14th of May | Story

Papa Panther is in the bleachers. All is right in Fresno.


FRESNO, California | Papa Panther stands on the outfield concourse, greeting fans as they enter Chukchansi Park. Two children, around 8 and 5, give him a hug. Their father shakes his hand. He tells them to enjoy the game. Then he walks to his seat in the corner of Power Alley just over the outfield wall. Leftfielder Roger Kieschnick runs to his position to start the first inning, looks up in the stands and, knowing Papa Panther will be there, gives him a wave.

Four or five years ago — everyone has lost count already — the Fresno Grizzlies started giving Papa Panther a ticket in exchange for him lowering the stylized Ks over the outfield wall every time a Grizzlies pitcher strikes out a hitter.

Over time, he has become part of the game, part of the Grizzlies experience. He dances and sings and performs for fans on the scoreboard. He cheers for catches and hits and missed plays. “Come on, Roger. Good throw, Roger. Good throw.” He doesn’t leave his section, even when rain falls and the seats clear. He makes T-shirts for players and staff, drawing and writing on them with felt pens. And he has this laugh — it’s a memorable, infectious laugh that starts deep and quiet in his throat, then gets louder and louder as his stomach and body shakes until, finally, his head tips back.

"It’s my way to give back to the team, to the people who gave me a chance." — Papa Panther

“My thing is, talking about these guys here, they need somebody to be here for them, because our players play hard,” Papa Panther says. “When the pitcher sees a K put down, it gives him motivation to put another one down.”

“It’s a form of funny. It tells the other guys, ‘Hey, you struck out.’”

Papa Panther isn’t his real name, of course. He says only people who knew him during the 10 years he lived in Boise, Idaho, still call him Juan Jose Rodriguez. The name Papa Panther was bestowed upon him while working with children as a motivational speaker of sorts. It’s a fitting name for a caring man whose identity and past are somewhat unknown.

Papa Panther is a resident of downtown Fresno, and both are a little rough around the edges. He finds odd jobs here and there, and is currently unemployed.

He mumbles and doesn’t connect thoughts when talking about his past. He mentions playing baseball, a hit-and-run accident, pain and memory loss and not being able to walk. He says his image was once “beer drinking, this sort and that, bad person.”

But when he talks about how God gives second chances and Grizzlies baseball, he’s sharp. He often starts his answers before the questions are finished.

What’s the highest number of Ks he has put down in one game?

“Fourteen. When Tim Lincecum was here.”

What does he love about baseball?

“Every man, when he’s on a baseball diamond, his inner child says, ‘Hey let me go play, let me get dirty.’ It’s my way of having fun.”

Why does he come back year after year?

“To be honest with you, I’d rather be doing this than being at the bar or hanging around with my best friends. I’ve cleaned up, showed, ‘Hey, you know, I can be a clean person just like you, but I have my own way of doing things.’ This has changed my outlook on life, and I see different things. It’s my way to give back to the team, to the people who gave me a chance.”

That person who gave Papa Panther his first chance was Steve Sodini, the Grizzlies guest services manager. Sodini noticed him standing behind the fence that lines the stadium in the outfield — about 20 yards from where Papa Panther takes in games today. One day, Papa Panther asked Sodini if he could lower the Ks. Sodini gave him a chance. He did a good job. He kept coming back.

Others who knew Papa Panther when he was still Juan have told Sodini he was a guy who went to war and didn’t come back the same.

“He does a good job,” Sodini says. “He’s not all there, but he knows what he’s doing.

“A lot of people know him around town. He’s a fixture of the downtown and now he’s become a fixture for us. He’s a very good thing.”


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Time for minor league trivia. Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino, which is affiliated with the Chukchansi tribe, bought the naming rights to Fresno’s baseball stadium in 2006. What other full-season affiliated team located in California plays in a stadium named after an Indian tribe? (Keep reading for the answer. Big hint: We wrote about it just a few days ago.)

Grizzlies closer Heath Hembree suffered his second blown save of the season, allowing the Omaha Storm Chasers to score five runs and grab the win, 8-5. Hembree opened the inning by giving up a leadoff single, then walking the next two batters and hitting the fourth to force in a run. Then shortstop Nick Noonan made a fielding error that allowed another run to score. A sacrifice fly and another single pushed across three more runs for the Storm Chasters. The Grizzlies couldn’t muster a rally and lost for the third time this season after entering the ninth with a lead. Right-hander Andrew Kown allowed two runs over seven quality innings and centerfielder Justin Christian drove in two runs.

The Grizzlies partnered with World Amusements to add a carnival to the stadium entertainment this year. Fans need to buy a separate ticket to enjoy the outfield experience, which includes an 80-foot Ferris wheel, mini roller coaster, funhouse, chair swing ride, carousel and bumper cars. Who wouldn’t want to watch a baseball game from 80 feet in the air?

Want the answer? The Inland Empire 66ers’ stadium was recently renamed San Manuel Stadium after the San Manuel Band of Serrano Mission Indians purchased the naming rights to the stadium in San Bernardino.

And in random statistical news, the game started two minutes later than scheduled, the first ball was a strike and the first batter struck out swinging. About 140 high school band members played the “Star-Spangled Banner” in a marching 56.5 seconds. It was the second-fastest rendition we’ve heard this year. (It took them far longer than that to walk out from beyond the centerfield wall.) Also, we ate chicken wings, coleslaw, watermelon and some delicious cookies.

Carolyn@AMinorLeagueSeason.com ♦ @CarolynLaWell ♦ @AMinorLgSeason 

Want to read stories about the other teams on our schedule? Click here and scroll to the calendar.