Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in 2000, the year Pacific Bell Park (now AT&T Park) opened. The B.A.R.K. team fielded Splash Hits for a couple of seasons, then was retired when compeition from boaters threatened their safety. They're now a fond memory, and one that we're happy to revive with this article.
The Portuguese Water Dogs had waited for over a thousand years to play baseball—but now their time had come. At long last, the National Pastime was calling forth the dogs of summer. 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 San Francisco Bay.
One of the many charms of Pacific Bell Park, the new home of the San Francisco Giants, is the players’ 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 collectors’ 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 nonprofit 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 shelter in the Bay Area in 1965. Its mission is to bring loving, healthy homes within paw’s-reach of every adoptable dog and cat in the community. No dog or cat suitable for rehoming is ever put to death at Pets In Need—no matter how long it takes to place them.
A New Kind of Dog Park
Although the concept of dogs diving after homes 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.”