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Buster's return could echo McCovey's

SAN FRANCISCO -- It's a Giants home opener that emotion will etch in memory. A beloved hero will return after an extended absence and receive a prolonged ovation from the fans, whose souls are stirred not just by the man's skill but also his significance.

When San Francisco entertains Pittsburgh on Friday at AT&T Park, the affection will be showered upon Buster Posey.

In 1977, the adoration was reserved for Willie McCovey, who rejoined the Giants after a three-year hiatus spent mostly in San Diego.

Since baseball is so steeped in tradition, its present often echoes the past. That's particularly true for the historically rich Giants, whose current stars perpetuate the memory of their legendary predecessors. When Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain or Pablo Sandoval reaches a milestone, they inevitably prompt mention of Juan Marichal, Gaylord Perry or Willie Mays.

The Posey-McCovey parallel is different. Assuming he can weather a case of the shingles, Posey will perform in his first regular-season game at AT&T Park since severely injuring his left leg last May 25. He's not matching any of the accomplishments that propelled McCovey into the Hall of Fame.

But Posey, during his 165-game Major League career, has inspired the passionate following among fans that made McCovey arguably the most popular Giants star since the franchise moved to San Francisco in 1958. Posey's introduction alone -- either in pregame ceremonies or upon his first plate appearance or both -- will give fans a chance to release the ardor that they've stored since the catcher's horrific home-plate collision. AT&T Park patrons cheered Posey loudly during an April 2 exhibition against Oakland, but as McCovey predicted this week, "I think it'll be even more so on Opening Day."

"The fan support ever since my first day in the big leagues has been amazing," Posey said recently. "Just thinking back over my rehab process, all the support the fans have shown -- seeing signs at games, well-wishes all the time -- that means a lot."

Fans also associate Posey with success. He precociously rose to prominence in 2010, winning National League Rookie of the Year Award honors while helping the Giants win the World Series. Seeing him in the batter's box or behind the plate will awaken the fans' dreams of glory.

That's partly why people cheered McCovey so enthusiastically upon his return in 1977. His 15 distinguished seasons in San Francisco (1959-73) were preserved in their memories. During McCovey's absence from San Francisco, the Giants finished 226-259. But fans could embrace the club again after he rejoined them, for he personified the era when the team was a talent-laden perennial contender.

Moreover, the appeal of Posey and McCovey transcends on-field achievement. They share an earnestness that's endearing to fans and teammates alike.

Asked to explain Posey's charm, Giants right-hander Sergio Romo said, "I just think it's his overall general respect for everybody -- for life itself, for the game, for the business, for the job, for the organization, the team. There isn't something about him that isn't professional, that doesn't command respect. He carries himself with confidence and he's a good person. He's very considerate of others. He's direct. High-five to his parents, you know what I mean?"

McCovey himself echoed Romo's sentiments.

"He comes across as being genuine, very humble," McCovey said of Posey. "And even at his young age (25), he comes across as being a leader. I think the players look up to him. Even the players that were here before him seem to look up to him. That means a lot."

Of course, McCovey remains universally admired. Everlasting tributes to "Stretch," who retired in 1980 with 521 home runs, include the Willie Mac Award, given annually in a vote by teammates to the Giants player who best embodies McCovey's competitive spirit; the portion of San Francisco Bay beyond AT&T Park's right-field wall known as McCovey Cove; and the statue of McCovey beyond the cove, capturing the follow-through of his powerful swing.

"I don't think anybody would challenge, historically, Willie McCovey's popularity and the way people feel about him," said Pat Gallagher, the Giants' former marketing guru who began his tenure with the club in 1977. "He really does stand alone in that. People love him. He's a man of few words, but when he says something, people listen. His coming back in 1977 brought some hope and dignity back to the team, which frankly we really needed."

Posey has been likened to a budding Derek Jeter, the New York Yankees shortstop widely considered the ultimate professional among current players. Some have compared Posey to Will Clark, the former Giants first baseman whose intensity was unrivaled. But maybe Posey, who has dealt uncomplainingly with his leg issues, more closely resembles the stoic McCovey, who ignored Candlestick Park's chilly conditions and his own knee problems while appearing in more games (2,256) than any other San Francisco Giant.

"Buster Posey represents everything you want to have in a star," Gallagher said. "There are a lot of elements in his personality that are comparable to the way Willie McCovey carried himself. He just wanted to go out and do it. He appreciated the fanfare but certainly didn't seek it."

McCovey displayed this trait before the home opener against the Los Angeles Dodgers on April 15, 1977, when he jogged from the dugout to the first-base line as the Giants were introduced individually. The Candlestick crowd of 37,813 delivered an ovation which both the San Francisco Examiner and San Jose Mercury News described as "thunderous." The latter newspaper added that the applause for McCovey "lasted several minutes."

McCovey recalled this week that he felt "excited" and "nervous" before that game. But the fan reaction comforted him.

"You appreciate how much the fans missed you and loved you," he said.

Chris Speier started at shortstop for the Giants that afternoon and scored their only run in a 7-1 loss. McCovey's return was San Francisco's biggest highlight.

"I would have been surprised if it had not been that generous [of a reception] by the people," said Speier, now Cincinnati's bench coach. "From a pure baseball side, Giants side, organizational side, nobody deserved the accolades more than McCovey."

Now it's Posey's turn. Having endured the unscheduled interruption in his career, he'll allow himself to bask in the game's pleasures -- such as the fans' adulation -- however briefly.

"To me, it's still about winning. It's about winning as many games as you can," Posey said. "But I guess from a personal standpoint, I might try to soak up those moments a little bit more, just seeing how quickly it can be over."

San Francisco Giants, Willie McCovey, Buster Posey