San Francisco superfans in baseball’s strangest season

I found the man they call McCovey Cove Dave, as could be expected, kayaking in McCovey Cove, wearing an orange hoodie with “DAVE” printed on it.

The inlet, unofficially named, is part of the San Francisco Bay and just a few yards behind the outfield at Oracle Park, home of the Giants. Dave (Edlund, 64), along with a number of less-celebrated rivals, spends game after game here, bobbing in the water, waiting for the rare occasions when a home run has been hit hard enough to fly over the cheap seats — and in their direction. 

Of the 136 boundary-defying balls to land in the water since this stadium opened in 2000, Edlund says he has grabbed 42 of them. No one else comes close. A retired tech worker, Edlund says he uses data analysis, anticipating when and where the ball might come splashing down based on the pitcher, batter, even the temperature of the night air. If both teams have a left-handed starting pitcher — forget it. Edlund stays at home. “It’s a very numbers-oriented game,” he says of his success. “I also have the fastest kayak.”

Curious as Edlund’s approach is, it’s the closest he or any Giants fan will get to the action for the foreseeable future. Indeed, it’s as close as most sports fans can get to their teams, whether basketball, football or any number of elite sporting competitions. Covid-19 has closed the doors. It deprives us of one of the few dependable community gatherings left in our modern world.

McCovey Cove Dave waits for a splash. He claims to have grabbed 42 home run balls from the water © Getty Images

That there are still baseball games at all is the result of intense deliberations, and not without some ugly disputes over how much players would be paid. It was decided that the 2020 Major League Baseball season would consist of a reduced 60-game schedule, with less travel and, in some cases, fewer innings to help limit player fatigue. It would begin in July, four months later than usual.

Unlike other sports such as basketball, MLB chose not to insist players lived in a “bubble”, cut off from the outside world. Instead, strict rules would be put in place to reduce the risk: no spitting, for one, or high fives. And no fans.

“It was horrible, it was horrible,” said Mike Krukow, veteran broadcaster for the Giants, when I asked him how he felt back in spring, when pre-season training was suspended indefinitely, throwing the year’s entire competition into doubt. “It was a part of our culture that we had taken for granted for so many years. Now it had been taken away from us, we ached for it.”

Ever since the formalisation of the sport — which in its earliest days was devised in part as a rebellion against cricket and the people who played it — America has never had to suffer a year without big league baseball.

There have been disruptions, sure. In 1994, a labour dispute cut the season short. The Spanish Flu of 1918 saw several high-profile players get sick and die; Babe Ruth, the sport’s most revered player, is said to have been bedridden with a fever of more than 40C, before staging a full recovery.

The legendary Babe Ruth in 1918, playing amid the flu pandemic © Alamy

But it was in 1942 that a letter from President Franklin D Roosevelt came to symbolise the bond between America’s “national pastime” and the national wellbeing. “I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going,” wrote the president, responding to the league’s commissioner, who had asked whether, with 500 top players enlisted to the war effort, the season should still proceed. 

Decades later, and in the same spirit, President George W Bush would endure what he described as the “most nervous moment of my presidency”. In a city reeling from the attacks on the World Trade Center a little over a month earlier, Bush threw the ceremonial first pitch ahead of Game 3 of that year’s World Series — the first in the series to be played at Yankee Stadium. 

Hampered by the bulletproof vest under his New York Fire Department jacket, the president feared tossing a wayward pitch — or worse, one that bobbled up pathetically short. The former little leaguer needn’t have worried. The ball flew from the mound into the catcher’s mitt, and the president walked off to chants of “USA! USA!” The symbolism was loud and proud: however much America had changed, baseball was still baseball, and life would go on.

Game day inside San Francisco’s Oracle Park, I walk along a promenade I’ve been down many times before, where the air usually buzzes with anticipation and is thick with the stench of garlic fries — an aroma tolerable only to the person eating.

Today, though, it’s quiet enough to hear the players interacting with each other as they warm up on the field. The only smell to speak of, in this 2020 California summer, is the unhealthy wildfire smoke that has blown in from up north.

While fans are locked out, exceptions have been made for the half a dozen or so baseball writers who cover the Giants’ every move. They are kept strictly away from players and staff, and a good distance from each other, too.

This is a baseball game that will lack most of the usual tomfoolery: no kiss cam, no free T-shirts bazookaed into the crowd, and certainly no ill-advised marriage proposals. Even the seventh-inning stretch — a traditional little song and a dance to loosen legs and bring bums back to life — takes place only briefly. In other words, Covid-19 baseball contains few of the things at which this English sports fan used to turn up his nose. Naturally, I suddenly find myself missing every bit of it.

It’s not helped by the fact that, all around me, more than 12,000 cardboard cut-outs of fans are wedged into the empty seats. Every so often, one of the silent, smiling faces is near-decapitated by an errant foul ball spinning off a bat and into the stands. 

The cut-outs and reporters see just the one home run all night. Arizona’s David Peralta smashed it to centre-right field, but sadly not quite hard or right enough to reach McCovey Cove.

Baseball isn’t the most popular sport in America — that’s American football, according to Gallup polling, whose latest data suggest baseball’s popularity is dwindling. Internationally, despite a tour programme that takes the MLB abroad, baseball hasn’t seen the same levels of recognition as the NBA, supercharged in the 1990s by Michael Jordan, or the NFL, with its recent all-out assault on London and elsewhere.

Some of that may be attributed to outsiders being put off by the American exceptionalism on display, demonstrated most visibly by the rather ludicrous “World Series” title for an almost exclusively American competition. That title became especially daft this year after it was announced the Toronto Blue Jays, the only non-US team in the league, would be forced to base itself in Buffalo, New York. The Canadian government had raised concerns about teams continually crossing the border into its country, one that had made great strides against Covid-19, from one that most certainly had not. 

Juan Soto of the Washington Nationals missed opening weekend due to a positive Covid-19 diagnosis but finished the season as the league’s top hitter © Getty Images

As I write this, we’re now into 2020’s postseason, or the playoffs, and a stage the Giants didn’t quite manage. For the league as a whole, though, reaching this point can be seen as a triumph. The league’s completion against the odds was typified by 21-year-old Juan Soto of the Washington Nationals, who missed opening weekend due to a positive Covid-19 diagnosis, but finished the regular season as the league’s top-performing hitter.

Such statistics might come to be seen as anomalies, forever asterisked with “2020”. Regardless, the 2020 season will slot into the history books alongside 1918, 1942 and 2001 — a year when Americans once again leaned on their dependable friend.

Dave Lee is the FT’s San Francisco correspondent

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