It’s that time of year. The boys of summer are taking the fields, and throngs of fans are packing major league ballparks.
Ah! This is baseball. In major metro areas such as Baltimore, New York, Pittsburgh, San Diego and San Francisco, fans revel in the sights, sounds and smells of baseball — tailgate parties, peanuts, hot dogs, $10 beers in plastic cups, a crack of the bat, the roar of the crowd and boating.
Ballgames and boats?
Well, it might not be a baseball tradition everywhere, but at some big-league ballparks you can cruise by water to a baseball game. For those who love boating, this combines the best of two great American passions.
At one park in particular, some boaters don’t even go inside, but instead hang out in the water by the stadium, some rafting up for the equivalent of a floating tailgate party, waiting for fly balls hit over the fence, socializing with fellow boaters and kayaking amid the fleet.
If you get to the right spot, you can watch the stadium Jumbotron from your boat, while others have the game on TV in their boats, often seeing themselves as cameras pan over the water before and after commercial breaks.
To experience this for ourselves, we joined boaters during a late-June day game last year at AT&T Park, home of the San Francisco Giants, who would go on to become the 2014 World Champions. Here, the favorite gathering spot for boaters is in a waterway adjacent to the right-field bleachers. It was a warm Sunday afternoon as the Giants hosted the Cincinnati Reds.
Photographer Rob Brown and I launched a 19-foot runabout (rented through cruzin.com) at the public ramp next to the Bay View Boat Club, which is less than 1 mile from the park.
After a quick jaunt around piers 48 and 50 (which serve as parking lots during games), we came to the mouth of China Basin. Bordered by China Basin Park to the south and AT&T Park to the north, the basin leads into Mission Creek, though the Third Street Bridge to the west presents a barrier to entering this channel for all but the smallest boats.
To boating baseball fans, the basin is better known as McCovey Cove, named for the legendary left-handed slugger and Hall of Famer Willie McCovey. With a 20-plus-year career spanning the 1960s and ’70s, McCovey earned the nickname “Big Mac” long before baseball’s steroids era.
Though we’d arrived an hour before first pitch, the cove was already filled up with all manner of craft: trawlers to 45 feet, cruisers to 35 feet, sailboats over 30 feet, runabouts, aluminum skiffs, inflatables and kayaks. With about 40 powerboats and sailboats in the cove, there were twice as many kayaks.
As the public address system in the park boomed music and promotional announcements, we could feel growing excitement reverberate across the water. Brown and I idled through the fleet and noticed that age groups among the boaters ran the gamut from teenagers to seniors. The mood was friendly and jovial.
Captains with larger boats anchored up with relatively short scope to keep from swinging too much amid the throng of boaters. Currents can make anchoring tricky, as can afternoon breezes, though the cove is fairly well protected from the prevailing west winds off the Pacific Ocean.
We approached a Sea Ray 330 Sundancer and introduced ourselves to the couple aboard the boat, Jim and Susan Riepel from Alameda, California, who greeted us warmly.
Out to the Crowd
So what exactly is it that draws boaters here? The crowds are what make McCovey Cove so great, says Jim Riepel, 65. “It’s an unbeatable experience,” says Riepel, who attends day and night games aboard the ’Dancer, Saasy Sooz, as often as five times a month. The Riepels keep their boat in Marina Village in Alameda, which is about 8 miles away. Much of the passage is in protected waters.
Riepel is both a lifelong boater and a baseball fan. Over the years, he’s attended countless baseball games around the country and held season tickets to the Giants in years past. He has also owned a dozen boats, including a Chris-Craft, Cobalt and Formula and five Sea Ray Sundancers. He says he might also soon buy a Cruisers Yachts 42 Express.
Riepel says few things compare to combining boating and baseball. “There’s nothing like floating with the crowd. I’d recommend it to anybody,” proclaims the digital media marketing specialist. “It’s so fun, you don’t really care if the Giants are winning or losing.” Yet the couple does follow the game via satellite TV on a 40-inch screen in the salon and a 32-incher on the bridge deck.
When the Giants are winning, as they did last season, it can lead to long-term raft-up experiences in the cove. As the club fought its way into the 2014 World Series, a local boat dealer, Silver Seas Yachts, put together a regatta during the Giants’ Friday-Saturday home stand — both night games.
“We rafted up a bunch of boats for two days,” Riepel says of his experience afloat during the Fall Classic. “We never went ashore. You really can’t leave once you’re in the middle of the raft-up. But I enjoyed every minute, despite the late-season chill at night.”
You don’t have to stay aboard your boat. Some boaters reserve a guest slip at the adjacent South Beach Harbor marina and then go into the park to watch the game. But it’s the McCovey Cove experience that sets AT&T Park apart from other waterfront major league baseball venues.
That’s especially relevant to those who lean more toward boating than baseball, captains like Zac Fleckner, 28, of Mill Valley, California, whom we met aboard his 23-foot Uniflite sport-fisher, Blue Hoochie II.
A fireman/paramedic by profession, Fleckner says he is an avid ocean angler by avocation. His inboard V-drive-powered boat sees more Pacific salmon and rockfish action than raft-ups, but the idea of relaxing with his wife, Kimberly, and friends in McCovey Cove still has appeal.
“I’m a Giants fan, but not a die-hard baseball fan,” Fleckner says. “We go to relax and show family and friends a good time.”
Just about that time, a nearby boater calls out to Fleckner that his boat’s on TV, the camera zooming in for a close-up on the Blue Hoochie II’s female crew members in black-and-orange bikinis bearing San Franciso Giants logos.
“Obviously people are enjoying the scenery,” quips the captain about the media attention.
Fleckner trailers his boat but chooses not to launch nearby. Instead he puts in at Berkeley Marina and cruises the 6½ miles to McCovey Cove at a comfortable pace. “That gives everyone a chance to sightsee on the way,” he says. His guests get a chance to see landmarks such as Treasure Island, Angel Island and the Bay Bridge.
With no onboard TV, Fleckner likes to arrive early in the hope of anchoring toward the back of the basin near the bridge, which affords a view of the Jumbotron/scoreboard in center field to see the batter introductions set to theme music and replays of on-field action.
“If it’s too crowded, we anchor wherever we can, listen to the game on the radio, soak up the atmosphere and enjoy ourselves,” says Fleckner, who as designated skipper refrains from drinking on the water. “But I still have fun,” he says.
Ultimately, that’s what both ballparks and boats are all about, and combining the two in summer is what you might call a great double play.