McCovey Cove regulars await chance to paddle for history
SAN FRANCISCO -- So I'm sitting in my 13½-foot, red plastic rental kayak, which, by the way, is as easy to maneuver as a battleship in a bathtub, and I can't feel my gluteus or my maximus because the seat is harder than a metal bleacher. I've got on more layers of weather and safety gear than Neil Armstrong wore when he stepped on the lunar surface. And even if Barry Bonds does hit No. 746 into baseball's most famous body of water, there's no way I can paddle the USS Slow Ass faster than the four regulars who are working McCovey Cove tonight.
This is weird. I expected a bigger kayak crowd, but then again it's a Monday evening in late May and Bonds is in a slump. As he starts cranking dingers again and closes the distance between himself and Hank Aaron -- and he will -- the Cove will become safe harbor to a bizarre armada. Such is the power of Bonds' quest for career home run No. 756, as well as the guaranteed $1 million payday that goes to anybody who gets the record-breaking ball.
"But I don't think we'll turn into animals," says Cove vet Dave Edlund of the Bonds navy.
No, of course not. That's why police had to pull some hyperintense surfers out of the Cove the night in 2001 when Bonds broke Mark McGwire's single-season record of 70 homers. That's why grown men happily jump into these cold, slightly diesel-fuel scented, occasionally seagull pooped waters. And that's why I'll soon witness one Cove regular whack another vet in the head with his fiberglass paddle as they race after a home run ball.
Kayaks, surfboards, canoes, inflatable rafts, rowboats, inner tubes, boogie boards if it can float, it'll soon be here in the waters just beyond the right-field seats and concrete pier of AT&T Park. That's the direction where Bonds hits most of his home runs, toward the right-field seats and beyond.
The dingers that reach the Cove on the fly are called "splash hits," and nobody has more of them than Bonds. And chances are nobody has retrieved more of those hits than the four kayakers I meet on an evening so clear that you can pick out almost every building on the San Francisco skyline and count cars on the nearby Bay Bridge.
Larry Ellison (no, not the Oracle Larry Ellison) is the first to paddle toward me. He used to have a blue inflatable kayak with an ice cooler on the back, but that was before he plucked Bonds' No. 660 (the one that tied godfather Willie Mays' career total) and No. 661 on consecutive days. By the way, don't even try to calculate the odds.
Now the 56-year-old software salesman sits in a custom-made, Giants-orange kayak made out of lightweight Kevlar that, say the other regulars, skims through the water faster than anything else in the Cove. Ellison bought it with some of the $17,000 he made from auctioning off No. 661. He could have cashed another check with No. 660, but instead Ellison and his son gave the ball to a grateful Bonds. Ellison is something of a Cove legend.
I am not a legend. I look like a white Urkel. I look like my mom dressed me for my first day of kayak school. Ted, the guy at the rental place, made me wear waterproof pants, a waterproof pullover, waterproof mittens and a life jacket the size of Marine body armor. This is in addition to the cargo shorts, two T-shirts, sweatshirt and waterproof Masters windbreaker I wore to Ted's place at Pier 40. Then he put me in a kayak the size of a cargo container ship, made me prove I knew how to paddle the thing and then pointed me to nearby AT&T Park. All this for $65.10.
Ellison, wearing a Giants hoodie and stocking cap, nods as I paddle into the Cove a few minutes after the start of the three-game series between San Francisco and the Houston Astros. The Astros are up, so Ellison is willing to chat for a few moments.
He points out the others. There's Edlund, the former Hewlett-Packard executive who retired five years ago at age 45 so he could do things like pluck splash hits out of the Cove. There's Gene Pointer, known better here as "Kayak Man." Pointer has his own Web site and five Bonds home run splashies. And there's Gary Faselli, the retired police officer from Stockton, whose kayak is about half the length of my plastic barge. A little more than a month ago he pocketed Bonds' No. 738.
Meanwhile, up on the pier, next to the two dudes who are channeling "The Big Lebowski" and doing a J, is a guy named Joe. Joe has earned the regulars' respect with his use of a fishing pole that features a homemade flotation net. More than a few of the kayakers have been beaten to baseballs by Joe's flick of the wrist.
Anyway, those are most of the regulars. Tom somebody, whom Ellison describes as his mentor, isn't here tonight. And Martin Wong, who took about 12,000 digital photos from McCovey Cove last year, doesn't paddle up until the sixth or seventh inning. Otherwise, that's the core group.
The 27 mph wind is blowing out to straight center field. The game-time temperature is 58 degrees, but it feels like 98 after my 15-minute paddle from the pier to the ballpark in nine layers of upper-body clothing. I position my kayak to the right and behind the regulars as the Giants come up to bat in the bottom of the first.
Everybody, with the exception of Kayak Man, is listening on their transistor radios to Giants play-by-play announcer Jon Miller. I've got mine clipped to my life jacket and notice that the vets begin to stake their positions as leadoff man Randy Winn comes to the plate.
Edlund knows all about Winn. And he has the splash hit to prove it.
"Sept. 14, 2005," he says. "Right inside the right-field foul pole. It was his one and only [splash] home run. Hit it on a pitch from Woody Williams, who was with San Diego at the time.
"But I don't have a Bonds ball. That's still one ticket that I want to punch."
The switch-hitting Winn grounds out to short. Then the left-handed-hitting Ryan Klesko grounds out to second. Then Rich Aurilia flies out to center. Bonds is left on deck. I look up and the kayakers are parking themselves in the archways under the pier. Weaker currents there.
