San Francisco was McCovey’s city

 SAN FRANCISCO—This was Willie McCovey’s city, where he was idolized and also criticized. Just like San Francisco itself,

   Willie Mays would become appreciated for what he is; one of the three or four greatest ballplayers in history, but early on, Mays was treated as an outsider, coming from New York with the Giants in 1958.

  McCovey arrived a year later, directly from the minors, on an historical day in the summer of ’59 and then added another single and two triples. Monumental.

 What a career, deserving of his place in the Baseball Hall of Fame. What a man. McCovey would befriend every kid who came to his door.

   Willie Mac, the guy we knew as “Stretch" died Wednesday. He was 80. As am I. “Superman, Willie McCovey and you were all born in 1938,” my wife would chide, and I would wait for the punch line.

  But this is not a time for laughs in Bay Area sports. A few days ago, the nonpareil of a sports announcer, Hank Greenwald, passed on. Now one of the athletes whose achievements Greenwald described.

  San Francisco, the entire Bay Area still was transitioning from minor league to major league, seeking an identity, seeking its own heroes.  Orlando Cepeda was one of the first, en route to the Hall of Fame, and then, boom there was McCovey, in effect chasing Cepeda from first base and to the St.Louis Cardinals.

   This was at Candlestick Park before it enclosed, when there were bleachers in right behind a chain-link fence. The wind was strong. McCovey was stronger. He tortured righthanded pitchers, especially the late Don Drysdale of the Dodgers.

     The Warriors coach, Steve Kerr, was a kid in Los Angeles. He remembers listening to the Dodgers announcer, Vin Scully, call some of McCovey’s shots, slashing line drives.

   Another basketball man, Dave Bollwinkel, the onetime coach at  St. Mary’s and now a scout, remembers the day McCovey broke in. “I was 9-years-old,” said Bollwinkel. “I was at Candlestick that day. I won’t forget.”

 We won’t forget McCovey, whose name now is attached to the body of water that links the bay to China Basin near AT&T Park, overseen by his statue, “McCovey Cove.”

   He had wonderful times, a three-time National League home run leader, who was Rookie of the Year in 1959 and an the MVP in 1969. He had difficult times, especially after several knee surgeries left him unable to walk without crutches and kept him from golf, a game he played well enough to be invited to the Pebble Beach AT&T Pro-Am.

   Back in the day, the 1960s, McCovey was big, and a big target of an acerbic non-sports, sports columnist in the San Francisco Chronicle, Charles McCabe, “The Fearless Spectator.”  Willie didn’t like the figurative pounding, but he kept his cool.

  As he did when people mocked him for no reason other than his response to another Giants announcer, Lon Simmons, on the post-game shows. Simmons would pose questions that were set up for quick, positive answers, to which McCovey would say, “That’s right, Lon.”

  Did we hear that from every aleck? “That’s right, Lon,” we did.

  McCovey deep down was a gentleman, old-fashioned in his ideas about sports journalism. The long time baseball writer for the Chronicle was Bob Stevens, who should we say, took a biased approach, as was normal for the era.

  So one year, when I subbed for Stevens on a road trip, McCovey was critical of the umpires calls in a tight game. I enthusiastically scribbled a few words, and the story papered. Willie Mac was disillusioned.

  “I didn’t know you were going to write that,” McCovey told me.

 “But, Willie, you saw me taking notes.”

 “Yes, but Bob Stevens wouldn’t have written it.”

  McCovey wrote into our memory books. His line drive, not that high despite embellishment over the years, was grabbed by the Yankees Bobby Richardson for the final out of the 1962 World Series. So tough, for Giants fans, for McCovey.

“I don’t think anybody could have felt as bad as I did,” he told Karen Crouse of the New York Times years later “Not only did I have a whole team on my shoulders in that at-bat, I had a whole city. At the time, I just knew I’d be up in that situation again in the future and that then I was going to come through.”

  He never had the chance. But we were fortunate. We had the chance to see McCovey perform. Thanks, Willie.

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