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Ships of Baseball Fools Ply McCovey Cove

A carnival of kayakers, surfers and dogs vies for splashdowns. Paddlers turn petulant when the visiting Angels beat the hometown Giants, 10-4.

October 23, 2002|Geoffrey Mohan | Times Staff Writer

AFLOAT IN McCOVEY COVE — They began assembling before noon, arriving in monster-sized motorboats, in dinghies barely seaworthy, even on an inflatable seahorse.

Despite brisk winds and temperatures in the low 50s that made kayakers feel like champagne bottles in an ice bucket, they came for the first World Series game at Pacific Bell Park. Call it the ultimate stern-gate party.

"This is great," said Blake Ridgeway, smoking a cigar and sitting on a surfboard tethered to a small float. "We got everything we need: beer, peanuts and Cracker Jacks."

The Anaheim Angels crushed the Giants, 10-4, and not a single ball soared cove-ward, but many in the fleet said they'd be back.

Ed and Carol Shaffer said they planned to sleep in their 41-foot Sea Ray power boat, the Mutual Fun'd, on the inlet for the entire three-game homestand.

"It's hard to find a space during good games, but this is madness," said Carol Schaffer, wielding two signs that read, "Shock the Monkey."

Named for Giant Hall of Fame slugger Willie McCovey, this narrow inlet of brackish port water would have languished in obscurity under its official name of China Basin, but for the construction of Pac Bell Park.

Since the Giant venue opened two years ago, 27 baseballs have landed in the frigid waters just off right field.

In search of memorabilia or just memories, an armada of more than 150 crafts -- from modest paddle boats to a 65-foot, two-masted 19th century schooner owned by the San Francisco Maritime Museum -- gathered Tuesday in the cove.

Randy Russell, 53, and two friends set off before 4 p.m. for the cove from a marina in a pair of inflatable kayaks and a large inflatable launch, with plans to snare big flies. Russell, a solutions consultant for Vector ESP, brought along his own solution for the Angels' pesky mascot, the Rally Monkey.

"I'm gonna tie him to my fishing rod and throw his monkey butt in the water," he said, demonstrating how he had tied a noose around the stuffed animal's neck. This was Russell's maiden voyage. "Usually I get a nice cozy seat inside. What ... am I doing here?"

His buddy Mike Ellison, who also works for Vector, persuaded him to come out. Ellison made sure the trio was well-provisioned: He pushed off in the "mother ship," carrying an ice chest and barbecue grill.

The cove has developed its own culture, its own rituals, even its own celebrities.

Opponents' homers don't count as true "splash hits" and the faithful have been known to hurl them back over the arcade wall onto the field. A team of Portuguese water dogs -- Justy, Lyla, Quarry, Rio, Rita and Surfer -- leaps from the Good Ship Jollipup to retrieve baseballs during weekend games.

Not to be outdone, human retrievers often work in teams, using nets large enough to land a tuna. They listen to the game on radios, watch on portable TVs and keep their ears cocked toward the stadium, all in preparation for a splashdown.

Mischievous fans sometimes throw baseballs -- known as dork balls -- into the water to see the mayhem that ensues.

Cove regulars are not easily fooled. They were out in force Tuesday, greeting each other and drawing cheers from the stadium promenade.

Tom Hoynes -- owner of a record seven splashdown balls, including the first ever -- acted as master of ceremonies, decked out in his Giant orange life vest, black jacket and black-and-orange cap. As Hoynes handed out trading cards with his "splash" stats on them -- he nets right-handed -- police waved to him from their patrol boat.

Paddleboat kings Edgar Lazona, 35, and Brice Gamble, 30, were there too, in the bright orange craft rigged with water cannons that Giant fans voted Best Boat in the Bay.

Meantime, Jay Austin floated past astride an inflatable seahorse, wearing floral-patterned shorts. "I'm insulated by a combination of light rum and Vicodin," he said.

Undaunted by the cold or drizzle, the cove crowd grew edgy as the home team fell behind, trying to spur on the loyal counterparts inside the stadium walls.

The floating fans revived in the fifth inning, letting off celebratory blasts on their air horns when Giant second baseman Rich Aurilia and Bonds homered, but were mostly subdued after that.

Not everyone bobbing in the cove cared much about what happened in the game.

Scott Hajicek-Dobberstein, 52, wearing a yellow helmet, hoped his family in Chicago would spot him on TV. He offered up a tip for first-timers: "If a ball lands near you, paddle away from it. For about 15 seconds it becomes whitewater."

He wasn't kidding: As Bonds approached the home run record, port officials had to mark splashdown sites with buoys and ban motor-powered craft after several near-disasters. One fan launched himself from pier-side, apparently unconcerned that he couldn't swim. He was fished out by nearby boaters.

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