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Wild World of Sports: When Raccoons, Cats and Iguanas Upstage the Action

New York City F.C. beat the Philadelphia Union 2-1 in a Major League Soccer match on Wednesday night.

And the star of the game was a raccoon.

The critter’s surprise appearance on the field in the first half led to comic scenes of groundskeepers futilely trying to trap it in a trash can. At one point, the raccoon appeared to have been trapped, only to emerge triumphantly from the can for further rambling.

M.L.S. claimed the creature’s 2-minute, 41-second walkabout broke a league record for on-pitch animal freedom.

Yes, the raccoon was far from the first apparently sports-loving animal to turn up uninvited on the world’s fields of play. Indeed, it has happened many, many times, and the drama of a loose animal has nearly always overshadowed the game itself, at least temporarily. Here are some of the more memorable appearances.

Stray cats are relatively frequent intruders on baseball diamonds, but one gained a little more fame than others.

The cat arrived at Busch Stadium in St. Louis in 2017. While there was some mayhem — a groundskeeper, Lucas Hackmann, was scratched and bitten by the cat as the unsympathetic St. Louis crowd roared its approval — it is what happened when play resumed that gave the feline its great fame. Yadier Molina hit a grand slam, giving the hometown Cardinals the victory over the Kansas City Royals.

The cat was quickly dubbed “Rally Cat,” and became a beloved figure in St. Louis overnight. There was further confusion after its capture, when a woman grabbed the cat at the stadium, claiming it was hers, then lost it in a nearby park. But Rally Cat was found soon after and was adopted.

Other notable cats to emerge into the sporting limelight include a remarkably fast black one who flummoxed stadium workers at a Giants football game at the Meadowlands in 2019, winding up, appropriately, in the end zone. And there was a vigorous cat chase at Yankee Stadium in 2021 on the same day that a mantis sat on a player’s head for two innings.

Sadly, a happy outcome is not in store for every animal that swoops into a stadium. Randy Johnson, who could fire a fastball upward of 100 miles an hour, uncorked one in a spring training game in Tucson, Ariz., in 2001.

Most unfortunately, a bird decided that was the right time to fly in front of home plate, directly in the ball’s path. It did not end well for the bird.

Sometimes, though, the bird wins. A sea gull wandered onto the golf course at the Players Championship in Florida in 1998. It took a liking to a ball hit by Brad Fabel, picked it up from the green and wandered off.

Though it struggled to keep the ball in its beak, the bird was persistent. Perhaps a fan of the eventual winner, Justin Leonard, the gull eventually flew off with the ball and dropped it in the water. (By rule, Fabel was allowed to place a new ball.)

Because of the outdoor and typically warm settings of many golf tournaments, they are prime spots for creatures to appear, and sometimes become involved in play. An iguana grabbed a ball at the 2014 Puerto Rico Open. Alligators are frequent visitors to a PGA event in Louisiana. Turtles have been seen diving from the green into the water at multiple Players Championships.

Once in a while, when conditions are right (or perhaps more accurate, wrong), a few bugs arrive at a baseball stadium. And when we say a few, we mean zillions. Most infamously, in a playoff game in Cleveland in 2007, tiny bugs swarmed the pitchers mound.

And they may have affected the outcome. Yankee pitcher Joba Chamberlain seemed rattled by the bugs and threw a wild pitch, leading to a Cleveland run. But the opposing pitcher, Fausto Carmona, was unfazed: “I knew there were a lot of flies, but I was trying to stay focused,” he said. “I was not going to allow nothing or nobody to distract me.” Cleveland won, 2-1.

Though it was a high-stakes playoff game, even The New York Times bowed to reality in its headline: “In Game 2 Infestation, Bugs Claim Spotlight.”

What is it about the Cardinals and good-luck charm animals? Six years before the Rally Cat’s appearance, a squirrel dashed onto the field in a playoff game involving the Cardinals in Philadelphia. Showing uncanny baseball instincts, it made its way across home plate.

The squirrel turned up at three different games in the 2011 series against the Phillies, and, coincidentally or not, the Cardinals won the series, then went on to win the World Series.

A New York squirrel achieved one of the most impressive feats on our list, climbing to the very top of the Yankee Stadium foul pole in 2007.

We’re going to stop there. But if you are hungry for more, click to learn about: chicken, ice hockey, Montreal, 1988 (be assured the fan who threw it on the ice was arrested); goose, baseball, Los Angeles, 2022; and, inevitably, kangaroo, soccer, Canberra, Australia, 2019.

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