SAN FRANCISCO — John McKenney considers himself a blue-collar guy. He likes draft beer and harsh whiskey. And at baseball games, he prefers the distant bleacher seats.
On this night at Pacific Bell Park, as his also-ran San Francisco Giants host the last-place San Diego Padres, McKenney beams like a working-class stiff who has suddenly scored it all: Beer. A carefree summer's eve. And a baseball game he can see for free--as long as he's content to stand outside peering in through the stadium fence.
The 43-year-old theater worker is among a throng of die-hards who regularly partake of a perk officials say is unique in professional baseball and harks back to ballparks of yesteryear.
At each home game, scores of fans cluster behind a green chain-link fence in right field and watch their beloved team without the hassle of tickets, reservations or the cattle call to find their seats. So what if there's nothing to sit on?
Giants officials refer to the freeloaders as the Knothole Gang, after the Norman Rockwell image of Depression-era kids peeking through fence holes to watch their heroes perform.
While technically outside the stadium, this standing-room-only crowd feels like insiders. They enjoy beer, hot dogs and play-by-play radio commentary. Many believe their field-level view--which often brings them within feet of the outfield action--beats any nosebleed upper-deck seat, by the distance of a Barry Bonds home run.
The knothole area--located inside the right field foul pole, next to the 309-foot sign--is close enough to see the expression on the faces of batters. Regulars say they feel like such a part of the game they could be bullpen relievers cooling their heels before being called in to save the game in the ninth inning.
Free Venues Could Be Norm in Future Parks
Team officials predict that nonpay areas may become a standard feature for the next generation of baseball stadiums.
McKenney has his own name for the place: baseball heaven.
"I got my season's tickets right here--in the free section," he says, wearing his baseball cap backward, a nonfiltered Camel tucked behind his right ear. "You're so close to the action you can hear the crack of the bat and the thump of the balls hitting the gloves."
The best part is when the dreaded Dodgers come to town.
"We love to heckle the right fielder," McKenney says. "He may act like he can't hear us, but he hears us, all right. We give him tips on how to improve his game. And his hygiene."
McKenney calls fellow knothole regulars "the saltiest bunch of fans you're ever going to find." There are fry cooks, live-aboard sailors and foul-mouthed old ladies who shake their fists and jeer questionable calls by the umpires.
There are couples on bicycles and parents pushing baby strollers and the hoarse gray-haired storyteller nicknamed Pete Rose who boasts that he once played in the Negro Leagues. They're all joined by the wandering homeless men who sip from bottles stashed in paper sacks and stare longingly through the fence as though recalling their own long-ago playing days.
"There's a lot of hustle here for a homeless guy," says street denizen Ron Ferro. He glances at the man in the pink shower cap twirling as though dancing to his own music: "If you don't get too drunk and act like the fool, nobody will bother you."
The police agree.
"Whether drunk or homeless or whatever, they're all baseball fans," said Frank Harrell, a San Francisco police officer. "Nobody gives us any trouble. They're all here to have a good time. For free."
When they unveiled the knothole area last season when PacBell opened, team officials feared there would be more than a few fistfights and spilled drinks. Said Giants spokeswoman Staci Slaughter: "We thought we'd have pushing and shoving for viewing spots. We didn't know how to police things."
But the fans police themselves.
"We're civilized," says regular Jeff Rubenstein. "Smaller people stand in front, taller people to the back. People will say to me, 'Are you sure you don't want to take my front spot for a few innings?' "
Giants President Peter Magowan said the knothole area almost didn't happen. Planning their new stadium near the old warehouse district south of downtown, officials wanted to avoid the harsh winds that often turned a midsummer day at the old Candlestick Park into an overcoat experience.
Officials wanted home plate to face the city's scenic skyline, but UC Davis engineers advised them to situate the stadium to block the westerly winds.
Under the new configuration, officials had to maintain a public walkway along the waterfront. Said Magowan: "That's when we got the idea to create the only venue in the game where you can watch baseball for free."
It's true that Baltimore's Camden Yards also has a place where outsiders can peer in. But Magowan dismisses it for offering only a partial view of the field.