Westminster rookie 'like Derek Jeter'
Ladies and gentlemen, now warming up in the Westminster dogpen, the Bronx Bowser.
Meet sweet Mitch, a 5-year-old yellow Labrador retriever. He's a rookie at America's top dog show, yet he comes with a pinstripe pedigree: His co-owner is New York Yankees President Randy Levine.
"He's like Derek Jeter. Very calm," Levine said.
So on the week baseball spring training begins for pitchers and catchers, Levine will be among the pinschers and cockers. The Westminster Kennel Club show starts Monday, with Mitch set to walk the show ring on Tuesday morning.
"I don't think Randy would be half as excited if it was the World Series," fellow co-owner and breeder Tom Flaherty said.
Mitch is following a long trail of Yankees pawprints. Lou Gehrig, one of the original Bronx Bombers, brought his German shepherd to Madison Square Garden. Former ace Mike Mussina sent his Irish setter. Jacob Ruppert, the team owner who acquired Babe Ruth, showed St. Bernards.
The 137th Westminster features 2,721 entries in 187 breeds and varieties and includes a pair of newcomers, the treeing Walker coonhound and the Russell terrier.
Among the top contenders are a prime Doberman named Veni Vidi Vici that reached the best-of-seven final ring last year, a big-winning wire fox terrier, a German wirehaired pointer ranks as the nation's No. 1 show dog and a prized American foxhound.
"A strong field," veteran Westminster broadcaster David Frei said.
Malachy the Pekingese wobbled off the green carpet with the best in show bowl last February. His 9-month-old grandson is entered this time.
The herding, toy, nonsporting and hound group winners will be chosen Monday night on CNBC. The working, sporting and terrier champs come Tuesday night on the USA Network, with judge Michael Dougherty making his pick, along with a first runner-up, shortly before 11 p.m.
Wearing a Yankees dog collar, and falling asleep on a pinstriped blanket while listening to Josh Groban songs, Mitch is among 54 Labs in the show (golden retrievers lead with 61). By the way, the Yankees in their century-plus history have never had a player named Mitch.
"Mitch is one of the kindest dogs ever. A very kind nature, a very kind face," said Flaherty, of Mount Bethel, Pa. "He has never met anyone or any animal he didn't like."
Labs have long been among the country's most popular dogs, but have never won at Westminster. Nor have golden retrievers, Dachshunds or Chihuahuas.
"A Labrador is not a flashy dog. They're not showy dogs. They're just not something your eye is drawn to," Flaherty said.
Levine, a former New York City deputy mayor in Rudolph Giuliani's administration and known for his rugged negotiating style, did not grow up with pets.
His first pet was a goldfish, Hoover, which he shared with wife Mindy. The couple now have four dogs living with them. Over the years, they've filled their Manhattan apartment with rescue, therapy and special needs dogs, and Levine is on the board of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
Officially named Hedgelawn's Sharper Image, Mitch has achieved grand champion status in the dog world. He's also a descendant of Mr. Reid, Levine's beloved Lab.
Frequently a spectator at this show, Levine is eager to participate this time.
"This is Mitch's first time. Let him get his paws wet," he said. "I'm excited. It's like a playoff game for me. It's Westminster, it's the whole environment."
Levine realizes some fans paying $25 per ticket might stop by to chat with him about pennants, more than pooches.
"That's OK," he said. "Let them come to cheer for Mitch."