THE SEARCH PARTY gathers at midnight with six traps and an assortment of fish juice, and five volunteers fan out. Under a glow of cellphone flashlights, they methodically sift through the bushes on a muggy summer night in a downtown St. Louis park.
It's Aug. 11, 2017, a little more than a day since Rally Cat disappeared, and half of St. Louis is on the lookout for a long-tailed good-luck charm that ran into their lives during a Cardinals baseball game. The cat was last spotted here in Citygarden, a public park where foot traffic is significant enough in the past 24 hours that officials send out a tweet asking the public to "let the professionals do their job."
And tonight, the volunteers at St. Louis Feral Cat Outreach (STLFCO) are confident. They trap, neuter and return (TNR) about 2,000 stray cats a year, and have a hunch he's still here because of the primal trait that nearly all non-domesticated cats share: fear. Board member Savannah Rigley says even when a housecat runs away, it hunkers down and doesn't travel more than a block or two.
Sure enough, a tiny silhouette appears on a footpath around 1 a.m. He stops for a nanosecond, glances at Rigley, and darts into the shrubbery. The cat is not coming out, not with all these people, so Rigley and three others go home. Amy Jordan, a former certified nursing assistant who, like the cats she traps, is nocturnal, drives to QuikTrip to give him some space.
It's around 3 a.m. Twenty-nine hours earlier, a long-haired kitten went viral when it ran onto the field at Busch Stadium during the Cardinals' game against the Kansas City Royals, repeatedly scratching and biting a young grounds crew member while the crowd roared. What happened next made the cat legendary: On the very next pitch when play resumed, Yadier Molina hit a grand slam, lifting St. Louis to an 8-5 victory.
Had it happened in another city, in another sport, perhaps the kitten would have faded into a statistic, one of an estimated 70 million stray and feral cats wandering the United States. But baseball fans are a superstitious lot, especially in St. Louis. Ten years after the Cardinals won their last World Series, a portion of their fan base firmly believes it wouldn't have happened without the Rally Squirrel that ran across home plate during the 2011 National League Division Series.
Jordan drinks a cup of coffee and listens to half an hour of late-night idle gas-station chitchat, then heads back to Citygarden. She checks the first trap.
Two tiny eyes, shining off a streetlight, stare back at her. The animal in the cage is covered in fish juice and looks as if he stuck his paw in a light socket. He stares imploringly at Jordan, who does something she normally wouldn't with a feral, unsocialized cat. She pokes her fingers through the cage and strokes his cheek.
"Hey, little buddy," she tells him. "You're going to be OK."
She has no clue that the scruffy kitten is about to become a phenomenon.
For one long summer month, Rally Cat would captivate St. Louis. His story was more riveting than baseball. Hundreds would line up to adopt him. The St. Louis Cardinals coveted him, and planned to raise the kitten in their clubhouse. What began as an act of seemingly good intentions eventually devolved into a strange, tense story of a small but mythic figure whose whereabouts remain a secret to this day.
A Facebook post from the feral-cat outreach on July 11, 2018 -- 11 months after his trapping -- included a picture of a magnificently floofy adult cat.
It said Rally Cat was retired.
THEIR ENCOUNTER WAS brief, and involved a trip to the emergency room, but Lucas Hackmann knows this: The cat will be with him for the rest of his life.
"I mean, shoot, he barely weighed a pound," Hackmann says as he recounts the night.
"I remember just feeling like I was floating. I could've run three miles with that cat. You just had so much adrenaline going through your body ... You almost, like, black out for a moment."
Hackmann is 24 now and studying to be a physician's assistant, but when he meets people in social settings, the cellphone video inevitably surfaces, and one of Hackmann's friends will tell the stranger, "Do you remember the cat guy?"
Rally Cat left no scars, but honestly, Hackmann wishes he did. That night at the hospital, nurses dropped by to snap photos of Hackmann, an average college student suddenly recognizable by his khaki shorts, blue polo and gnarled-up hand. Four hours after he left the hospital, he was on a radio show; two hours after that, SportsCenter. He was the subject of a skit on Conan O'Brien, and would eventually be immortalized in a bobblehead with the cat. The tiny statue is by no means an exact likeness; Hackmann is actually smiling while holding the cat.
It was a Wednesday night. The Cardinals were trailing the Royals 5-4 in the bottom of the sixth, and the game carried a hint of desperation for both teams, who were hovering around .500. Royals' submarine-thrower Peter Moylan had been summoned from the bullpen with two runners on and no out, and he was locked in, quickly inducing a lineout and a strikeout. He intentionally walked Dexter Fowler to face the right-handed Molina.
