CINCINNATI -- Baseball fans will get an added treat today when the Reds take on the Atlanta Braves -- the return of Sam the eagle.
The Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardens Reds-supporting bald eagle will be flying onto the field from the roof of the Cincinnati Bell Technology Pavilion during the singing of the national anthem. This marks Sam’s 15th consecutive year flying at Great American Ball Park, with four flights scheduled in June and one mid-July.
“Sam’s the only bald eagle in the country that flies at a Major League sporting event,” Cincinnati Zoo Wings of Wonder creator and orchestrator Gary Denzler said. “There’s a couple other eagles that go and do programs and will do other events, but Sam has literally just done this.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service allows Sam’s participation because of the bird's history, Denzler said. At just three months old, Sam was found on the roadside after being struck by a vehicle. The injury resulted in permanent damage, rendering the eagle flightless. Denzler said he was first introduced to Sam when then zoo Director Greg Hudson suggested he fly an eagle onto the field at then newly built Great American Ball Park.
“So after I got the OK from Fish and Wildlife, I went up to Michigan State and there were about 15 injured eagles up there that couldn’t go back into the wild because of their injuries,” he said. “Sam was sitting there very calmly, and I’m like, 'I want that one.'”
Although Sam is unable to take off into flight, he can glide, said Cincinnati Zoo bird trainer and Lucy the bearcat handler Eddie Annal. Annal said they practiced varying distances and heights for a few months before taking him to GABP. He said at the initial practice 14-plus years ago, it only took about 10 minutes for the young eagle to determine how to make it down onto the field from his perch.
“That first time he had to figure out what his body could do and how he was going to do it,” he said. "It’s like a roller coaster -- he gets all the momentum from being up high and just flies real low to the ground and rises up.”
A week prior to each appearance, Team Sam -- consisting of Denzler, Annal and Cincinnati Zoo bird trainer Markee Jefferies -- head to GABP for practice runs. Jefferies said they try to time Sam’s flight so he lands on Annal’s glove just as the anthem concludes. That can sometimes prove challenging as no two people sing the anthem the same. She said when she opens Sam’s window, that's his cue he’s on deck. When she opens his door, he launches.
“I pull the window up on ‘wave,’ that’s when Eddie starts blowing his whistle and I don’t open the door to release him until ‘free,’" she said. “But it all just depends on who’s singing the national anthem, if it’s fast or if it’s slow. If it’s really slow I may even try to wait a few seconds after ‘free.’ It’s really challenging sometimes getting the timing down.”
While the team may sound like a well-oiled machine, Sam’s appearances come completely on his own terms, Denzler explained. He said Sam occasionally perceives certain noises or objects as a threat. As eagles are very visual, he said they do their best to preemptively check for large moving objects like blimps or cranes. He said they discovered Sam’s dislike for loud construction equipment while the Great American Tower was being built.
“There were a couple of cranes and they were moving, so literally we had to cancel,” he said. “He wouldn’t even come out of his crate, he was scared of that crane moving.”
Annal said Sam’s not fond of pressure washers used to clean seats or tarps that sometimes blow around when they cover the field. So how can Sam with his cautious nature glide onto a field surrounded by thousands of spectators?
“He doesn’t get distracted during the games because it’s the national anthem and everyone is standing still and quiet,” he said. “It’s the perfect time.”
But the silence ceases when Sam lands on Annal’s glove, said Reds mascot and events coordinator Nick Saint Pierre. He said fans loudly cheer, especially those who weren’t expecting to see an eagle fly in onto the field. He said Sam has his own contingency of fans.
“He is in fact the official eagle of the Reds,” Saint Pierre said. “Sam has got his own ball card, has been featured on a glass we gave away during the inaugural season, so yes, he’s become a big part of the team and quite the representative."
Sam’s baseball card contains facts about the bald eagle’s amazing recovery, Denzler said. Within Ohio, he explained the eagle population increased from only four nests to more than 100 over the last 20 years. He said the venture is a win-win as it’s patriotic, the public learns about bald eagles and Sam gets the chance to take to the sky.
“We’ll come down here in the mornings when it’s quiet and he comes flying off the deck there and he’ll let out a call. I think he’s just tickled to be back in the air again flying,” Denzler said. “I really feel like he does enjoy it. Every time I see him fly it still gives me goose bumps.”