Bunker Door


Waiting for the Splash

Playoff Mania comes to the Cove

By Dan Reich

When AT&T Park was built on the San Francisco waterfront for the 2000 season, they seized the opportunity to create an area where a well-hit ball could reach the bay, and they named the cove for the fabled Willie McCovey, a feared Giants left-handed slugger who, had he played now, would have made the splash hit a weekly occurrence. Indeed, from the beginning, Barry Bonds made the splash hit his personal spectacle…kayaks lined the Cove cheek-to-jowl like a huge bowl of roasted pumpkin seeds, and Barry hit four out of every five splash hits recorded during his playing days.

Barry is long gone now, and the frenzy of the early 2000s has given way to a smaller group of hard-core amphibious baseball fans. Pleasure craft still dot the Cove as the swells party up on deck, but at sea level, an armada of kayaks, paddleboards and other individual-sized craft form a floating party and ad-hoc community fueled by camaraderie, adult beverages and an abiding love of the Giants. Sporting flags, signs, costumes, dogs and even barbecues, the intrepid fans of McCovey Cove are a cordial, welcoming lot…until a ball lands in their midst. Then all camaraderie disappears in a frenzy of paddles as a skirmish for the prize ensues.

Grabbing a ball carries more than bragging rights…often, the ball can be returned to the player who hit it and exchanged for autographed memorabilia, tickets and more. A friendly competition binds the Cove regulars, along with an enterprising fan named Joe Dirt who wields a 20-foot fishing net from the arcade and is as likely as any of the paddlers to retrieve a ball. Among the kayakers, a few veterans have raised snagging splash hits to an art, positioning themselves near the right field foul pole, following the game on headphone or armband radios, waiting for a left-handed power hitter and poised to move at the sound of the words “hit well to right.” If one waits until they can see the ball, it’s already too late.

The most prolific (and high profile) of the Cove kayakers is undoubtedly “McCovey Cove Dave” Eglund of Los Gatos, a Cove mainstay since 2001. He’s bagged 24 splash hits, 17 by Giants, and is a popular presence on social media, with more than 10,000 Twitter followers. A former competitive kayaker and spear fisherman, Eglund has been interviewed by KNBR and is considered a member of the Giants’ extended family, frequently garnering invitations to VIP fan events.

But there are another half-dozen or so that show up for nearly every game. Greg Keeney of Montara has been coming to the Cove for seven years and has a couple of splash hits in his resume, most memorably corralling Brandon Belt’s Splash Hit #61, which he later got autographed by Belt. Greg can frequently be seen with a seagull riding his kayak.

Mark Achen of Auburn is a recent Cove regular, and favors a paddleboard, which gives him the advantage of being able to dive directly towards a ball. He displayed this skill recently by getting to Bryce Harper’s home run ball in Game 3 of the Nats series an instant before I did. He was able to parlay it into four signed jerseys.

Kevin Keene of Concord has been Cove-ing it since 2009. He’s also retrieved a couple of splash hits, and is getting a reputation for distinctive headgear, sometimes favoring an orange and black Dr. Seuss number and sometimes a furry buffalo head with horns. Mark Busch of San Jose has been coming since 2004, and has caught 6 splash hits, two by Giants, including one off the bat of Ryan Klesko. With four children, his goal is to get one Giants splash hit for each of his kids. Larry Ellison (no, not that one) is a ten-year veteran who has 9 splash hits. Hailing from Fairfield, Larry has fond memories of the legendary Bonds era. There’s Splash Hit Steve, with his sweatshirt reading “May all your hits be splash hits,” and Martin Wong, who runs a rafting website and is rarely seen without a camera in his hand.  Not much of a ball hawk, Marty is content to document as much of the action as he can.

On any given day, this corps of regulars are supplemented by an ongoing cast of crazies who show up on anything that will float…canoes, paddle boards, kid’s pool toys…whatever. Odd craft, such as an aluminum canoe with motorcycle fenders and a bicycle drivetrain, and a metallic half-sphere covered with blinking lights that frequents night games, meander through. Most of us get into the spirit of things with some sort of banner, headgear, sign or Giants swag. And as with any large gathering at which the media are present, there’s the inevitable self-promotion…one enterprising paddleboarder employed his dog to hold a sign promoting his tourist excursion business. Dogs are quite popular…especially small ones. And several resourceful types have built platforms on their kayaks to support a small barbecue. I was once generously offered a tasty chicken apple sausage right off the grill.

The vibe is festive and then some. Many of the floaters anchor themselves to one of the buoys while others are happy to paddle around the Cove…always at the ready to maneuver into position should, say, Travis Ishikawa or Brandon Belt come to the plate. Everyone keeps at least one eye on the camera high up in the right field stands, and can tell when it’s trained on the Cove. People will wave whatever they have, whether it’s a paddle, a flag or a rally towel.

For the NLCS series, the SF Police sent a couple of their finest to the Cove on jet skis. Apparently they feel the need to protect the public safety, but in actuality, they mostly try to keep kayakers from paddling under the arcade, which I found out to my chagrin in Game 5, when I was summoned out from under the arcade and busted for not having a life jacket. I got a police escort back to Pier 40, from where I had to walk back to the arcade for the remainder of the game.

The World Series is coming back to the Cove, and it’s going to rock like it hasn’t done since Barry Bonds roamed the earth. Here’s hoping the winning hit makes a splash.