Then the cat ran onto the field. His back was arched and his gait was more of a gallop than a sprint. He ran through the outfield grass, slowed as he approached Royals center fielder Lorenzo Cain, then picked up speed. Cain didn't move from his spot. He watched as the kitten headed toward the warning track.
Hackmann had been standing near the top step of the visitors dugout when the game stopped, and everyone seemed confused. When an unruly fan rushes onto the field, he says, the ushers take care of it. But who handles wayward cats?
So he volunteered, and raced out onto the field, with 88,000 eyeballs on him. He could feel his heartbeat pounding through his head. He cornered the kitten on the warning track, and bent over to pick him up. He hadn't thought this through.
Hackmann's experience with the family poodle and Shih Tzu offered no insight on how to pick up a scared feline during a Major League Baseball game. His only guidance was adrenaline and instinct. He tucked the kitten under his arm like a football and ran, and the kitten squirmed, poked and thrashed his body into Hackmann's chest. He used his other arm to corral the kitten, and switched to an awkward sort of grip that looked as if he was holding a dirty diaper, all while he was running. Instinct told him to run to the dugout, but that's where the team was. His biggest fear was that he'd drop the kitten, and the game would be further delayed. Every bite, scratch and pained reaction elicited roars from the crowd.
He didn't drop the kitten. Instead, he made a running leap over a wall and into the stands, and disappeared.
Moylan, who loves animals and jokingly referred to the kitten as "an evil, witchcraft-spelling cat" during an interview with ESPN last month, said he tried his hardest to stay focused in that two-minute delay that seemed to last 20. But he couldn't.
"I watched the whole thing," Moylan says. "It was entertaining."
Hackmann ran to the concourse, bleeding and in pain, and needed to find a first-aid station. Eager to rid himself of the cat, he said he set him down in the concourse and watched him scurry out of Gate 3 toward the Stan Musial statue outside.
Molina crushed a fastball over the left-field wall, and Hackmann heard the stadium erupt. "What happened?" he asked. His phone was buzzing nonstop in his back pocket. The first call he answered was from his boss, who of course checked on his well-being but had another pertinent question: Where is the cat? The cat was gone.
"At the time it wasn't a rally cat," he says. "It was just a feral cat."
THE FIRST OWNERSHIP of Rally Cat lasted less than 30 minutes.
Korie Harris' favorite three things are Christmas, the Cardinals and cats. She was watching the Kansas City-St. Louis game in a standing-room-only area near home plate, and when Hackmann left the field with the kitten, Harris had to do something. She asked an usher what would become of the kitty, and the usher, according to Harris, told her it would probably be thrown out onto the street.
Harris rushed to the main gate and spotted the kitten.
"He was just in this corner on the ground," Harris says, "and there were a couple of people standing around him. I was like, 'Hey, that's my cat; I'll take him home because he's really scared.' At that point, I still don't think Yadi had hit the home run. We just left right away."
Harris' apartment was about a half-mile from the stadium, but the walk that night seemed to take much longer. They stopped to take pictures, and fans were asking if they could hold the cat. (Harris said no.) Near the end of the parking lot, Cardinals' security approached her and asked about the cat. She told them she lived nearby and was taking him home.
She had plans for the kitten. She'd take him for walks in the stroller she used for her other cat, Mimzy Jackson. She was going to name him "Yadi." They were just a few blocks from her apartment, near the tall grass and greener pastures of Citygarden, when the cat leaped out of her arms and disappeared into the night. Harris believes he was startled by a noise.
The next day, the Cardinals issued a statement about the odd events of the night.
" ... as our ushers tried to contain the cat," the statement said, "a fan grabbed it and claimed it was hers. As she left the ballpark, our security team caught up with her and asked her some questions. She then abruptly left with the cat. We understand from media accounts that the woman intended to take it home and care for it, but lost track of it in City Garden. We are hopeful someone will find the cat and contact us so we can properly care for it."
The Cardinals declined an interview request for this story, so it's hard to know the full backstory of the news release, and why the club would want a possibly feral kitten returned to them. Harris said nobody cared about the kitten until Molina's home run.
Though her name wasn't specifically mentioned in the release, she was "bummed" by the way the team described her role in it. She did a radio interview the day after the game, and then reporters were hounding her, knocking on her apartment door, showing up at her work. Anonymous strangers blamed her for the disappearance of the Cardinals' good-luck charm, and accused her of trying to capitalize on the cat to make money. People were painting her as a cat thief.