I paddle toward Edlund, who already is counting the days until the July 10 All-Star Game at AT&T Park. Word is, he says, that Major League Baseball is going to put gold stitching in every 10th ball used during the annual Home Run Derby competition.
"They use a little harder ball that flies longer in the Derby," he says. "Should be fun for us."
The Astros do nothing in the top of the second, which means Bonds will be up soon.
"This is the 'Barry Area,'" says Edlund, as he positions his kayak slightly to the right-center of the right-field wall. The others are nearby, except for Kayak Man, who is shaded along the inside of the foul line.
At exactly 7:39 p.m. the crowd roars as Bonds drives a Chris Sampson pitch. We stare into the sky, but Miller tells us the ball is headed for right-fielder Jason Lane's glove. So much for that.
The AT&T crowd has a long history of messing with the kayakers. Edlund was there when Bonds entered the 700 Club on Sept. 17, 2004. There was a roar, and then a ball sailed over the right-field wall and into the Cove about 30 feet from Edlund. He paddled furiously toward the floating ball, but was unable to turn his kayak because of the traffic. So he jumped into the water, reached for No. 700, but missed.
By then, bodies were everywhere. Edlund looked up and saw water pouring into the open hatches of his kayak. As it started to sink, Edlund raced back to his kayak, saved it, and then sadly watched as someone held up the historic splash hit.
One problem: Bonds' home run landed in the left-center seats. Someone from the right-field seats had thrown a spoof ball to the kayakers.
"It was a crummy trick to play," says Edlund. "The other lesson is, keep your hatches closed."
We assume our Bonds positions again in the fourth inning, but this time he walks. I think this is when Ellison offered me a brat and a beverage. What he does is cook five of them at home, put them into a large Thermos, pour boiled water into the container and then close the lid. He brings buns, which he softens with the steam from the Thermos, and a supply of special mustards. It's like having your own concession stand.
Then again, Ellison is the same guy who sometimes attaches his tablet PC to his kayak (the screen is protected by a clear waterproof case), logs on to the AT&T Park wireless, connects to his home Slingbox and then watches the Giants game with a 7-second delay. That's when the fellas will gather around to watch a highlight. These guys have even ordered pizza to be delivered to the Cove.
The bottom of the sixth inning arrives and Edlund begins yelling encouragement to our group, which now includes Wong and, just beyond the safety buoys, some sort of yacht.
"This is our moment!" says Edlund as the stadium PA announcer tells the crowd what it already knows: Bonds is up, this time with runners on first and third.
Kayak Man is back toward the line, but Edlund, Ellison, Faselli and I are bunched loosely together.
"This is the high probability area," says Ellison.
Not this time it isn't. Bonds reaches on a throwing error.
By now, I've lost feeling in my butt. Whoever designed these kayak seats never had to sit in one for an entire Giants game. It doesn't help that I can't move my legs much, or that I have a waterproof storage container (thanks, Ted) wedged between my knees.
By my calculations, Bonds might get one more at-bat, unless manager Bruce Bochy pulls him for defensive purposes. But as it turns out, the Giants are up, 3-0, heading into the bottom of the eighth and Bonds is scheduled to hit third. No way Bochy sits him now.
Bonds hasn't hit a home run since May 8, so he's due. So is Ellison.
I still can't believe Ellison grabbed Nos. 660 and 661 on consecutive days, but he did. You can watch the video (he's the one wearing the Arnold Schwarzenegger mask and latex muscle chest shirt) on Bonds' Web site.
After No. 660, Giants security escorted him and his son into the stadium and introduced him to a team senior VP, who told him Bonds had asked for the ball in exchange for a personalized memorabilia package. Ellison, a lifelong Giants fan, could have sold the ball for who knows how much, but instead took the game-worn Bonds jersey, two Bonds/Mays-signed bats and jerseys and Giants tickets of his choice. He also got to meet Bonds and Mays.
"I wasn't looking at it as a fair trade," Ellison says. "I was told later it was worth a half million."
Ellison did go the auction route on No. 661 (Bonds didn't request that one), and he'll do the same if he catches No. 755 and/or No. 756. So will Edlund, though he said he'd offer Bonds the first shot at paying market value for either ball. "But I just wouldn't give [the ball] to him," he said.
But first, Bonds has to hit No. 746. And before that, Klesko and Aurilia are up first.
We paddle out for the bottom of the eighth inning. Ellison is to my right. Edlund and Faselli are to my left. Kayak Man is left of them.
With Klesko at the plate, I hear a roar and then I see a ball against the black sky. The ball is going to clear the right-field wall. It's going to clear Joe and the joint twins. It's going to land right in front of me!
But before I can get the world's heaviest kayak to move forward, Faselli and Edlund are in a full sprint for the ball. It's like watching a school of piranha attack chum. I see water explode off their paddles. I see Faselli's paddles actually whack Edlund in the head. I see the faster Edlund block out Faselli and grab the ball with his right hand.
Wong takes more photos. Edlund and Faselli review each other's strategy. And before anyone realizes it, Bonds is up.
I wish I could say he hit one into the Cove, that I retrieved it, sold it and donated the auction money to HGH detection research, but I can't. Bonds walked.
"I'm outta here," said Faselli.
We all were. I wave goodbye to everyone, paddle back to Pier 40 and help Ted load the Queen Mary onto a dolly. The next morning I call Ellison and ask him if he ever watches any Giants games from inside the ballpark.
"You can't get a home run baseball sitting behind home plate," he says. "I prefer the Cove."
Sure he does. It's home. It's family. Plus, the brats are free.
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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