Turns out that Super Bowl LII wasn’t the only shocking turn of events involving eagles and patriots in a downtown Minneapolis stadium this year.
As rap artist Dessa sang "The Star-Spangled Banner" before the Twins’ home opener Thursday, Challenger, a bald eagle who has soared into dozens of sporting events over the years, including several times at Target Field, was released from his center field perch, an inspirational accompaniment to the patriotic moment.
Then something weird happened. “I’ll be danged if it didn’t come down,” Mariners manager Scott Servais marveled, “and land on our starting pitcher.”
Yes, just before four T-38s executed a flyover above the packed stadium, Challenger did one of his own — over Seattle starter James Paxton, who was standing at attention in the outfield, where he was beginning his warmups before the anthem began. The huge raptor apparently became confused by the crowd, and rather than fly to its handlers standing on the pitcher’s mound, swinging a target for it to locate, Challenger changed directions and began circling Paxton.
“I saw it flying toward my face, so I kind of ducked it,” Paxton said. “It was, I think, trying to stand on my back. And then I thought, ‘OK, if I can stand up slowly, maybe it’ll just rest on my shoulder. But as I stood up, he kind of fell off my back a little bit, and was kind of clawing to try to get back up on my shoulder.”
The bird fell to the ground, then tried again to climb on Paxton’s back. “It must have thought I was the [handler]. I think it fell off my shoulder because I didn’t have the perch on my shoulder for it to grab onto.”
Paxton could feel the bird’s talons scrambling for a toehold, but he remained amazingly placid.
“You try to imagine if you were in that position, you would be able to be as calm,” Twins manager Paul Molitor said. “It was ignoring the whistle” that its handler was blowing.
But Paxton figured he had no choice. “I’m not going to outrun an eagle, so I might as well see what happens,” he said. “The talons didn’t puncture me. They were kind of sharp on my back. I don’t have any scratches, I don’t believe.”
It made for a bizarre sight, though, until the handler raced to the outfield and retrieved the bald eagle. Videos of the incident quickly went viral.
“My phone is blowing up. … The guy said it was the first time that had happened,” Paxton said. “I guess the eagle knew I was Canadian.”
The Twins were just as incredulous. “First time I ever see that,” Twins closer Fernando Rodney said. “When I saw that, I said ‘Wow, that’s baseball. A lot of things happen.”
“Honestly, we were like, ‘Yeah, get him! Kill!” Brian Dozier joked. “But it was funny.” Had it happened to him, though?
“Eh, bring it on,” Dozier said.
Byron Buxton wasn’t so sure. “I’m running,” the Twins’ speedster said. “When he flew by the first time, I’m running. He wouldn’t have had a chance to get on my shoulder.”