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Barber: The Giant of Levi’s Landing

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SAN FRANCISCO - Scooter Gennett, the newest San Francisco Giant, has experienced a few things at AT&T/Oracle Park that he’d just as soon forget. Before Monday’s 4-0 loss to the Washington Nationals, Gennett’s home debut here, he talked about losing pop flies in the wind and stumbling over one of the infamous bullpen mounds to mess up another chance at an out.

He had at least one good memory, too: May 16, 2018, when he hit his only home run (so far) at the park at Third and King streets while playing for the Reds.

“And what’s crazy is there’s a gentleman that I met a few days before — I was going to the gas station to get some Gatorade and stuff,” Gennett recalled. “And you know, trench coat, on the street. And he came up to me, and he goes ‘You’re Scooter Gennett.’ I’m like, wow, it was kind of surprising that he knew me.”

The guy told Gennett that he goes to Giants games all the time, and watches through the fence behind Levi’s Landing in right field. Gennett said he’d hit him one. And in the seventh inning of Cincinnati’s 6-3 win a day or two later, the second baseman blasted a towering shot off the Giants’ Cody Gearrin.

“I look on the app and I see the highlight, and I see this guy running and getting the ball,” Gennett said. “And so I get off the bus (at the Reds’ team hotel) and he’s like, ‘I got your ball. You actually hit me a home run ball.’ So that was, you know, a special thing. What are the chances of that? It’s pretty amazing.”

Well, not really, as it turns out.

Less than an hour after speaking to Gennett with other reporters, I wandered out to the concourse along China Basin. I found a video of the 2018 home run on my phone, watched a man with scruffy hair chase down the ricocheting baseball. I approached a guy who was bouncing a baseball off the arcade and who looked roughly similar, showed him the image and asked, “Do you know this man?”

He took one look and said, “Oh, the Scooter Gennett home run.”

Brett Nance remembered the moment as vividly as Gennett did, though he altered some details. The player, he said, was hunting not Gatorade but (hide your eyes, kids) chewing tobacco. Nance hadn’t actually recognized Gennett during that initial encounter; a friend had tipped him off. Gennett had told writers that his ball tracker was known for jumping into McCovey Cove to retrieve balls; Nance said no, the only time he dunked himself was when Rockies slugger Larry Walker broke his game bat while messing around in right field before one game and, ticked off, hurled the entire piece of lumber over the stands and into the water.

Nance went after it. He hammed it up for photo crews, then started freezing and hauled himself out of the water. When he got out, he said, there were weird little worms all over his arms.

Gennett had ended the story by wondering, “Where is this guy keeping all these balls?”

Nance has kept many of them. But of the estimated 3,000 baseballs he has collected at games at Candlestick Park, the Oakland Coliseum and Oracle, he has lost possession of many. Some were stolen. Others he had to sell to stay fed.

Brett Nance is homeless. He sleeps in the doorway of a restaurant near the Westin Hotel, where many visiting MLB teams stay, and during the day he earns pocket change by opening the restaurant door for customers.

Nance is also, by his estimation, the Bay Area’s most prolific retriever of baseballs.

He used to line up to get into Candlestick early, to be the first one in the bleachers. Sometimes a few balls would already be waiting for him when he got there during BP. In Oakland, he knew just where to position himself for foul balls. When A’s pitcher Dallas Braden was in the midst of his perfect game there, Nance hustled from fair to foul territory for a chance at catching a piece of history, thrown by Braden. And he got one. But someone wound up stealing the Braden ball.

Nance, who has a graying, free-ranging beard, piercing blue eyes and a few missing teeth, is 49. He grew up in Delaware but has lived in San Francisco for years. Monday, he was wearing a Philadelphia Eagles cap and an orange Joe Panik jersey (“I bought it for five bucks,” he said), and a baseball glove on his left hand.

He had brought a plastic milk crate to stand on when too many fans are milling about and blocking his view of the batter, and a rolling cart that held a blanket, some warm clothes – and, buried somewhere in the stash, some baseballs that he totes around in case he runs into a player who hit one of his souvenirs.

Nance is an irreplaceable piece of the McCovey Cove subculture. He interacted with some of the other regulars while working his way through a pack of Fortuna cigarettes, acknowledging the kayakers but insisting they don’t get to enough home run balls to warrant the attention they receive. He has reams of advice, on where Oracle’s bird’s-eye cameras should be placed, and why the barriers atop Levi’s Landing should be Plexiglas instead of metal slats, and how to alleviate homelessness in San Francisco.

“All these companies that are making billions of dollars building (bleep) everywhere — Twitter and Swinerton?” Nance said. “OK, it’s time for them to do some pro bono work. They need to build us a 50-(bleepin’)-story SRO. At cost. Their cost. Or else they don’t do any more business here.”

Despite his precarious finances, Nance is loathe to sell any of his baseballs. “Yeah, I don’t think there’s one (bleeping) thing I’ve sold that I didn’t regret,” he reflected.

That said, Nance has no time for athletes who complain about fans selling their autographed memorabilia.

“These guys cry about, ‘Oh, you’re gonna sell it,’” he said. “Well, I’ve always looked at it like this. If you had the ability to create (bleeping) actual money — like, I signed something and all of a sudden it’s gold now — why wouldn’t you?”

Two of Nance’s relics stand out for their purity. The right-field concourse at China Basin is a narrow strip; most of the balls that get there wind up bouncing. Nance claims to be the only person ever to catch a homer on the fly there, and he did it twice: He snagged Barry Bonds 60th of the season in 2001, and the only one of Nick Noonan’s career, in 2015. He laughs about scoring a putout against the man who hit the most home runs in MLB history, and a player who is tied for the fewest.

By Nance’s reckoning, he should have caught a third one on the fly — Gennett’s. “I got the radio behind me, and I got Renel (Brooks-Moon) on the PA. Did not hear a thing,” Nance said. “Next thing I heard was the ball hitting next to me.”

Still, Nance has a pretty good claim to fame.

“I got two and the world has zero, because no one else has ever caught one,” he said.

Nance does not have an easy life, by any measure. But it feels like he’s winning.

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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