller Park, Hank the Dog was splayed by handlers on a table before a smartly-dressed team executive, surrounded by a small guard of gaudy bobblehead dolls.

A dozen members of Milwaukee’s media clustered around as it was announced that a “Bobble Hank” doll would be offered to 45,000 fans on Sept. 13.

In the first hour after the promotion was announced, the team sold an unprecedented 2,200 tickets to that game. President of baseball operations Rick Schlesinger afterward remarked on the oddness of the Days of Hank, which he entered midstream.

(Painfully, he had to announce that he had heard the fans “barking” for the result. Don’t worry. Plenty of puns to follow.)

Tyler Barnes, the Brewers media vice president, who might be called the “father of Hank,” watched from the periphery with a half smile.

He’d had his “a-Hank” moment a few weeks back.

That was when he found himself in a sporty part of Phoenix, in a year-round Halloween store. Barnes was waiting for an attendant to find the hooked pole needed to reach up a few stories and retrieve the hot dog costume that the once-battered bichon mix, now a Wisconsin media star, would wear in an Arizona re-enactment of the Brewers’ popular sausage race.

Back at the Brewers’ news conference, after the media horde had departed, Barnes said he had to steady himself after retrieving the hot dog costume. He was beginning to realize what he had helped to start.

Where, he asked, really not knowing the answer, does it go now?

Perfect timing

Not even the Brewers seem to know, as the team enters uncharted territory a year after an annus horribilis of media coverage. In addition to its losing record, the team was hit by a headline-grabbing scandal involving former MVP Ryan Braun, once the face of the franchise. Braun was suspended, fined and scorned after admitting that he’d violated Major League Baseball’s anti-drug policy and used performance-enhancing drugs, then lied about it.  

That story dominated the headlines last summer, but now Milwaukee is getting a far more flattering view of the franchise as Hank coverage saturates newscasts, the instruments of Journal Communications (Brewers’ broadcast partners along with Fox Sports) and local sports talk radio, where Hank mania has fomented a backlash.

The frenzy over Hank hasn’t stopped at the state’s borders. It’s spread far and wide, with no predictable media pathway. Hipster websites such as Deadspin.com and middlebrow articles in People magazine products have fueled the howl. Hank’s had his run around the social media infield, officially as #BallParkPup, but also with some admiring copycat Twitter feeds. And there’s no end in sight.

But Hank’s saga is not only helping to rehabilitate the Brewer’s public image, it’s also benefiting his furry brethren. The Brewers plan to donate a portion of the proceeds from tickets sales for the Sept. 13 game to the Wisconsin Humane Society’s “Hank Fund,” which helps care for stray animals. In addition to a portion of ticket sales, contributions to the fund will be made by Brewers players, according to the team.

Angela Speed, spokeswoman for the Wisconsin Humane Society, had a simple explanation for the arc and momentum of the Hank story. Her take would muzzle even the most snarling cynicism.

“One little dog’s story can change a lot of hearts,” she said.

From stray to star

How did it begin?

The Hank truthers out there will never believe it, but Hank’s tale is a combination of good PR work, some savvy and kind people. Add in a bit of luck.

The Hank “creation story” was not really unlike that of other strays who have wandered into the Brewers’ spring training camp and been “adopted” in a wind-blown and economically challenged part of the Phoenix metropolis.

Unlike Milwaukee, Phoenix officials don’t enforce leash laws and strays are abundant in the wide, brutal, sun-blasted expanses. The majority of them avoid human contact.

Not so with Hank. On the morning of Feb. 17, he wandered into the premises in the morning. Arriving early, coach Ed Sedar, a “dog person,” was united with Hank by a friendly security guard, Barnes said.

After a questionably healthy meal of eggs and sausage, the dog understandably lingered. The Brewers Arizona staff, which gets little credit in the narrative, kicked into gear and saw that the dog was hurt.

In the Official Hank Hagiography, he had a black streak, a tire mark on his back that was probably the result of being chewed up and spat out after sleeping under an unmoving car. He also had injuries to his chest and tail.

Still, Hank was calm and chill. That’s what Barnes noticed on Feb. 18, when he found Hank dozing at the feet of someone in the ticket office.

The rest of the story is documented, because there happened to be national press at Brewers’ camp that day, including espn.com’s Jerry Crasnick. They responded just as Barnes thought they might after he brought the cute-as-hell pooch through the clubhouse to a ball team that raced to embrace the mutt.

Later that day, the Brewers’ committed an act of brilliant PR and put together a collection of images and video that flared an already-burning fuse.

Thanks to Barnes and the rest of his colleagues, Hank didn’t run, he galloped around the larger landscape, ensuring — well, ensuring something.

Hank was christened by Maryvale ballpark staff, who sought to honor the most famous Brewer, who played most of his career with the Milwaukee and the Atlanta Braves — the one true home-run king, Henry Aaron.

They didn’t clear the christening with Aaron before the media storm erupted. But then nobody could have predicted it.

Barnes understood Aaron’s sensitivity and said “one of his first calls” was to Aaron’s longtime assistant, whom he knew from his own time in Atlanta. Barnes was assured that Hank Aaron was full-square behind his canine namesake. (Stay tuned on that front.)

One of the Brewers’ next calls, not two days later, was to the Wisconsin Humane Society and Arizona Humane Society, which began offering help.

“We’re a baseball organization, not a place that cares for pets,” Barnes explained.

As Hank’s legend began to grow, the Brewers enacted some controls to ensure his health. (And this is not to mention the attention from the Brewers players, who, every bit of evidence shows, love that fricking dog.).

The truth of the team’s love was borne out at his bobblehead news conference in Milwaukee, where Hank spent 20 minutes with the press. Not long after a local reporter grabbed Hank without permission — perhaps hoping to win a local Emmy — the Brewers got Hank the heck out of there.

But Hank didn’t mind. The dog didn’t even bark. The Humane Society’s Speed says calmness is part of his character.

“It’s clearly evident he’s a very special dog,” Speed said. “He’s very confident. He’s not spooked by cameras or crowds. I schedule dogs for TV all the time. He truly is a special dog. To have a dog who can get off an airplane and have a crowd waiting for him and be confident about it is pretty cool and unique.”

Speed was referring to Hank’s official arrival in Milwaukee, when he was greeted at Mitchell Field exiting a chartered plane by such dignitaries as Mayor Tom Barrett, County Executive Chris Abele and others.

Standing by the jetway, Abele said, “It occurred to me at the time that Hank probably polls better than Scott Walker, Mary Burke, Tom Barrett, or me.  I understand he hasn’t yet declared for office, so for now it’s more money raised for the Wisconsin Humane Society and probably a lot more tickets sold for the Brewers. All good.”

About an hour before this reporter met Hank for the first time, I was having lunch at Miss Katie’s with a priest who ministers to the inner-city poor.

His own take was, “The reason that people like this little dog is that he represents second chances, he represents hope.”