“I sat on the stern seat watching him run the boat and snuck a picture without him knowing, just in awe of the moment,” writes Chris Baratko. “The guy who taught me to run his boat 30 years ago was running my boat now. It was surreal, and I can’t tell you how much I’m grateful I got that moment before we lost him.”
Steve Baratko was born in Cleveland, Ohio, on [the] day Pearl Harbor was attacked: December 7, 1941. Several years later, his father bought a building on Detroit Avenue and opened Baratko’s Lounge & Restaurant in Lakewood, Ohio. Baratko’s quickly became famous for hosting Cleveland Browns after parties and keeping the then fledgling Westlake Yacht Club running in the basement. Steve grew up in the fast-paced night life of Cleveland’s west side and would join his father and brother Gary in running Baratko’s as he reached adulthood.
“He used to flip coins behind the bar at Baratko’s for bar tabs,” Steve’s youngest son Chris tells GLB editors, “and had the biggest heart for his customers and friends. He loved everyone, and would forgive anyone he ever met that wronged him.”
Hospitality wasn’t an industry for Steve, but the core of who he was as a man, a friend, and a father. “If we made trips, or even just cookouts at his house in Rocky River, he was always the first one up and last one to bed, sitting and talking with anyone willing to listen to his stories. He’d grill for everyone. He’d get up and get a new drink for anyone.
Ol' Blue Eyes
At one point Steve and Gary owned a 32-foot Marinette and a 1980 Formula 233. Steve’s boats were all aptly named The Innkeeper, after Frank Sinatra’s nickname used only by a closely-held group of friends.
“I didn’t know the story about ‘The Innkeeper’ being a Sinatra nickname until much later in life,” Chris admits. “When I was old enough to appreciate both Sinatra and why my dad would call a boat that, in hindsight, it’s just so fitting.”
“Beyond talent, beyond technique, the palpable but invisible power of every great star stems from the need to be seen and to be held in the imagination of the audience,” published The New Yorker in 1997. “This is especially true of Sinatra. The stillness, attention, and unequivocal adoration…were undeniable in the rapt enthusiasm of his listeners. ‘Thank you for letting me sing for you,’ was often Sinatra’s exit line at the end of his concerts. In song, he was his best self, and he craved to see that goodness reflected in the adoring eyes of others. Offstage, Sinatra was dubbed The Innkeeper by his friends, because of the largesse of his hospitality; onstage, he operated more or less the same way.”
Friends of my dad, Bob Ritchie, Dave Coey and my dad in front of his old 1980 Formula. This picture hung at his house and he always would show it to people and comment it was called “Rare, Medium and Well Done."
Love Of Boating
Not growing up on a boat, Steve’s love of the water wasn’t inherited. Steve’s father did briefly own a boat, but never really loved it. In true club-owner fashion, family legend is the senior Baratko picked up a 1940’s era Chris Craft from someone that owed him money. He had it just long enough for his sons to get a taste of the sweet life.
“The same day,” Chris says, “my grandfather, my dad and my uncle set off for the islands with no clue how to run it or knowledge of boating at all. My grandfather hated it, but my dad and uncle fell in love.”
The brothers Baratko couldn’t keep out of the water after that, often skipping school at Bay Village High School to make runs for Put-in-Bay, Ohio. He and his friends over the years had every boat you could imagine and at one point worked with Marinette on what eventually became the 28-foot convertible version of a Sportsman.
“I believe my uncle had the first one they ever made,” Chris says. “The details are sketchy there… I was a very little kid then! But I still remember that boat.”
A Son’s Perspective
Steve and Chris’s mother went their separate ways in the early 1980s and each remarried soon after. She moved to Colorado, taking Chris with her for the school year. Summers, though, were spent as they should be: on the Great Lakes.
“I’m very, very lucky, because my mom and stepdad, and dad and stepmom were all together for my entire life,” Chris reminisces. “I got twice the love and had the best of both worlds, especially long summers in Cleveland, spent on the lake with my dad. We’d go out several times a week when my dad would be working Baratko’s nights; he and my uncle alternated days and nights each week. We’d take either the Marinette or Formula to Huntington Beach or downtown for dinner or to just tie up for them to party during the heydays of the Cleveland Flats.”
Chris especially loved the trips on the Marinette up to Put-in-Bay and Cedar Point. The family would go for a week or more, and when stuck on land Chris would drift off to sleep dreaming about the day he could run his own boat around the east end of the island and into the Put-in-Bay harbor. He longed to smell the smoke from the Chicken Patio and feel the energy of the hustle and bustle of the island.
“I love it there so, so much,” exclaims Chris. “I couldn’t wait to turn 16 to be able to drive a golf cart on the island. Then I couldn’t wait to turn 21 to have a beer with my dad at the Round House or Beer Barrel. Once I did, those days never disappointed.”
Owning His Own Boat
Demands of the radio business kept Chris in Colorado for many years, but an opportunity to move to Florida came up and he jumped. He called his dad, naturally, for advice on a boat.
“Originally I really wanted a late 80’s early 90’s Formula 242 LS,” recounts Chris, “because my dad had a 1987 242 LS and that was the first boat I was ever really allowed to run without him standing over my shoulder. It was the first I was taught to dock and learn the subtle nuances of how to handle a boat.”
Steve gently reminded his son he was moving to Florida, where he could be on the water year-round. The two started looking into bigger boats, with better accommodations for weekend getaways. Steve suggested a few 280 SS’s available online.
“He didn’t really have to talk me into it. I found one I liked and went to have a look, and it checked out. He walked me through putting the offer together and what to chat with my surveyor about. Ultimately it ended up being a great boat that I made a little money on with some select upgrades the last two years.”
Steve flew to Florida the same day Chris picked the boat up: July 2, 2015. The pair, reunited on the water and in a Formula, spent the next ten days cleaning and getting the boat put into top shape. Chris named the boat Average Quarter Hours, a radio ratings term and nod to his time in that industry. The long days at the beach and on the water, running around the outlying islands of the Florida Gulf Coast, made time stand still.
“He flew home tanned, rested and very proud,” remembers Chris with a nostalgic smile. “A month later he was diagnosed with an advanced cancer and literally 16 days after that he was gone.”
The Innkeeper Legacy
Chris ended up trading the Formula 280 SS up for a 31 PC. Before handing the 280 over to the new owners though, Chris proposed to his girlfriend. As the two discussed a fitting name for the 31 PC, she insisted they call it The Innkeeper.
“I came up with a few other names but that was the one she wanted,” Chris says, “because she didn’t have the chance to know my dad and thought it would be an amazing way to pass a piece of him onto our little family. If my son 40 years from now named his boat The Innkeeper because of me, that’d be the ultimate compliment. It’d be twice as special for me because it would have been because of his grandfather, whom he never met.”