This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's June 18 World Football Issue. Subscribe today!
James Paxton has had a tremendous first half of the 2018 season, fueling the surprising Mariners into the playoff conversation.
Among the many notable achievements thus far for Seattle's ace lefty: a no-hitter, a 16-strikeout game and two complete games in a 5-1 start. But perhaps Paxton's most memorable accomplishment came back on April 5, when a confused bald eagle named Challenger mistook the 29-year-old lefty for his handler. It became such a viral moment, in fact, that the Mariners plan to commemorate Paxton's unexpected bird-handling with an upcoming bobblehead event.
Here's a two-minute oral history of the day Paxton and his taloned friend, Challenger, met at Target Field.
DEE GORDON, MARINERS OUTFIELDER: Right before the national anthem, I saw the eagle, Challenger, on the JumboTron [before his flight to the field], and I said, "That bird looks like he doesn't want to cooperate. If he comes over here, it's going to be a disaster -- I'm going to fight the bird or run from the anthem. Either way, I'm in trouble."
DESSA, NATIONAL ANTHEM SINGER: I met Challenger the day before and was told not to make any big gestures with my arms to avoid becoming a target for the eagle. I remember thinking, "That bird is the size of a mini fridge!"
PAXTON: I was in left field by myself. I put down my glove and put my hat over my chest. All of a sudden, I see the eagle flying right at me. I was like, "OK, is it going to come say hi and then keep going?"
GORDON: It flies past Paxton, then it came around and jumped up and brushed against him. Then he turns around and looks at Paxton and jumps up on his back, and I thought, "Oh my god."
AL CECERE, CHALLENGER'S LEAD TRAINER: If he wants to, Challenger can apply 1,000 pounds of pressure with his talons. But he landed softly on Paxton's shoulder, like he's landing on our catching glove. When he slid down and off, he was trying to get [Paxton] to put his arm out because he wanted his Atlantic wild-caught salmon treat. Paxton handled it so gracefully, and I think Challenger recognized a kind spirit.
PAXTON: Challenger and I made eye contact -- we had a moment. I could tell he wasn't trying to attack; he was trying to perch on my back. I tried to stand up slowly so he could inch his way up and stand on my shoulder.
CECERE: Challenger had had six perfect practice flights before the game, and we think that Challenger thought Paxton was one of our catchers. Paxton had a glove and he had his hand behind his back, where we would normally get food out of a pouch. We have a trainer on the field who looks like him, in stature, facial hair, everything.
PAXTON: I found out after the game that it was the first time that bird had ever missed its mark in 29 years! Next time I see Challenger, we can plan to have him land on my arm. But not my pitching arm -- we'd go right arm for that.