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Pirates Waiting on the water for a really big homer

Friday, June 21, 2002

By Shelly Anderson, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

Whether it's tonight, when the Pirates open a series against the Texas Rangers, or two years from now, or five, someone will hit a home run that soars over the seats in PNC Park and plunks into the Allegheny River on the fly.

Gary Crooks of Fineview, standing on his pontoon boat, holds the ball that St. Louis outfielder Jim Edmonds hit last month.

Whether anyone fishes the ball out of the water as a memento is likely to depend on the weather and river conditions. The nicer it is, the more boaters are going to be out on the river during a game.

PNC Park's opening last year spawned a whole new social scene on the Allegheny. When the Pirates have a home game, recreational boaters of all descriptions show up in crafts of all description. They hang out beyond right field and the Riverwalk, just downstream from the River Rescue boathouse.

Some come to sunbathe, some go to the game. Some tie up along the Riverwalk, some anchor several yards out, where they have a great view of the scoreboard and can follow the action.

Boaters don't scramble for nets and gloves every time a left-handed power hitter is at the plate. But a lot of the folks who hang out on the water think about grabbing a wet homer.

"I'd jump in. Yes, I would," said George Bell, of Plum, who frequently travels to PNC Park with friend Crystal Stephens in a 20-foot boat. Sometimes, they go to the game. Other times they stay in the boat.

Online chart:
Going deep: Home runs that had made it into the Allegheny



Bill Lucas and Lori Wroniak of Swissvale bring Wroniak's sons, Ian, 11, and Carson, 8, in their 24-foot boat. They've talked about what they would do if a home run ball came flying out of the park.

"We'd just throw him in," Wroniak joked, pointing to Ian, the family's biggest Pirates fan.

The first homer at PNC Park to reach the river on the fly might be one worth waiting for, but there are other ball-fetching opportunities. Several balls have bounced, rolled or skidded into the water, most of them hit during batting practice.

The Pirates estimate it would take a blast of 456 feet to reach the water on the fly. That would be down the right-field line. Boaters, though, note that most of the balls that have made it into the river have been shots to right-center. It would take a monster hit -- maybe 500 feet or more -- to make it directly into the water there.

Only five homers have made it into the water during games, none hit by Pirates.

Last year, Lance Berkman of Houston, Todd Helton of Colorado, J.D. Drew of St. Louis and Matt Stairs of Chicago did it.

Last month, St. Louis outfielder Jim Edmonds hit a shot that bounced off of the concourse in right-center field, bounded down the grassy slope and across the Riverwalk, splash landing about 20 feet out.

Gary Crooks of Fineview was about 30 feet away on his 28-foot pontoon boat with a couple of friends and a handsome boxer named Bailey.

"I was standing on the roof [of the boat], and I just happened to see it come over," he said. "We saw fans all pointing. I just pulled over to it."

PNC Park cameras recorded his friend Larry Roman reaching down to retrieve the ball from the water, then handing it to Crooks.

"The people in the stands were yelling for me to throw it back to them," said Crooks, who ignored the directive fans here have adopted from Chicago Cubs fans at Wrigley Field. Instead, Crooks tossed it to Bailey, who marked the occasion and the ball with his teeth.

"It's certainly more festive around here than it was with Three Rivers Stadium," said Dan Capatolla, a paramedic diver with River Rescue who works evenings. "This ballpark, it's so open and it lights this area up. On a beautiful night, it's just great to be on the river."

Capatolla is a Pirates fan and counts himself among those who would like to retrieve the first home run to reach the river on the fly. If it happens during a game when there are few boaters, he's there.

"Oh, I'd go get it," he said. "I would pick it up and put it in my pocket. If it someone's first home run or something, I would give it up for another ball with an autograph. If it was a really big one, a milestone with a lot of money attached to it, I'd have to think about it."

He'd have a lot competition on nice evenings. That's when there could be speedboats, houseboats, cabin cruisers, jet-skis, canoes, kayaks, even sailboats floating outside PNC Park.

When the weather is threatening or the river is swollen and rough, however, there is a good chance no one will be on the river and the ball would just float away, maybe to Ohio.

Not really.

Hope floats, but baseballs don't -- at least, not for very long in river water.

Robert Smith can attest to that.

Smith, of Lincoln Place, who likes to drive his 19-footer to games, has retrieved several batting practice balls from the water and keeps one in his boat.

"You've got to get there within a minute or so, or they sink," he said.

Once, he said, he fished out a batting-practice home run and tossed it to a little boy on the Riverwalk. The boy was so excited that he dropped the ball into the river, and it quickly sank out of sight.

In McCovey Cove, the area beyond right field of Pacific Bell Park in San Francisco, the boaters hoping for a homer are so thick that authorities have instituted a no motor zone for safety reasons.

In two-plus seasons, the Giants have hit 20 homers -- 18 of them by Barry Bonds -- into the water.

Bell, the boater from Plum, said on an exceptionally good day or night, there might be 30 to 35 boats in the PNC Park pocket. It tends to turn into a party.

"Boy, you eat good and you drink good those days," Bell said.

Drinking is common among the boaters as they soak up the sun and baseball, and it is just as illegal to operate a boat when intoxicated as it is to drive a car. "Through the years, you kind of get to know who's going to act up and who's not," River Rescue's Capatolla said. "For the most part, though, they're fine."

Just folks out enjoying the river and baseball -- with the hope that the catch of the day will come with red stitching.

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