"My phone just started going crazy," she said. "I don't want to be part of the drama. I had to take off work. The news kept coming up here trying to get a hold of me.
"I just stayed in my house and started going through the rabbit hole and looking at what people were saying about me, and it was just horrible. I mean, I sat there crying. I just wanted to make sure the cat was OK."
Harris was conflicted, upset at the team she loved, but also worried that they'd hold the situation against her.
The Cardinals have one of the most passionate fan bases in baseball, and Harris is a microcosm of it. She has a Cardinals tattoo on her arm, and six months out of the year, she yearns for the other six when she can pay $32 a month to stand, not sit, and watch her games.
She laid low for a few weeks, and not being at the ballpark was killing her. But she worried that an usher would scan her monthly pass and tell her to leave.
One day, Harris decided to go incognito. She straightened her curly hair, wore big sunglasses and flashed her pass.
"Nobody noticed me," she says.
WOMEN WHO DO TNR work are sometimes stereotyped in three words: crazy cat lady. The connotation assumes the person is single, lonely and surrounded by felines. But there's actually a detachment in what this subset of animal advocates does, otherwise they'd be living with 300 cats. They trap and neuter the cats to curb overpopulation, then return them to their colonies.
Rigley, one of the volunteers who searched for Rally Cat in Citygarden, said TNR people are often confused with rescuers.
"We're tougher," Rigley says. "We'll go to places alone, we'll go to places we've never been, we'll set traps in dark alleyways. And we can return cats when other people can't, even though it's hard."
Around 3 a.m. on Friday, Aug. 11, 2017, a group of women at STLFCO were finally calling it a night. They described their brush with the silhouetted cat in a Facebook messenger chain among a few others who didn't go to Citygarden, and offered Jordan suggestions on trapping him.
"Goodnight RC wherever you are!" someone typed at 3:12 a.m.
Less than an hour later, Jordan sent a message.
She sent a photo of the kitten staring up from the cage. While husbands, partners (and possibly a few cats) slept nearby, the women compared stripes and fur colors from the photo to the pictures plastered all over the news of Rally Cat.
He looked smaller than the kitten that ran out onto the field. Jordan took the cat to Terri Zeman's house, who laid the trap in a clawfoot tub of her newly remodeled bathroom. Zeman gave him half a can of seafood Fancy Feast, turned out the lights and closed the door.
One distinct marking -- a bull's-eye on his right side -- helped determine that he was, indeed, Rally Cat.
At 7:31 a.m., STLFCO tweeted.
We did trap a kitten at @CitygardenSTL overnight. We will be trying to determine if it is #Rallycat.
They had no idea what would come next, that they'd be on the radio within an hour, and by midday would be so crushed with requests that they'd have to hold a news conference in a storefront used for community yoga, with the cameras fixed on a kitten in a metal cage.
They didn't know much about Rally Cat. He went to the veterinarian that day for a health check, and was handled with leather gloves and a bamboo scratcher to test his temperament. He wasn't necessarily feral, a term used for unsocialized cats who are fearful of people. But he wasn't a lap cat, either. He was deemed healthy, male, and 4 months old.
That afternoon, the Cardinals posted a photo of the kitten on Twitter. "The #RallyCat has been found!" it said.
The Cardinals, in early-to-mid August, were soaring. They swept their I-70 rivals that week, and won eight straight games. After a miserable start to the season, the Rally Cat game drew St. Louis to within one game of the National League Central-leading Chicago Cubs.
After that game, skipper Mike Matheny (who, coincidentally, now manages the Royals) confessed to reporters that he is not a cat person.
"But I sure like that one," he said.
THE TEAM QUICKLY planned a "Welcome Home" ceremony at the ballpark for late August, and a "Rally Cat Appreciation Day" for Sept. 10. The relationship between the team and STLFCO was cordial at the start, but the women were still skeptical, especially over the plan to house the kitten in the chaos of 25 ballplayers. How would that go with an animal who'd spent 24 hours hiding in the bushes?
Rally Cat would have to be held in quarantine for 10 days because of rabies concerns, and one of the first signs that things were about to spin out of control came when news of the rabies hold was reported. At least five people claimed they'd been bitten by the kitten so they could hold him.
"Everybody wanted the cat," STLFCO president Christine Bowen says. "They had their different tactics."
