How incredibly sad to hear that Willie McCovey is no longer with us. His death Wednesday at age 80 was not unexpected. It was still crushing news, for all who loved and admired him. And that was a big club.
Yet I do feel good about one thing. McCovey died knowing he will never be forgotten in the baseball world — and especially in Northern California. McCovey once told me that he was truly worried about that, strange as that might sound.
The unique relationship I had with the man began at a construction site. He was not even there at the time. I was. And I believed McCovey’s name should be there, too.
This was back in 1999. The Giants’ new home, AT&T Park, was being built in San Francisco. I happened to be driving past the project. I knew there was going to be a statue of Willie Mays in the main plaza. However, nothing was planned to recognize McCovey.
That needed to change. Mays was the greatest San Francisco Giant. McCovey, though, was the most beloved. As I motored up Third Street that afternoon, I noticed how the waves of China Basin were lapping up against a walkway beyond the right-field wall. I thought it would be much better to have McCovey’s name on that piece of water.
A few strident newspaper columns later, the Giants and San Francisco bought my idea. McCovey Cove became a reality. Then it became a scene, a phenomenon. Then an institution. Just the way I had hoped.
And yes, we would talk about that.
“It’s gotten to the point now that I just don’t feel like it’s me,” McCovey said during one of those conversations. “It’s just a thing, you know, called McCovey Cove. People ask me, ‘How do you feel, seeing your name mentioned so much like that?’ I’ve kind of gotten numb to it, like it’s not really me. You know, it’s an honor. But it’s like when I see something on television about me … it’s hard to get into your head that it’s you up there. That’s hard to explain to people.”
Well, it is if you are a humble human being. McCovey qualified on an expert level.
As a teenager in the Midwest, I never quite believed the stories about McCovey actually being more popular than Mays in the Bay Area. How could that be? Mays was the greatest Giant ever, perhaps the greatest baseball player ever.
Then I grew up to become a sports journalist and met both men. I immediately understood.
Mays and McCovey grew up in the segregated south. They had legitimate reasons to carry chips on their shoulders. But only one of them seemed to do so. Mays was a baseball genius but often a contrarian. He was accessible to fans or writers strictly on his terms. You would ask Mays a question about apples and he might answer with a cranky dissertation on oranges. McCovey erected no such barriers. If you approached him with a question or request and he believed that you were sincere, he was open for business with a genuine earnestness.
Also, as any longtime local fan will tell you, McCovey was the first non-inherited Giants star. Mays had moved west with the team from New York in 1958. McCovey came up from the minors a year later and went 4 for 4 in his first game at Seals Stadium. A few days later, he hit two homers in a game. The love affair commenced and never ended.
You can read his remarkable career statistics elsewhere. But more than any numbers, this quote from former Los Angeles Dodgers manager Walter Alston captures McCovey’s reputation: “When he belts a home run, he does it with such authority it seems like an act of God.”
Given all this, McCovey Cove was a natural idea. Just before it was dedicated, we met for lunch. I promised that I would never write about our exact conversation. So I won’t. But I’ll always treasure that day. We were not close friends. And because of my very small role in his life, I did get to spend some pretty cool moments with him.
The coolest of those moments occurred the day before the 2007 All-Star Game in San Francisco. McCovey allowed me to tag along with him for the home run derby ceremonies. About an hour before it began, we were in the office of Giants equipment manager Mike Murphy. Mays was there, too. So was Frank Robinson. I did the math. There were 1,767 career home runs in that room. None were mine or Murphy’s.
At such times, a good reporter knows to just shut up and observe. And you could tell how much Mays and Robinson respected McCovey just by how they became quiet when he spoke. They laughed as McCovey described one of his home runs that landed on an electric transformer beyond the fence at old Busch Stadium in St. Louis and short-circuited the power for a while. And there were headshakes of admiration when McCovey told the story of depositing another homer into a municipal swimming pool across the right-field wall at Montreal’s old Jarry Park.
Later that afternoon, McCovey received a standing ovation when he was introduced to the AT&T crowd. He proudly strode to the third-base line using the arm braces he needed to walk because of his troubled knees. Then he unhooked one brace so that he could raise his left arm and wave, before settling into a special easy chair near the home dugout to watch the derby.
Those damn knee problems were McCovey’s ongoing misery, a vestige of his playing days. The knees developed arthritis. He underwent experimental surgery to shave off a portion of his bones. It failed. McCovey received artificial knee replacements but developed a staph infection in one and was bedridden for months while it was treated. He never did recover totally.
There were other heartbreaks. After his retirement as a player, McCovey had been employed by the Giants as an instructor and community representative. But he was swept into a federal income tax controversy regarding card-show income that took a long while to sort out and settle. Then came the medical issues. The result was, when Peter Magowan’s ownership group took over the team in 1993, McCovey somehow slipped through the cracks. Mays, Orlando Cepeda and Juan Marichal were utilized as famous faces of the franchise in public roles. McCovey wasn’t.
At the time, this was what sparked McCovey’s concerns about being forgotten — as he confided to me shortly before the Giants also erected a statue of him on the shores of his Cove.
‘’It looked like I was being left out on a lot of the things going on with the Giants,” McCovey said. “There might have been a misunderstanding. I don’t like to open up a can of worms. I don’t know if it was intentional and don’t want to accuse anyone of anything. But if I was left out, it isn’t that way anymore. The ice has finally been broken.’’
More like smashed. The rest of his life, McCovey was a venerated guest at AT&T Park, as he should have been. He would ride in a golf cart through the corridor beneath the lower deck to the clubhouse for visits. He would ride the elevator up to a suite and watch the games. He would appear on the field to present the annual Willie Mac Award for “best exemplifying the spirit and leadership” shown by McCovey during his career.
So depressing to know he won’t be at those presentations again. But the Cove will always be there. And he understood that completely, thank goodness.
‘’Let’s face it,” McCovey told me once in an emotional moment. “To know there’s going to be something left behind after you leave with your name on it, it’s all you can ask. I thought it was an honor when the Little League field in Woodside was named after me, but this is even better. The only people who know about that are the people in Woodside. Everybody will know about this.’’
When I re-read that quote, I get emotional myself. Rest in peace, humble legend.