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Hot Cove League

Home run balls hit into San Francisco Bay have become quite the collectors' items

June 21, 2002|THOMAS BONK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN FRANCISCO — The San Francisco Giants are batting and Barry Bonds steps to the plate. Far away, on the other side of the right-field wall, Steve Jackson hunkers down in his orange kayak.

There is a crack of the bat, the roar from the Giants' sellout crowd at Pacific Bell Park, and then the "plunk!" as the baseball hits the water about 20 yards away, and bobs like a cork. From over his left shoulder, Jackson hears the sound of a splash. Someone has jumped from the walkway behind the stadium into the brackish green San Francisco Bay to try to get to the ball first.

If we weren't on the water, you would call it a horse race to the horsehide. The jumper has a better angle, but Jackson has two important advantages. One, Jackson is an expert at retrieving floating baseballs that are hit into the bay for home runs. Two, the other guy can't swim.

Jackson wins the race to the ball, but not without incident. His kayak tips over and spills him into the chilly water. Abandoning his paddles, Jackson hangs on to his kayak with his right hand and holds his prized Bonds baseball with his left, treading water until he is scooped up by his friends in another boat.

The episode ends differently for the loser: The jumper is rescued by kayakers and carried to shore on the stern of the craft, his legs and feet dangling in the water, the catch of the day heading for the fish market.

"I seen the guy jump," Jackson says later. "Then I paddled like hell. Lucky I got there first."

And so it goes out here on McCovey Cove, where baseball isn't the same game. Here, it has a different spin to it, a separate water-based reality. For instance, a floater is not a knuckleball, it's a kayak. The bases are loaded and so are the people on the party boat. Home runs are not home runs, but Splash Hits.

Since the ballpark opened in 2000, there have been 24 Splash Hits. That's 24 baseballs that have cleared the right field wall as home runs and dropped into the water. However, 20 is regarded as the official number because the other four were hit by players from the opposing team and the Giants don't count them. Call it the home water accounting advantage.

Bonds has 18 Splash Hits, former Giant Felipe Crespo has two and the other four were accomplished by Luis Gonzalez, who hit two, Arizona Diamondback teammate Mark Grace and Todd Hundley when he was with the Dodgers.

As it turns out, it is a good day for Bonds, who launched two home runs into McCovey Cove. It is also a very good day for Jackson, 44, of Alameda, who snagged both baseballs, bringing his career total to nine, by far the most for the souvenir hunters who stalk the cove.

"Now that's a record that may not ever be broken," he said.

*

From the water on the other side of the right-field wall at Pac Bell Park, you can't see the dugouts and you can't see the field, but you can sure hear Rebekah Myers of the Tulare Chapter of the Future Farmers of America as she sings the national anthem. The Muchacha flies its stars and stripes and its passengers stand ... as still as they can.

Of course, you also can't see the game from McCovey Cove. But you can sure hear it. In fact, if you couldn't hear it, Jackson would be out of work.

Actually, Jackson has two jobs. One of them is repairing boats at the docks in Alameda. His other job is retrieving baseballs from their watery landing place in McCovey Cove after they clear the wall at Pac Bell Park.

It's a labor of love, sort of, says Jackson, who retired at the end of last season only to make a comeback.

"My girlfriend said, 'Enough is enough,' but this is fun and to get Barry Bonds' home run balls, that's a high," he said.

Meanwhile, there is the commerce issue. Bonds' home run balls don't get as much attention for the souvenir value as their dollar value. Jackson, in fact, has an agent, who auctions the baseballs on the Internet.

Baseballs hit for home runs by Bonds are typically worth anywhere from $3,000-$5,000 in auction, Doug Allen, president of the company that represents Jackson, MastroNet, one of the largest auction houses for sports memorabilia.

Bonds' 70th home run ball last season, which was not a Splash Hit, went for $52,500 in a MastroNet auction.

"Obviously, people value the more historic balls the most," Allen said.

There aren't many trade secrets involved in Jackson's line of work. He follows the game on a transistor radio and listens for the telltale roar of the crowd. Then he paddles as fast as he can.

Before the Port of San Francisco barred power boats in the area, McCovey Cove was sometimes a lawless body of water.

Jackson said he once had a boat run over his bow while all were scrambling for a Splash Hit. But another incident was worse: After falling out of his kayak, Jackson was nearly run over by two "jokesters" in power boats.

"But that's the chance you take out here," said Jackson, who says he has been to 95 Giant games in the water at McCovey Cove, waiting for home run balls to drop out of the sky.

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