SAN FRANCISCO -- How lucky I was to see Willie McCovey hit a home run in the first Major League game I attended (if you're curious, he smoked it off Pirates left-hander Bob Veale in the fifth inning on May 24, 1969 at Candlestick Park).How incredibly fortunate I am to
SAN FRANCISCO -- How lucky I was to see Willie McCovey hit a home run in the first Major League game I attended (if you're curious, he smoked it off Pirates left-hander Bob Veale in the fifth inning on May 24, 1969 at Candlestick Park).
How incredibly fortunate I am to have covered baseball for most of the last three decades, a journey which led me back to the team I embraced as a youth, thus enabling me to meet McCovey and conduct multiple pinch-me-I-must-be-dreaming interviews with him.
So maybe it was predictable that my professional detachment occasionally abandoned me on Wednesday when McCovey passed away at the age of 80. I fought back tears as I finished interviewing Dave Righetti, started to sniffle toward the end of a chat with Ken Henderson and sobbed as I completed a voicemail message to Darrell Evans. I immediately apologized to Evans when he returned my call, but he would have none of it.
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"We're all feeling that way," Evans said.
Every opportunity I've received to write about Willie McCovey has been a blessing -- even this piece and Wednesday's, which were prompted by his death. They've provided opportunities to revisit his greatness, to revive memories for his fans and inform those who never saw or met him what made him special.
Interviewing the man who did so much to shape my love for the game was pure joy. Often, I'd learn something completely new. And why shouldn't he have been a fount of information, as one of the few Major Leaguers to have played in four decades?
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Me: Willie, what do you recall about Juan Marichal's big league debut (a one-hit shutout against Philadelphia on July 19, 1960)?
McCovey: Well, it's kind of hard for me to comment on that game, since I was the guy who was sent down when Juan got called up!
He'd cite factoids that were more intriguing than trivial. "Did you know that Orlando was signed as a third baseman?" he asked me during a brief chat about Orlando Cepeda. Look it up: In 1955, Cepeda's first professional season, he played 118 games at third for a pair of Class D affiliates. Then Cepeda moved across the diamond.
Familiar statistics show that McCovey and Ted Williams, another tall, slender, left-handed batter of renown, each hit 521 home runs. But only McCovey could reveal the deeper bond between the two legends.
"He was really my mentor as far as hitting," McCovey said, reminding me and the San Francisco Chronicle's John Shea last December that the Giants and Williams' Red Sox both trained in Scottsdale, Ariz., for a time. "I talked to Ted a lot. For some reason he kind of took a liking to me. We were always kind of the same in stature. I used to ask him about bat selection."
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McCovey was fiercely proud of helping the game evolve as the influx of African-Americans and Latin Americans raised the overall level of play. From 1960 through 1985, the National League dominated the All-Star Game, winning 25 of 29 Midsummer Classics with one tie. When I asked McCovey to explain the NL's supremacy, his tone conveyed a hint of annoyance: "We had more black players, man!" In fact, during various half-seasons, black and Latin standouts such as McCovey, Cepeda, Roberto Clemente, Dick Allen, Frank Robinson, Ernie Banks and Billy Williams would be left off the NL All-Star squad, so deep was the league's pool of talent.
I knew that McCovey liked teasing people gently (He began one phone interview by asking, "Is this the Chris Haft?"), but I didn't realize until that aforementioned talk last December how much he liked to laugh. It wasn't belly-busting, thigh-slapping laughter, but instead soft chuckling that indicated he relished his memories. Examples:
Recalling a long discussion he had with St. Louis legend Stan Musial about hitting, McCovey said, "I think he went out and got five hits that day. Heh-heh-heh."
On whether he ever felt as if he was in Willie Mays' shadow: "Well, I was. Ha-ha-ha."
On being sent to New York for knee surgery during the 1957-58 offseason and meeting Mays for the first time: "A lot of people don't know, but I stayed at Willie's house in New York when I was just a teenager. Heh-heh-heh."
On that particular surgery: "I think that was the first of many. Ha-ha."
That exemplified another of McCovey's singular traits: The ease with which he maintained dignity and grace despite the numerous physical woes that progressively betrayed him. He never complained about his deterioration. He chose instead to focus on the blessings life had brought him.
This leads to a final aspect of McCovey's personality that ought to be known: He loved you. That's you, the fan, who weathered his early inconsistency, reveled in his rise to future Hall of Famer and clasped him to your heart when he returned in 1977 from his three-year exile to San Diego.
"I'm still amazed how much you can touch people and how much you mean to them," McCovey said last December. "I don't know how to explain it. I've met people who tell me, 'You were the only reason my grandmother or somebody lived the last few years, because of you.' Things like that, you listen to it, and you wonder, God, that's amazing.
"It's flattering to still be thought of in that vein when you've been here for so long. Sometimes you fade away from the people. At least I haven't faded away."
Chris Haft has covered the Giants since 2005, and for MLB.com since 2007. Follow him on Twitter at @sfgiantsbeat and listen to his podcast.