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Portuguese Water Dogs Play Ball
Fetching for the Major League

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.”

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 San Francisco Bay. A dog with the endurance and strength to swim for long periods of time without tiring.

The Portuguese Water Dog Club of Northern California quickly offered the perfect solution. For centuries, Portuguese Water Dogs—Cão de Áqua—have been used by fishermen to herd fish into nets and send messages from boat to boat. It’s not uncommon for those 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 Doggie 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.

Meeting the Fans
It was a classic baseball Saturday.

Don Novello, dressed in the vintage vestments of his legendary alter ego, Father Guido Sarducci, was on hand at Pac Bell Park to toss practice balls into the bay and introduce the dogs to the fans. On the morning before the game, the B.A.R.K. team was stationed on its yacht—The Good Ship Jollipup—a nifty powerboat equipped with a doggie diving deck. One by one, the Portuguese Water Dogs dove into the water after the baseballs. When Shadow got her turn, she neatly grabbed the ball and swam toward the media and fans on the dock rather than immediately returning to the boat.

“Shadow seems to really like to play to he crowd,” D’Augusta says. “Sometimes she just does her own thing. But you’ll notice she finally brought the ball back to the boat like we wanted her to.”

Unfortunately, on the dogs’ first day, batting practice was canceled due to an old-timers’ home-run-hitting contest. Because the dogs will only work on Saturdays and special holidays, those in the baseball know say most of their ball retrieving will take place during pre-game batting practice. That’s when the baseballs really fly into McCovey Cove.

Not that the dogs didn’t have plenty to do at their debut. Once they finished their warm-ups, they held a press conference with print and television media. The word was out. The dogs were a hot news item. Rumors were flying that Jay Leno was eager to meet the B.A.R.K. team and maybe even have them on his show. But all that would have to wait.
 
First, the dogs had to meet the Giants fans.

Novello stood on the pitcher’s mound in a ceremony before the game and introduced them. Over 40,000 people, a sold-out house, were on hand to watch these regal canines and their proud owners jog onto the infield like All-Star heroes.

Rio, the five-year-old superstar of the group who is the team’s captain and driving force, pranced out first. He was followed by Surfer, the only chocolate brown and the youngest at nine months; Shadow; Kyma, 20 months and a spectacular jumper; Topper, three, the barker; and Justy, 13 months, who was used to pawing through the ice to swim in her Connecticut pond.

As the dogs stood alert and proud on the pristine infield grass, it was clear to see why this breed was chosen by the baseball elite. Looking like a large Poodle, the Portuguese Water Dog is often thought to have preceded its more well-known cousin. The breed is so old its actual origins are shrouded in folklore. Some say the dogs date back to before the time of Christ. No doubt about it—these dogs are cool.

Put Me In, Coach
Once the cheers had subsided, it was time for the B.A.R.K. team members to take their positions aboard the Jollipup. They seemed eager and ready for action. When Shadow’s male owner, Lloyd D’Augusta, was asked if he thought the dogs could go the full nine innings, he was quick to reply.

“I know Shadow can easily play the entire game,” D’Augusta said. “In fact, I’m certain she could go extra innings if it ever came to that.”

Fans in the upper deck and those watching on television could see the dogs waiting patiently as their boat bobbed in the water. The animals could hear the roar of the crowd. When things got exciting, they instantly went on alert.

But no homers came their way that first day.

Sue D’Augusta says she could feel the dogs’ readiness to jump in after a ball.

“All the dogs on the B.A.R.K. team were waiting for Barry Bonds to hit a home run to them,” D’Augusta says. “I could see them thinking, ‘What’s going on? Let’s get some action out here.’ But I’m sure we’ll get plenty of homers before the season is over.”

Not everyone is certain B.A.R.K. is a good idea. Many people have expressed concern. Animal Welfare Commissioner Richard Schulke says his telephone lines were ringing off the hook after the dogs were featured on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle.

“People wanted to make sure they’re not abusing and overworking the dogs,” Schulke says.

Dog lovers can rest assured that the Giants have taken every precaution to ensure that these valuable and beloved pets are kept out of harm’s way. The Giants are paying for a police boat and two extra officers to make sure there are no accidents.

Now, let’s play some ball.
 

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This article first appeared in The Bark,
Issue 12: Summer 2000
Bill English is an award-winning journalist and frequent contributor to the San Francisco Chronicle. English is the author of three critically acclaimed novels, The Cultivator, The Find and The Find II. He lives in the wine country of northern California.

Photo courtesy of the San Francisco Giants/Mikulecky

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