HomeTrending MLB NewsAnd Then One Person Was Like, “Is That a Turtle?’”

And Then One Person Was Like, “Is That a Turtle?’”

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The phrase outer space has been around since 1842, but I’ve always thought that it’s a strange one. Space is the catchall word we use for any empty area. It’s a little bit silly that someone looked up at the unknowable vastness of the universe and decided to refer to it in the same way you’d describe a spare bedroom to a friend who needs a place to crash. Either way, there’s plenty of space out there. There’s space between planets and space between galaxies. Cosmic voids, the vast empty spaces between gravitationally linked galaxies, make up more than 80% of the universe.

Saturday was Space Night at LECOM Park in Bradenton, Florida. While Paul Skenes was dazzling a packed house in Pittsburgh, the Bradenton Marauders, the Pirates’ Low-A affiliate, held a stargazing session after the game and played “Space Oddity,” “Man in the Moon,” and “Mr. Spaceman” over the PA between innings. Staff members wore NASA flight suits. On the field, the Marauders overcame a two-run deficit to beat the Port St. Lucie Mets, 4-3, extending their winning streak to nine games. Also on the field: a turtle.

In the top of the second inning, with a 1-2 count on leadoff batter Yohairo Cuevas, the home plate umpire called time out and turned his head toward left field. It took a while for the rest of the heads in the park to follow, but when they did, they were rewarded with a show. A turtle roughly the size of home plate walked into left field as a defensive replacement. The human outfielders wanted no part it. Center fielder Sergio Campana gently pushed his teammates toward the turtle, and as they cautiously approached it, the turtle started hauling shell toward center field. Left fielder Esmerlyn Valdez waved to the bullpen for help. Eventually, reliever Magdiel Cotto jogged out, hoisted the creature from behind, and hauled it back to the bullpen. The whole saga lasted just over a minute, or as Reptiles Magazine put it, “Turtle’s Minor League Debut Short-Lived.”

I want to make it clear up front that I don’t necessarily see anything wrong with a turtle on the field. As I understand it, there’s nothing in the rules that says a turtle can’t play baseball. However, if I’m being totally honest, I don’t really think turtles are suited for the outfield. Not only do they possess the foot speed and body type for catcher, they’re already wearing most of the gear. Just ask Willians Astudillo, famously nicknamed “La Tortuga,” who has spent the plurality of his professional career as a catcher. Turtles are no strangers to baseball. They’ve been part of the fabric of the game for a long, long time, going all the way back to 1907 with “Turtle Tom” McCullough of the Memphis Turtles and continuing to minor league teams like the Beloit Snappers, Daytona Tortugas, and Pulaski River Turtles:

Turtles are no strangers to space either. In September 1968, three months before Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders became the first humans to orbit the moon aboard Apollo 8, two Russian tortoises beat them there. They traveled around the moon on a Zond 5 spacecraft with a mannequin in the pilot’s seat, becoming the first earthlings in deep space, before returning safely to Earth. Turtles and tortoises would return to space on several other missions.

Several coincidences drew me to this story. For starters, I’ve played ball in Bradenton. During my junior and senior years of high school, the varsity team spent spring break there. It was a dream. We got to stay in a hotel for a week, doing nothing but playing baseball on nice fields in nice weather. My senior year, a few of my teammates snuck out of the hotel after curfew one night, found a Florida Man willing to buy them beer and cigarettes, and drunkenly decided to use the cigarettes to brand each other. I don’t recall exactly how they got caught, but the fresh burns on their biceps can’t have helped. My friend Matt and I stayed in the hotel and played Nintendo, though I believe we also ended up getting in trouble for knowing about the excursion and failing to alert the proper authorities.

In order to learn more about the trespasses of this particular turtle, I went looking for help. I reached out to several professors of herpetology, along with the Turtle Conservancy, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and Greg Turtletaub, who played in the Mets system in 1987 and 1988. I heard back from four experts, all of whom identified the substitute left fielder as a Florida softshell turtle. “Given how flat and fast it was, along with the locality in Florida, that’s the only species of turtle it could be,” explained Coleman M. Sheehy, Ph.D., a herpetologist at the Florida Museum of Natural History.

“We were talking about it in the front office,” said Thomas Zinzarella, Bradenton’s play-by-play announcer. “How does the turtle get out there? It might’ve squeezed through one of the outfield walls or something. Maybe its home is that pond back behind the wall. So maybe that’s how it got in, left from there and starting crawling.” Dr. Sheehy agreed with that theory, explaining that the turtle’s “flat, slippery, and flexible shell” likely allowed it to squeeze under a fence. Dr. Steve A. Johnson, of the University of Florida, had an explanation for why the turtle decided to enter the field. “I’m not certain,” he wrote, “but I think there is a good chance it was a female looking for a sunny area to nest that happened to wander into the outfield of the stadium.” To the turtle, the wide, empty outfield must have looked like the perfect cosmic void.

