Wil­lie McCovey, gen­tle(man) Gi­ant

San Francisco Chronicle - Late Edition (Sunday) - - SPORTING GREEN - ANN KILLION

For a cer­tain gen­er­a­tion — my gen­er­a­tion — Wil­lie McCovey was our Gi­ant.

The fa­vorite. The beloved. The larger-than-life base­ball idol. We were the ones who were too young to really re­mem­ber Wil­lie Mays as a real-life Gi­ant. Maybe we had heard his ex­ploits on the ra­dio as lit­tle chil­dren, had seen the oc­ca­sional tele­vised game, were told tales by our par­ents, but Mays wasn’t our first­hand ex­pe­ri­ence. He was Gi­ants lore, just like McCovey’s line drive to Bobby Richard­son in 1962. Things we knew about but hadn’t seen for our­selves.

Still, even in those early days, our par­ents talked about the Wil­lies in two dif­fer­ent ways: Mays was idol­ized, McCovey adored.

Maybe that’s be­cause McCovey was a San Fran­cisco Gi­ant through and through, ar­riv­ing in 1959. We’re a provin­cial folk — we like the ath­letes we think we “dis­cov­ered,” those who weren’t first anointed by New York.

But it was also be­cause any­one who ever came in touch with

McCovey — and, back then, San Fran­cisco was a much smaller place and ath­letes were far less in­su­lated from the real world — had the same ex­pe­ri­ence. McCovey was one of the nicest peo­ple to ever walk the Earth, not just onto a ball field.

A year af­ter Mays was traded, in 1973, McCovey was traded to the Padres. He, too, seemed to be sealed away in his­tory for my gen­er­a­tion. It looked like his ca­reer might be end­ing af­ter the Padres sold him to the A’s in 1976.

But then, in 1977, McCovey re­turned to the Gi­ants, with­out a guar­an­teed con­tract, earn­ing a spot on the team. And sud­denly part of that revered Gi­ants lore was my gen­er­a­tion’s very own. “Stretch” was back. A leg­end that we ac­tu­ally got to see and ex­pe­ri­ence.

He re­turned to a Gi­ants team that had lost its way from the star-filled days of his orig­i­nal ten­ure. In the three sea­sons prior to his re­turn, the Gi­ants had fin­ished out of first by 30, 27½ and 28 games. For much of the early 1970s, they had ceded Bay Area base­ball rel­e­vance to the Oak­land A’s.

McCovey played most of his fi­nal 3½ years on so-so teams. There were good play­ers on those teams — Bill Mad­lock, Dar­rell Evans, Jack Clark, John Mon­te­fusco.

But there was only one leg­end. Only one gi­ant of a Gi­ant. It was a thrill to see that tall pres­ence at first base or at the plate. To know that a lit­tle bit of Gi­ants’ glory was ac­ces­si­ble to my gen­er­a­tion.

The night he died I was at a Hal­loween party with friends, peo­ple of my era. Ev­ery­one spoke of McCovey as though they’d just lost a friend. Be­cause, you know what? They had. A sta­ple of their youth­ful sum­mers and fond mem­o­ries.

As a re­porter in the Bay Area, I even­tu­ally be­came ac­cus­tomed to see­ing my child­hood idols hang­ing around at the ball­park, of­ten in club­house man­ager Mike Mur­phy’s of­fice.

One of the dark sides of be­ing a sports­writer is meet­ing a player one wor­shiped as a kid. Too of­ten they can be rude, crass, dis­mis­sive or ar­ro­gant. All of us in the busi­ness have tales of dis­ap­point­ment.

But McCovey was ev­ery­thing he’d al­ways been por­trayed as — a gen­tle, hum­ble man. There are very few ath­letes of his im­mense tal­ent who fit that de­scrip­tion.

De­spite the dis­com­fort McCovey was clearly in for many years, he al­ways had a smile on his face. De­spite the ef­fort it took to get to the ball­park, he was there as of­ten as he could be, and clearly took joy from the ex­pe­ri­ence. And the fans and cur­rent play­ers took joy from see­ing him there.

I love McCovey’s line af­ter he made the Hall of Fame in Coop­er­stown. He was asked how he’d like to be re­mem­bered. “As the guy who hit the ball over Bobby Richard­son’s head in the sev­enth game,” McCovey said.

My lim­ited ex­pe­ri­ence with him was that he didn’t mind talk­ing about that heart­break­ing mo­ment. It was part of Gi­ants lore, and he was a liv­ing piece of that his­tory. At the same time, I’m not sure that all of the play­ers in uni­form got any more de­light out of the Gi­ants’ three World Se­ries cham­pi­onships than did McCovey. He had been car­ry­ing the bur­den of that Game 7 loss for a long, long time.

Be­cause he was al­ways there, shar­ing a tale and a smile, gen­er­a­tion af­ter gen­er­a­tion of Gi­ants play­ers un­der­stood ex­actly what it meant to vote on, or even bet­ter to re­ceive, the Wil­lie Mac Award. There is no higher honor.

Be­cause there has never been a bet­ter Gi­ant.

Fo­cus on Sport / Getty Images 1970s

The Gi­ants’ Wil­lie McCovey awaits his turn at the bat­ting cage in spring train­ing in Phoenix in the 1970s.

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