Two of America's greatest pastimes — baseball and cat videos — took the field for the 4th annual Internet Cat Video Festival at CHS Field in St. Paul.
Some 13,000 cat fanciers crowded into the stadium Wednesday, spreading picnic blankets in the infield and staring raptly up at the videos flashing across the enormous scoreboard. Children crowded around a table offering cat face painting. Giant cat mascots prowled the outfield. People who couldn't get tickets to the show took it all in through the ballpark fence.
In left field, Ann Fink stretched out on a yoga mat, leading a group of children through the feline poses of "Meow Moves Yoga."
"Cats!" said Fink, who goes by the nickname "Kiki," when asked what brought her to the festival. "Anything with cats is good!"
On the other side of the stadium, Linda and Quinci Bachman gleefully posed with foam bread slices framing their face, just like the cats in all those videos. Mother and daughter sported tops and skirts screen-printed with images of the family's five cats.
"This brings the crazy people all together," Linda Bachman said with a laugh.
As darkness fell over the ballpark, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman tossed out a ceremonial ball of yarn and the festival began. A message flashed across the scoreboard, dedicating the evening to Cecil, the lion killed in Zimbabwe by a Twin Cities dentist last month.
"This is a trophy," the screen read, flashing an image of the golden cat statuette to be awarded to the year's best cat video. The crowd applauded as an image of Cecil appeared. "This is not."
Then it was time for videos. Lots and lots of videos. Cats jumping into things, and out of things and onto things. Cats chasing lasers. A cat startling a bear. A cat drinking out of the goldfish bowl. A scene from Jurassic Park, with giant cats edited in to replace the raptors.
Many in the crowd had seen the videos many times. But there's a certain charm in being able to laugh in the middle of a crowd that's laughing right along with you, instead of asking what's so funny about a video of a cat sticking its head under the kitchen faucet.
"Hey, if all of us are crazy, none of us are crazy," said Mike Wilson, adjusting the cat ears on his head. "Anyway, there are crazier ways to spend a Wednesday."
Dog lovers have dog parks. But cats — and cat videos — were a more solitary entertainment until four years ago, when Minneapolis' Walker Art Center set up a screen on its lawn and gave the planet the cat video festival it never knew it wanted. The crowds came, and people realized that the cat video they'd chuckled over in the privacy of their homes was suddenly a thousand times funnier when there are thousands of other people around, all laughing at the same video of a cat eating ice cream and giving itself brain freeze.
"[Dog] people have 'take your dog to work day.' You can walk your dog around on a leash and go to cafes. People don't really have that with cats," said Will Braden, creator of "Henri, Le Chat Noir" video series and co-producer of the cat video festival. His Henri episodes are maybe the closest cat videos come to bona fide art.
"The Internet and cat videos by extension became this sort of de facto, virtual cat park," Braden said. "I think that's why people enjoy it so much. They get to watch these videos and be with people and say, 'Oh my God, I thought my cat was the only one that did that!' "
Braden, who started out as a recreational consumer and creator of cat videos, now watches them like it's his job. Because it is his job. He combed through more than 10,000 cat videos from the past year and culled out the 100 best — 70 minutes of curated footage of cats pouncing, bouncing and wreaking mayhem.
This year's winner of the Golden Kitty statue was a 1 minute, 8-second tutorial entitled "Cat Behavior Finally Explained," by Alana Grelyak and Michael Gabriele, of Chicago, the people behind the Cat CATastrophes series (http://tinyurl.com/pjpdqdl).