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Goodbye Willie Mac. You were so much more than your swing

A look back at the remarkable Willie McCovey, San Francisco Giants slugger

Willie McCovey, San Francisco Giants slugger, died October 31, 2018, at the age of 80.
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Willie McCovey, San Francisco Giants slugger, died October 31, 2018, at the age of 80.

It was June 6, 1971 on the kind of sunny Sunday that makes San Francisco seem magical, even on the northbound 101.

My father was driving me to Candlestick Park from San Jose for my first big league game — between the Giants and Philadelphia Phillies — and I expected nothing less than the best day of my young life. I was 8 years old, newly smitten with a sport I still love and still impressionable enough to believe some men were more than men, some men were heroes, deserving of awe.

Willie McCovey did not disappoint. I felt awe the first time I laid eyes on him: No. 44.

By the time Big Mac’s life intersected with mine on that day, his best years as a player were behind him.

He had been the Most Valuable Player of the National League just two years before, in 1969. In the six seasons before I first saw him, McCovey’s annual home run totals were mythical: 39, 36, 31, 36, 45, 39.

McCovey made the iconic last out in a 1962 World Series loss to the New York Yankees. I was born weeks after and spent my early years as a fan being regaled about the glory years I had missed. I came of age hoping that I could catch even a little glimpse of that magic.

Now there he was on the field, with his back to the concourse where I stood, his number and his 6-foot-4-inch frame marking him as one of the greats.

He became a Giant in the second year the franchise was based in San Francisco, in 1959. He was an instant sensation, the Rookie of the Year, and a quiet leader of a generation of African American players who smashed Jim Crow-like restrictions in baseball before Jim Crow laws were struck down in society.

Big Mac did his talking on the field. It was said that Northern Californians adopted McCovey as their favorite — even over the great Willie Mays — because McCovey came of age with the Giants by the Bay.

I remember the buzz in the galleries when McCovey strode to the plate. Older people at the ballpark leaned forward in their seats and as a fan, it was my first brush with that intoxicating sense of anticipation that trails exceptional players. My first year as a fan would be the last year of those great Giants teams of the 1960s that won more regular season games than any other franchise that decade, but didn’t win the World Series.

The Giants were broken up soon after, and McCovey played elsewhere for a few years, but then he came back.

He got a second act and those of us who saw it were reminded why our elders would lean forward in their seats in anticipation. He was National League Comeback Player of the Year in 1977, when he revived his flagging career by hitting 28 home runs as a Giant.

The year I saw him, he only hit 18 home runs. He would never hit 30 home runs in a season again. In that seminal first day in the ballpark for me, McCovey struck out in a big situation.

But I didn’t care. McCovey was so much more than his home runs. The awe he inspired in fans was deeper. It was the man. It was his dignity, his quiet humanity, his triumph over the prejudices of his day.

Though baseball is a game of thousands of rules, none dictates why fans fall in love with certain players. In some ways, the affection for McCovey was incongruous. He was raised in segregated Mobile, Alabama., which was a world apart from the urbane San Francisco that McCovey adopted as his home.

McCovey was never a big talker. He rarely strayed from the topic of baseball. His private life was private. He was quiet and dignified. When he hit those thrilling home runs he let them speak for themselves. In the absence of ego, McCovey’s fans formulated their stories and their own reasons for loving Willie McCovey.

In nearly 60 years since, McCovey marked the passage of time for everyone in the Giants community. “Willie Mac” was always present at games an in hearts, no matter how frail he’d become. You couldn’t imagine the Giants without him around.

But now we must.

When we learned of McCovey’s death, at 80, just before sundown on Halloween, my mind and soul went back to that moment 47 years ago when I first saw him play live. That was easier and happier than considering a future where we speak of McCovey in the past tense.

I knew this day was coming, but I’m still not ready for it. And if this baseball death hits you deeply, its because you are of a certain age. Your youth is as fleeting as Willie Mac’s life.

When McCovey was the best power hitting first baseman in the National League in the late 1960s, he and the people who loved him and followed him could focus solely on that monstrous left handed-swing that was good for 521 career home runs and enshrinement in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Younger people might have a harder time understanding the depth of emotion that marked McCovey’s passing.

Whole generations have only known McCovey as a wheelchair-bound living monument to a game of the past, a shadow of the statuesque power hitter he was in his day.

They know that when hitters launch home runs into the water beyond right field at AT&T Park, the waterway is called “McCovey Cove.” They know the statue of McCovey — in full swing — is on the banks of the waterway. They know the coveted annual award for the most inspirational Giants player is named after Willie Mac.

But I know a hero just became a legend.

McCovey belongs to the ages.

If my children ever ask me why McCovey was so important to so many people, I will I say, “The first time your dad saw Willie McCovey was the first time he ever felt awe in his life. And he never experienced that feeling quite the same way again.”

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