Still, if a wildly popular entity could draw attention to the plight of the United States' 70 million stray cats, the women thought, it could only be a good thing. They said Purina even offered to bring in a cat behaviorist, who would help design a playhouse at the stadium where the cat could live.
But the relationship between the team and the feral-cat volunteers was hurt by miscommunication. The women felt outmatched. "They're a multimillion-dollar corporation," Rigley says. "They could crush us if they wanted to." They wanted any meetings to include their five board members, who worked day jobs to pay the bills and could meet only at night.
A few days after the game, Ron Watermon, then the Cardinals' vice president of communications, called to inquire about the kitten. He reached Lindsey Slama, a volunteer who happened to be one of the biggest Cardinals fans at the nonprofit. She was naturally excited to talk to someone of Watermon's stature -- she'd loved her hometown baseball team since she was a child -- and told him that it would be "neat" if one of the players adopted the cat, so he could live in an actual home.
But she wonders if Watermon misinterpreted that as permission for the team's adoption. (Watermon, who runs a communications company and is no longer with the team, declined to comment for this story.)
On Aug. 15, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch ran a Tony Messenger essay titled, "Rally Cat finds a home, but what about other cats in St. Louis?" Unlike some of Messenger's opinion pieces, this was by no means controversial; it gave an inside look into STLFCO's work. But one line apparently rankled the Cardinals. It said that after Rally Cat's 10-day rabies hold, the cat would be sent to a no-kill shelter and adopted.
"It created a little bit of a stink," Messenger says.
In an interview with the paper shortly after that, Watermon referred to the kitten as "our cat," and said it would be returned to them. "Mike and our players are looking forward to loving and caring for him," Watermon said.
STLFCO followed with a statement saying it was shocked by Watermon's "bullying tactics," and that no decisions had been made about the cat's long-term placement. Watermon countered by calling their statement "childish." Suddenly, the feel-good story turned into a full-blown catfight.
A group of volunteers who'd quietly spent their free time helping cats who nobody wanted were now in the middle of a very public spat for one stray kitten. Who was right and wrong depended on whether you were a cat person or a baseball fan. STLFCO's business address at the time was actually the home address of one of the volunteers, and for days, the family would hear people shouting obscenities outside their home, and the occasional, "I hope you die!"
Rally Cat had been staying with Zeman, but now the women were nervous that he'd get stolen. So they moved him three times.
"It was too obvious he would be at her house," Rigley says. "If you're part of the St. Louis cat mafia, you know the cat's at Terri's house."
RIGLEY CONCEDES THAT they were probably a little paranoid at times. They put a microchip in the cat and immediately registered him to the people of St. Louis Feral Cat Outreach. Rally Cat lost his manhood in cloak-and-dagger fashion, during a mobile spay-and-neuter clinic. Since the events are run at a community center and can draw people from outside of their circle, the women didn't know who they could trust. So they placed his cat carrier in a corner facing a wall, covered it with some items and, when no one in the room was looking, had a veterinary tech whisk him out to the spay-and-neuter van.
But it was an unprecedented time. By Aug. 24, a week after the "perceived bullying" salvo, the women just wanted the media circus to end and for Rally Cat to be left alone. They wanted to go back to their old lives. The group called Albert Watkins, a prominent St. Louis lawyer and self-proclaimed loudmouth, to communicate with the team.
Watkins represented the women pro bono. He said his sister also does TNR work and that he never fully appreciated the "sensitivities of cat people" until he opened her freezer one time and saw two dead cats. She told him she wanted to give the cats a proper burial, and that she had to wait until the ground thawed.
Watkins worked quickly, in statements loaded with cat puns, and communicated that Rally Cat wasn't going to the team.
The Cardinals stood down. The club held Rally Cat Appreciation Day in September without Rally Cat. Around that time, Watkins said he had an Italian dinner with an undisclosed member of Cardinals management who "rules the roost," and it was cordial. After that dinner, Watkins said, the Cardinals donated money to the feral-cat outreach.
"Not enough to buy a Caribbean island," Watkins says, "but enough to make sure a cat that opened the public eye was taken care of."
A former STLFCO board member said they received a check from the Cardinals in September 2017 for $1,853, which was believed to be part of already-promised proceeds from Rally Cat Appreciation Day. Still, members of the nonprofit saw the gesture as an olive branch. They'd no longer have to fight.
The Cardinals' eight-game winning streak ended on Aug. 13, with a 6-3 loss to the Atlanta Braves. They lost five of their next seven games. St. Louis could not match the rhythm of the early days of August, and fell four games short of a wild-card bid.