Cotto, the reliever who removed the turtle from the field, is off to an excellent start this season. Over 12 appearances, he’s running a 2.11 ERA, and he’s saved two games and one turtle. He told me that once Valdez started signaling to the bullpen for help, “There was definitely a mini-council. Like, alright, who’s going to get it?” No one volunteered at first. “Everybody looks at each other and they’re like, ‘Someone’s gotta go get it.’ I’m like, ‘Move out of the way. I’ll go get it.’

I invited Cotto to throw his teammates under the bus and name the players who refused, but he said, “Honestly, there wasn’t anybody that was a ‘no.’ I think everybody was just more fascinated. Whereas I was like, I just want to go look at it up close and touch it.” When I asked what it felt like, his answer sounded like it had been honed over several retellings in the last week. “Yeah, so the sides are slimy and leathery, almost like a lily pad. And then closer to the center it gets a little harder. I’d say, like hard cardboard or something. I don’t really know. It was just harder than the outside. So the outside was definitely like leather. It was definitely a softshell.”

As you may have guessed, Cotto knows his way around a turtle. “I had two pet turtles when I was younger,” he told me. “Obviously not quite as big as the one I picked up. I’ve had my fair share of time handling turtles.” That’s why he knew to hold the turtle away from his body, to avoid both fluids and bodily harm. “I didn’t want that guy to bite me,” he said. Elaine Davis, president of the Calusa Herpetological Society, explained that Cotto was right to handle the turtle with care. Florida softshells are known for their aggressiveness. “They have a fairly long neck and can reach back and bite,” she wrote, pointing out that the turtle’s scientific name is Apaline ferox. “Note that ‘ferox’ means ‘wild and ferocious.’”

I couldn’t help taking a detour to ask Cotto the names of his pet turtles. “Oh my goodness,” he said. “I know one of my turtle’s names was Rosebud.” When I started laughing, he continued, “Yeah, I’m serious. That was the first turtle we had, Rosebud. She was a sweet little box turtle. Lord knows how old she was.” Unfortunately, he couldn’t remember the name of the second turtle. “Oh man, I know my mom would know, but I don’t know for the life of me right now what the other turtle’s name was.”

I asked Cotto whether he was the one who named Rosebud, since children aren’t exactly the target audience for Citizen Kane. He explained that the inspiration came from a character in a movie that didn’t garner quite as much critical acclaim. “I think I was pretty young,” he said. “Do you remember those movies with all the golden retriever dogs? It was like Air Pups or something?” I did in fact remember those movies. “Yeah, Air Bud, yeah.” Cotto wasn’t positive those movies actually featured a Rosebud, so I promised him I would look it up and get back to him. He was dead-on. RoseBud is a puppy in Air Buddies, a series of seven movies in the sprawling Air Bud Cinematic Universe. Her favorite sport is soccer.

Back to the turtle at hand, Cotto carried it to the bullpen and the relief corps tried to make it feel at home. Dr. Gregg Klowden, of the University of Central Florida, told me that Florida softshells “have a distinct extended tube-like nose,” which explains the nickname the Marauders bullpen gave their newest member. “We named him Jar Jar because he looked like Jar Jar Binks from Star Wars,” Cotto said. Unfortunately, Jar Jar decided he wanted out of the bullpen. Presumably he’s a starter at heart. “We kept him in the bullpen for an inning or two, and then he started trying to get out. He wasn’t eating any of the food that we had gotten him, so we figured it was time for him to go.” I asked Cotto what kind of food they offered the turtle, imagining the standard bullpen fare of sunflower seeds and Dubble Bubble. On the contrary, the Marauders served an extremely healthy meal, just not one that was appealing to a carnivorous turtle. “We got him lettuce, cucumber, and a grape,” Cotto said. Then he deadpanned, “And it did not want any of those things.” Sadly, no one was able to get a picture of the turtle before a groundskeeper returned it to the pond.

To those who have seen the video, the thing that stands out is the turtle’s speed. Before I turned to the experts, I showed the clip to my nephew Will, who shares a pet tortoise named Iggy with his sisters. He confirmed that turtles and tortoises are faster than they get credit for. “They can zip,” he said. Up in the press box, Zinzarella remembers thinking, “Oh, that’s a turtle.” Then he thought, “That’s a pretty fast-moving turtle.” It was really booking, which shouldn’t be surprising for a Florida softshell, a species known for its footspeed. Said Dr. Sheehy, “Softshells are extremely fast, both in the water and on land.”

