Jay Leverett was driving home on a Friday evening in June after spending the day astride a bulldozer, repairing miles of fence posts that were charred in wildfires that swept across the Amarillo area in late May. As he re-entered an area with cell reception, a little chain of voicemails appeared on his phone. Jay’s eyebrows raised—a friend of his called to tell him that his son, Carson Leverett, had become “a local celebrity,” and not for any of the high jinks that parents typically brace for. Little did Jay know, his son may have shaped the future of prairie-dog-supporting Amarilloans for generations to come.
Earlier that week, Carson was consumed by thoughts of sod poodles, the obscure old pioneer term for prairie dogs. As he drove around town running errands, the lyrics to his future internet sensation, “The Amarillo Sod Poodle Anthem,” knocked around in his head: “You might point and laugh and say / Oh Lordy, man, that name’s insane / But you won’t be laughing when you get beat down.”
Carson’s lyrics go on to detail shameless pretzel-devouring, hotdogs, seventh-inning stretches, and ample praises for “sod pups.” Music comes naturally to Carson, so he only needed an hour and a half to concoct his piece, a cheerful country tune he strummed out on acoustic guitar. When Carson posted his song on YouTube, it captured the attention of the local Channel 10 News, who hosted him as their main story one evening. A week later, a local radio station asked him to come on on-air for a live performance. It may have been the first song ever written about sod poodles, and it was making a splash.
Carson’s connection between prairie dogs and America’s pastime wasn’t random. Last year, it was announced that San Antonio’s minor league baseball team, the Missions, would pull up stakes and move to Amarillo. The team hired a new president and drafted plans for a new downtown Amarillo ballpark. When it came time to find a name for the new minor league franchise, the team asked the public for submissions for the San Diego Padres Double-A affiliate. “It’s exciting for the community,” Tony Ensor, the team’s president and general manager, told KFDA in April. “We want them to be engaged and really have a stake and have a say in what this team is going to be named.”
Residents submitted over 3,000 names, which over months of consideration were whittled down to five finalists: the Bronc Busters, the Boot Scooters, the Long Haulers, the Jerky, and the Sod Poodles. The winner would be announced in October.
When Jay and Carson Leverett heard the names, they both winced. Carson said that the proposals, the new sobriquet for the highest level of professional sports Amarillo had ever seen, “took the wind out of [his] sails.” And the Leveretts weren’t the only dissatisfied Amarilloans—the finalists became a common point of discussion on social media. “What in the outside consulting firm … overpaid, jean short-wearing, Prius-driving, Starbucks drinking, dumpster fire tarnation is going on here?” someone wrote on Facebook. Other Facebook users declared, “just another way for this city to be an embarrassment,” and, “The marketing director needs to be fired and they need to scrap all these names and just start over.” Another local Amarilloan posted pictures of a billboard reading “Amarillo Sod Poodles Makes for a SAD Baseball Name.” A local journalist even started a petition with demands for five new names, which received over 7,000 signatures. To be fair, people of Amarillo had reason to be suspect: teams had goofed up with mascots in humiliating ways.
But amid the public hubbub, Carson’s initial aversion to the names was slowly turning into an appreciation of the sod poodles. “After doing a little research, especially on trends in minor league team names, I kind of warmed up to the idea that it was quirky and marketable,” Carson said. Soon, the sod poodles became a source of musical inspiration rather than a perceived jab at this hometown’s identity. “I play music in a circle with some cowboys, we get together about once a month. And the sod poodles thing was kind of a hot button issue that came up.” Soon, “The Amarillo Sod Poodles Anthem” was born.
When Carson posted his song, the views his video received on Facebook and YouTube well outpaced the anti-sod poodles petition’s signatures. Carson had friends in California, New York, and Tennessee who all wanted sod poodles merchandise, if it was ever created. It’s still not certain if the Amarillo Sod Poodles will come to pass.
Ensor, the team president, soon noticed a shift in public perception. Ensor has been in minor league baseball since he started mowing the fields of a ballpark in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Since then, he’s worked for multiple franchises including the Colorado Sky Sox—where he recently served as president and general manager—before assuming that same position for Amarillo franchise this year. Ensor noted that though AA baseball offers a serious level of play, the team mascots are often whimsical than their major league counterparts. Some of the most successful teams play under names like the Yard Goats (Hartford, Connecticut) and the Rumble Ponies (Binghamton, New York). This dichotomy is what makes minor league baseball what it is, according to Ensor. The names might be funny, but the story behind the name and festivities at the games will make it click. Ensor credited Carson’s song for making strides toward public acceptance, citing unofficial tee shirts for sale and sod poodle-themed cookies which, as Carson noted in a separate discussion, “have been selling like hot cakes.” A local Chick-fil-A even put up a sign on their marquee: “Chicken tastes better than sod poodle.”
The most notable hold out to the sod poodle phenomenon was Carson’s dad, Jay.
Jay finished repairing his fence posts in late July. At that point, his cattle—which had spent the past few months on a neighbor’s farm—were ready to come home to the ranch. A few days before moving the herd, Jay had coffee with some golf buddies. That group, comprised mostly of septuagenarian Amarillo business owners and men-about-town, meets regularly at a cafe for coffee and discussion. Like old Egyptian men at a teahouse, they sit for a while, well caffeinated, and shoot the breeze about the latest happenings.
During that week’s coffee, one attendee, whom Jay describes as well-versed in marketing and public affairs, expounded the virtues of the El Paso Chihuahuas’ supposedly exceptional merchandise sales. The triple-A affiliate of the San Diego Padres underwent a PR fiasco not dissimilar to Amarillo’s when they settled on their team name in 2013. But, as Jay’s knowledgeable companion pointed out, the team currently enjoys a great deal of success and local support. After that coffee, Jay got to thinking, and by the time he was ready to bring his cattle back to the ranch, he was “a sod poodles fan.” Jay’s son, his friends, and his business sense had prevailed in bringing him into the fold. The cows had finally come home, and the Leverett men were ready to root for their new team, no matter the wonky name.
As Jay put it, “the fact that Texas Monthly is calling me about the sod poodles says it all.” Jay believes that the marketability of the name might be enough to offset its bizarre sound and ambiguous origin. Despite that fact, there are still plenty of Amarilloans who couldn’t care less about the name—they don’t even want the ballpark. Members of city council have won elections based solely off their anti-ballpark stance. The public funds used in erecting the ballpark (appropriated from a new hotel tax) have rankled Amarillo’s largely conservative voter base. Although the ballpark does seem to be stimulating growth downtown, there are still those who fear displacement and rising prices. For a Panhandle city that “fights tooth and nail for every bit of recognition they get,” as one resident put it, high public spending and glossy new development can seem out of touch with community values. Even so, the steel framework for the ballpark has already been erected, new wine bars and restaurants have opened downtown, and the team will release their selected name in October. As Jay said, “the train has left the station on downtown.”
In October, it may become the only place in the universe where you can line up with hundreds of fellow fans and sing the “Amarillo Sod Poodle Anthem” until your voice gives out.