B.A.R.K-Baseball Aquatic Retrieval Korps

Doggies in the Outer Field Portuguese Water Dogs A new era had begun for an ancient breed.Six canine rookies, known as B.A.R.K., Baseball Aquatic Retrieval Korps, were called up to the Major Leagues this July to fetch home run balls from the cold and turgid waters of the San Francisco Bay.

One of the many charms of Pacific Bell Park, the new home of the San Francisco Giants, is the player’s ability to slug a home run into the bay. Hit a towering 450-foot drive over the classic brick wall of right field and the batter can achieve what has become known as a Splash Hit—a homer that touches down in salt water like a returning space capsule.

But someone has to retrieve it.

“This is the first sport to open itself up to another species,” says comic Don Novello, who gained fame as Father Guido Sarducci on “The Smothers Brothers’ Show” in 1975, and later on “Saturday Night Live.” Novello came to the Giants back in 1996 with his vision of homer-chasing canines. “Once I found out that baseballs float and were going to be landing in the water—I thought of dogs swimming out to get them.”

Why not? These highly coveted Splash Hit baseballs have become instant collector’s items. Until recently all the balls were scooped up in nets by a flotilla of small boats and dinghies that wait in the body of water beyond the right field wall known as McCovey Cove. Thus far only five of these spectacular round-trippers have been belted during a regulation game. Giants superstar Barry Bonds has slugged four for the home team, while Dodgers catcher Todd Hundley has the only one for the visitors. Although the Giants’ organization has seen fit to count only San Francisco Giants home runs on its Splash Hits scoreboard beneath the right field foul pole—the B.A.R.K. team will retrieve balls for either side. Hey, these baseballs are worth big money.

“All the home run balls the dogs get will be donated to Pets in Need for fund-raising purposes,” says Brenda F. Barnette, Pets in Need’s executive director. “The Giants will also make a $5,000 donation to our organization at the season’s end.”

This non-profit plans to auction off all the balls to the highest bidder. Hopefully the baseballs will be autographed by the player who hits them and will be accompanied by a paw print certificate from the B.A.R.K. canine team member who fetches it. Pets in Need became the first no-kill animal shelter in the Bay Area in 1965. Its mission is to bring loving, healthy homes within a paw’s reach of every adoptable dog and cat in the community. No dog or cat suitable for re-homing is ever put to death at Pets in Need—no matter how long it takes to place them.

Although the concept of dogs diving after homers was Novello’s brainchild, it wasn’t until Pets in Need got involved that the whole plan began to really take shape. In the beginning Novello wanted to train his own team of dogs and oversee the operation—but that plan proved to be impractical.

Larry Baer, the Giants’ executive vice president, admits that at first the Giants considered the idea of dogs swimming after home runs to be little more than a joke. “A lot of ideas for retrieving the balls were tossed around,” Baer says. “But after thinking about it, we decided the dogs were a very San Francisco thing to do. Now B.A.R.K. will be another fun feature at Pacific Bell Park.”

Once the idea was accepted, serious thought had to go into every aspect of this daunting enterprise. Since Pets in Need and the Giants were involved, the dogs’ safety would be a major concern. What breed would be up to the rigorous task of fetching balls in the often turbulent waters? Clearly, a very special dog would be needed to swim in the cold and choppy waters of the San Francisco Bay. A dog with the endurance and strength to swim for long periods of time without tiring.

The Northern California Portuguese Water Dog Club quickly offered the perfect solution. For centuries Portuguese Water Dogs—Cao de Aqua—have been used by fishermen to herd fish into nets and send messages from boat to boat. It’s not uncommon for these working dogs to spend hours in the cold water of the Atlantic. With their webbed paws and rudder-like tails they were the perfect choice for this demanding big league chore.

Still, extra training for such a special duty was required.

The animals would need a Doggy Spring Training.

Sue D’Augusta, owner of the eldest B.A.R.K. team member, Shadow, spent months getting her eight-year-old dog ready for her first Pac Bell outing. Shadow had already graduated from various programs like Apprentice Water Dog and Working Water Dog—but more training was necessary before she would be ready to swim in McCovey Cove.

“Baseballs bob in the water in a unique way,” says D’Augusta. “I practiced with Shadow in the San Francisco Marina so she could get the hang of it. The first few times she tried to swim up and grab the baseball it got away from her.”

But like any big league player Shadow was soon snatching them up with the aplomb of a veteran. By the time the Los Angeles Dodgers showed up in San Francisco for a three-game series right before the Fourth of July, all six dogs were more than ready to make their debut.

Not all dogs are lucky enough to make the major league cut, but for others who would like to catch a game, here’s their chance:

Home Run
The Chicago White Sox will be hosting their Dog Day event on August 20. A pre-game parade around the warning track, seating in the bleachers or in a “pet check” kennel, plus a chance to shake paws with the players’ dogs are just a few of the attractions. Non-profits benefit from the event.

Tampa Bay Devil Rays hosted their first doggy event, which included a pet adoption fair, on July 18; it was such a huge success for the club and the local SPCA that they already are planning for next season.

The Minnesota Twins hosted a Dog Day at the Dome on July 4, with seating in the centerfield “Dog Out.” Proceeds, as with all other teams’ doggy events, went to a local humane organization. Next time, though, the Twins will schedule the event for a “quieter” day.

The San Francisco Giants’ August 19 Dog Days of Summer game is already sold out. This marks the fourth year of this popular event that begins with a dog walk around the new PacBell ballpark—proceeds benefit the SF/SPCA.

Grand Slam
Colorado Springs’ Sky Sox, a Rockies Triple-A club, clear the bases. Their “Bark in the Park” events are held at every Wednesday night game! Dogs and their humans watch the game from the ballpark’s grassy slopes and munch on $1 hot dogs. The team is also scouting around for a rookie St. Bernard to bring baseballs to the ump.

On the Fence
Both Canadian teams, the Toronto Blue Jays and the Montreal Expos are contemplating inviting dogs next season.

Yrrr Out!!

The Los Angeles Dodgers do not have a dog event. When asked about it, a spokesperson replied, “Thank God we don’t!”

One Response

  1. […] BARK-Baseball Aquatic Retrieval KorpsSix canine rookies, known as BARK, Baseball Aquatic Retrieval Korps, were called up to the Major Leagues this July to fetch home run balls from the cold and turgid waters of the San Francisco Bay. One of the many charms of Pacific Bell … […]

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