Just about every online resource will tell you that the top speed of a Florida softshell turtle is three miles per hour, the average walking pace of a human. However, I wasn’t able to find any actual data to support that number, and the video makes it obvious that the turtle was outpacing the walking outfielders, so I did some rough calculations of my own. I set up a split screen between footage of the turtle’s sprint and footage of Bradenton center fielder Diego Mosquera chasing down a double in the gap in the fourth inning. The light and dark green bands of grass in the outfield can give us a sense of how fast the turtle was actually traveling. Since both Mosquera and the turtle were moving perpendicular to the bands, the comparison is easy. As you can see below, Mosquera traversed 3.5 bands of grass in the time it took the turtle to traverse one:

Let’s start by assuming that Mosquera was running at an elite 30 feet per second. That would mean the turtle, moving at 28.6% of his speed, was going 8.57 feet per second, or 5.84 mph. That’s nearly twice a normal human walking pace. Now let’s give Mosquera the absolute slowest sprint speed imaginable, the 21.9 feet per second Albert Pujols put up in 2017. At that rate, the turtle would have been moving at 6.26 feet per second, or 4.27 mph. That’s still well above a normal human walking pace, and a bit more than three times as fast as the moving walkways that connect the terminals at an airport. The real number is likely somewhere in between those two extremes, something like 7.5 feet per second. All the same, its acceleration might have been even more impressive than its speed. If you watch closely, you’ll notice that right when it really starts running, it shoots off so suddenly that it actually pops a wheelie, like a motorcycle throttled all the way up from a standstill:

The other coincidence that drew me to this story is that I’ve written kind of a lot of songs about turtles. That wasn’t necessarily by design, but life can take you weird places. I’ve written songs for the Daytona Tortugas and Beloit Snappers. I’ve written a children’s song about giant turtles attacking New York City. When my nieces fell in love with Peter and the Wolf, I started writing a similar musical story for them. It was about a tortoise who lived in the Merritt National Wildlife Refuge on Cape Canaveral, Florida, and dreamed of traveling to space. I don’t recall it venturing onto a baseball field, but that certainly could have been in there too. I never found an ending I loved, and I eventually got a new job, got busy, and forgot about the project. When I heard about what happened in Bradenton, I charged up a creaky laptop and found ideas and fragments and demos for nearly 30 songs, way more than I ever remembered writing. I spent Sunday afternoon listening to them and fleshing out lyrics that had been sitting around half-written for a decade waiting to be rediscovered.

The Marauders won again on Sunday and Tuesday, extending their streak to a club record 11 games, before being shut out by the Tampa Tarpons last night. To those who were at the ballpark on Saturday, the real mystery is how long the turtle was on the field waiting to be noticed. “That thing had to be out there for a little bit and no one noticed it,” Zinzarella told me. “It must have been blending in somewhere… And that’s what I want to know.” When I asked Cotto who in the bullpen noticed the turtle, he said, “I have no idea. I can’t believe it got that far into the outfield without someone seeing it first. I didn’t see it at all.”

Had this been a big league game, there would have been something like 20 cameras covering the field. There’s no way the turtle would have been able to slip in unnoticed by all of them. Up in the press box, Zinzarella had the best vantage point of anyone in the stadium, but his view was partially obstructed by netting, and his job description doesn’t include turtle reconnaissance. “I was looking in my book,” he told me, “and then all of a sudden time was called and everyone was looking out toward left-center.” Bradenton’s broadcast had just three cameras that night, but while we were speaking, Zinzarella had the idea of checking the Hawk-Eye tracking cameras at the field. However, MLB.com’s Mike Petriello told me that while the system might have registered the movement of the turtle, it’s not set up to just start tracking whatever extra animal happens to wander onto the field. Hopefully, that oversight can be corrected for future turtle sightings.

In the footage we have, not one of the fans noticed the turtle before the home plate umpire called time out. He didn’t see anything either. He looked to his right before pausing the action, which indicates that he was following the lead of the field umpire. But it seems unlikely that the field umpire, standing to the left of second, and, with the bases empty, presumably watching the pitcher and the batter, would have been the first to notice the turtle either. I relayed that sequence of events to Cotto, trying to nudge something loose in his memory about who might have actually, finally seen the turtle. It didn’t work. Nobody saw the turtle until everybody saw it. “None of us saw it,” he said. “And then one person was like, ‘Is that a turtle?’”


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