Even occupying some of the best seats in the house, Larry Ellison was anxious, sitting restlessly with his family right behind home plate at AT&T Park.
Finally, he stopped tapping his feet, stood up, said goodbye and started walking toward the exit.
“They were great seats, and we were surrounded by some all-time Giants greats,” Ellison said of his 2004 foray into the ballpark’s high-rent district. “But I thought, ‘I can’t get a home run ball back here.’”
Ellison is one of a core group of about nine kayakers who regularly station themselves in McCovey Cove, staking out their watery territory behind the right-field wall at the ballpark for long balls at most Giants games. The software salesman, now 56, had earned the free tickets in 2004 after gathering Barry Bonds’ 660th career home run ball (the one that tied him with his godfather, Willie Mays) and giving it back to the slugger. And soon after he got back out on the water, Bonds blasted No. 661, which landed just about in Ellison’s lap.
“That’s what we’re out here for,” Ellison said. “The thrill and the rush you get from seeing that ball appear.”
Ellison sold the second ball for $17,000 and cashed it in for a new kayak, undoubtedly the most luxurious accommodations in the Bay outside of the occasional sailboat and yacht. The waterway will likely be flooded with all types of flotation devices in the next few weeks as Bonds continues his pursuit of Hank Aaron’s all-time home run mark and the major-league All-Star Game and Home Run Derby come to San Francisco.
“I’ve seen well over 200 [boats] here when Barry was getting close to 700,” said 51-year-old Dave Edlund, another regular. “And I have a feeling it’s going to be even crazier for the All-Star Game.”
The sea tradition was started by Tom Hoynes and others shortly after the China Basin stadium opened in 1999. The regulars — mostly men in their 50s and 60s — call themselves the “Bonds Navy” and go out to 50 or more games a season, listening to the play-by-play on the radio, chatting between batters and repositioning their boats depending on who’s at the plate. For example, Edlund plays Randy Winn right down the line but shifts toward the gap when Bonds (who is responsible for 34 of the ballpark’s 57 splash hits) comes up.
While they form a kind of fraternity, it can get fierce when a ball lands in the water. Edlund and Ellison’s boats even collided in pursuit of a recent batting practice homer.
“We’re all friends,” Edlund said. “But once that ball gets in the air …”
The seafarers’ nemesis is a man with a basket attached to a fishing pole known as Joe Dirt, who has missed just one home game at the new park and stands against the railing at the same self-
proclaimed “dirt spot” for each one. Joe watches through the gates in right field and takes off sprinting as soon as he sees one heading out. He has fished out 10 homers — more than any of the kayakers — and he and those in the water live by a friendly truce — usually.
“If they see I have it in my basket, they won’t knock it out,” Dirt said with a smile. “But someone stole my first pole just as Barry was getting close to 714. I think it was someone in cahoots with the kayakers.”
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