IT'S WEEKS BEFORE the four-year anniversary of the Rally Cat game, and Rigley, Zeman and Bowen are at a mobile spay-and-neuter clinic near the house where Rally Cat spent his first night.
In the room adjacent to them are tables full of caged cats in various stages of anesthesia. Most of them are feral, and would normally thrash against the metal walls. But for now, they're zonked out and docile.
Bowen's husband is waiting outside in the car, and they're supposed to run errands. But he has learned to adjust when a cat calls, and is conducting business on his phone.
STLFCO will spay and neuter nearly 50 cats in the mobile van outside, and tonight they'll eat a good meal, then return tomorrow to their outdoor colonies. Rigley says the colonies are everywhere; people just don't see them.
It's been almost four years since Rally Cat was spotted, and the women are still protective. When asked if ESPN can meet the cat, they reach out to the owner. The reply: "It's a hard no."
Random people still ask to adopt the cat. A man from Ohio emailed in March, attaching a photo of his long-haired cat named Willow. He said his grandfather played Major League Baseball in the late 1930s, and that he'd be willing to pay anything to give a famous baseball cat a home.
"Would you please reach out to Rally Cat's owners, let them know I'll offer them a few thousand dollars, and am willing to drive from Ohio to St. Louis to pick him up?" the man wrote.
"Goodness knows that of any city in the USA that needs some luck, it's certainly Cleveland!"
ON MONDAY NIGHT, a cat ran out onto the field during the Baltimore Orioles-New York Yankees game, and the crowd erupted as a handful of workers tried to contain him. But the cat was elusive. He climbed walls, ran between legs, and ran back and forth.
Jackson Galaxy, a cat behavior and wellness expert who hosts the Animal Planet show, "My Cat From Hell," received a flurry of texts that night. Galaxy said the Yankee cat, Rally Cat or any feline that runs onto a field, just wants to find a way out.
They're lured to stadiums because they provide shelter and a source of food. Galaxy was talking to some of his colleagues recently about why feral cats that spend their lives hiding from people suddenly end up on the field, in front of thousands of people, during a game. Maybe a cat falls asleep in a tarp and wakes up at the worst time, he said. Or maybe someone dumps the cat there.
While the natural reaction is to laugh at those moments, Galaxy said the cat in New York had run so long and gotten so worked up that it could have died.
"Let's imagine if it was a dog on that field," he says. "We would be able to read that dog, and understand their fear. We wouldn't be screaming, we wouldn't be goading them on, we wouldn't be laughing. We would feel sorry for that dog because we get dogs. We don't get cats."
The kitten was fostered for about a month in 2017, then he moved to another foster home with a family who adopted him. STLFCO's board members provide only the phone number of a person who is close to the adopter, but after talking for 20 minutes, it's obvious that the contact person is the owner of Rally Cat.
She agrees to do a FaceTime call, but isn't sure it'll work because the cat who once had his own news conference is afraid of people snapping pictures of him with their phones. But on a late-July day, a large classic tabby with an abundant mane appears on the screen. "He's in a good mood today," his owner says.
He was called "Mongo" for a bit when the volunteers at STLFCO cared for him, and hasn't gone by "Rally Cat" for nearly four years. His owners were wary of drawing attention to the cat, and still haven't told most of their relatives of his history. They call him R.C., but when he gets in trouble, he is sternly called by his full name. Rally Cat.
The family lost a beloved cat a few months before his arrival, and the feline filled a large void. He's especially close to the pre-teen boy in the house. He likes lounging in his catio, is afraid of the vacuum, and occasionally sleeps on the back of one of the family dogs. He has dog-like tendencies, and drools when he's happy.
When it comes to being spurned by a cat, the Cardinals are hardly special. This symbol of luck, prosperity and hope that stirred a Major League Baseball team and its fan base into a tizzy is still just a random, drooling, disinterested creature.
In an email response to interview requests, a Cardinals' spokesperson said they'd moved on.
But the summer of Rally Cat did have purpose. It boosted donations at the feral-cat outreach, which allowed them to double the amount of cats they TNR each year. It also gave a scared stray kitten a good home.
Rally Cat's adopter isn't a big baseball fan, but attends a few games a year because it's the thing to do when you live in St. Louis. Sometimes, she'll stare out into center field and picture her cat, scampering toward the warning track.
Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN. She can be reached at Elizabeth.Merrill@espn.com.