Gi­ants com­mu­nity gath­ers to cel­e­brate life of Wil­lie McCovey

Lodi News-Sentinel - - SPORTS - By Kerry Crow­ley

SAN FRAN­CISCO — At a Hall of Fame cer­e­mony de­signed to com­mem­o­rate McCovey’s ca­reer and honor his on-field ac­com­plish­ments, the San Fran­cisco Gi­ants first base­man turned the trib­ute around and shined the spot­light on those he felt clos­est to.

“Like the Golden Gate Bridge and the ca­ble cars, I’ve been made to feel like a land­mark too,” McCovey said with grat­i­tude.

McCovey thanked his fam­ily from Mo­bile, Alabama, his fam­ily that proudly wore the Gi­ants uni­form along­side him and the city of San Fran­cisco, a fam­ily that made him its most beloved adopted son. Fam­ily from all cor­ners of the world made McCovey feel like the liv­ing leg­end he had be­come.

Thirty two years later, McCovey’s fam­ily gath­ered to shine the spot­light back where it be­longs.

Along the water­front that bears his name and in­side a sta­dium where his No. 44 will hang for­ever, McCovey’s life was cel­e­brated Thurs­day. Af­ter a long bat­tle with on­go­ing health is­sues, McCovey passed away Wed­nes­day, Oct.31, at 80 years old.

McCovey be­came the 16th player in base­ball his­tory to be elected to the Hall of Fame in his first year of el­i­gi­bil­ity thanks to a ca­reer that fea­tured 521 home runs, six All-

Star ap­pear­ances and one MVP award. Those ac­com­plish­ments are all noted on McCovey’s bronze plaque at Coop­er­stown, but they didn’t need to be echoed in front of hun­dreds of fans who ar­rived at AT&T Park Thurs­day.

The Gi­ants com­mu­nity fell in love with McCovey the player for his smooth swing and quiet con­fi­dence, but they idol­ized McCovey the man for the way he car­ried him­self.

“I have never been around a more hum­ble man,” 1989 Wil­lie Mac Award win­ner Dave Dravecky said. “I have never been around some­one who lifted up oth­ers around him more than him­self. I’ve never been around a man who loved so deeply and cared so much about wear­ing the Gi­ants uni­form.”

With leg­ends such as Wil­lie Mays, Barry Bonds and Or­lando Cepeda in at­ten­dance Thurs­day, Gi­ants CEO Larry Baer said no player “has ever been more beloved in our com­mu­nity than Wil­lie McCovey.”

McCovey was one of five Hall of Famers in­clud­ing Hank Aaron and Ozzie Smith born in Mo­bile, but he was the first Hall of Famer to start and fin­ish his ca­reer play­ing for a club based in San Fran­cisco. Though fans around the Bay Area trav­eled to Seals Sta­dium and Can­dle­stick Park to watch McCovey play, his god­son Jeff Dudum said McCovey once re­fused his re­quest to con­sider mov­ing to the East Bay.

“I’m a Giant,” McCovey told Dudum. “What would my fans think if I lived over in the A’s ter­ri­tory?”

Even af­ter his re­tire­ment in 1980, McCovey re­mained a pil­lar of the San Fran­cisco com­mu­nity and at­tended nearly ev­ery home game at AT&T Park. His de­sire to con­nect with fans never wa­vered, as he of­ten en­ter­tained guests who stopped by to share mem­o­ries of watch­ing McCovey play in his suite dur­ing games.

“Stretch McCovey was more than just a great base­ball player, he was a San Fran­cis­can through and through,” mayor Lon­don Breed said. “A man of in­cred­i­ble warmth, hu­mil­ity and kind­ness. And that made him one of our most beloved cit­i­zens.”

McCovey’s de­ter­mi­na­tion to re­main a fix­ture in the com­mu­nity into his re­tire­ment en­deared him to fu­ture gen­er­a­tions of play­ers and fans, but those who knew the left-handed slug­ger best shared some of their fa­vorite mem­o­ries from his play­ing days.

For­mer out­fielder and Gi­ants man­ager Felipe Alou re­called beg­ging McCovey to play win­ter ball with him in the Do­mini­can Repub­lic, only for McCovey to say he felt home­sick and ex­press a de­sire to re­turn to the United States. Alou sal­vaged the sit­u­a­tion by mov­ing in with him and the duo wound up room­ing to­gether in the mi­nor leagues, too.

Cepeda de­scribed the scene when he and McCovey ar­rived the same day to try out for the Gi­ants in Mel­bourne, Florida, in the late 1950s. They both com­peted for rep­e­ti­tions at first base, but coaches even­tu­ally asked Cepeda to move to the out­field to make way for McCovey.

A con­flict could have arisen and a ri­valry might have de­vel­oped, but Cepeda said McCovey was too kind to let that hap­pen. Even­tu­ally, they lived next door to each other in San Fran­cisco and en­joyed spend­ing evenings in North Beach lis­ten­ing to jazz mu­sic.

“What he did on the field, ev­ery­body knows,” Cepeda said. “But as a hu­man be­ing, Wil­lie McCovey was very spe­cial. He was very quiet, he didn’t say much, but he had a big heart.”

Bonds wasn’t listed on the of­fi­cial pro­gram as a speaker, but felt com­pelled to ad­dress the crowd about a man he called “Un­cle Mac.” The hit­ter who helped make McCovey Cove fa­mous by launch­ing balls into the bay echoed a pop­u­lar sen­ti­ment: He wanted to play just like him.

“I idol­ized Wil­lie Mays, but I was born left-handed and my first glove was left­handed,” Bonds said. “So as much as I al­ways wanted to be like Say-Hey, I stretched like Mac.”

It wasn’t just McCovey’s love for the game that res­onated so widely, but his gen­uine love for life.

No one brought that love to life quite like Gi­ants broad­caster Mike Krukow, who gave the fi­nal re­marks Thurs­day. Be­fore he spoke, Krukow called the seven other Wil­lie Mac Award win­ners in at­ten­dance to stand be­hind him in the mid­dle of the di­a­mond.

The pitcher-turned-broad­caster took the au­di­ence on a jour­ney from his child­hood in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia where he prac­ticed run­ning around the bases af­ter a home run just like McCovey did to the ex­pe­ri­ence of watch­ing McCovey in­ter­act with fans as he left the ball­park.

With a cane in hand, Krukow shared the in­spi­ra­tion he took from see­ing McCovey roll out of games in a wheel­chair and even­tu­ally on a bed, smil­ing the whole way to the exit.

“I would watch him and I would hold my cane,” Krukow said, while paus­ing to fight back tears. “And I would say, ‘I want to be like him.’ “

It’s a feel­ing that will con­tinue to echo on the shores of McCovey Cove for years to come. Though few can swing like McCovey or stretch like McCovey, his ex­tended fam­ily will carry on his mem­ory by try­ing to be just like him.

ANDA CHU/TRI­BUNE NEWS SER­VICE

Hall of Famers and for­mer Gi­ants play­ers Wil­lie McCovey, left, and Wil­lie Mays share a laugh dur­ing a cer­e­mony to re­tire Hall of Famer and for­mer Gi­ants player Monte Irvin's num­ber in San Fran­cisco on June 26, 2010.

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