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The loss of Willie McCovey is incalculable

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Few players have ever bonded with a franchise like Willie McCovey did with the Giants, but don’t forget that it took a while.

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San Francisco was slow to embrace Willie Mays because there was too much New York stink on him, and I think about this often. For one example, at the end of the 1958 season, fans voted Orlando Cepeda the team’s best player in an Examiner poll. Cepeda hit .312 with a .342 on-base percentage and extremely rough defense; Mays had a .347 batting average, led the league in steals, and was Willie Freaking Mays in the outfield. Didn’t matter. Cepeda was 20 years old, just a pup, and that made him the perfect avatar for this strange, new San Francisco baseball team.

It was in this context that Willie McCovey emerged to become a fan favorite. This was how he overtook the greatest player in baseball history in popularity, and while I’ve always wanted to go back in time and yell at everyone for not appreciating Mays enough, I almost get it. What is sports if not a way to belong to an arbitrary, strangely important tribe? And if McCovey represented a new era better than the step-star from another coast, okay, fine, run with it.

And that’s the story of how Willie McCovey was always popular, always the face of Giants baseball, always a fan favorite.

Except that story is hokum.

Giants fans were hard on McCovey. At least at first. Think of all the rage and ire that’s spewed out on social media now, and now realize that wasn’t an outlet that existed back then. It had to be spit out somewhere, though, and McCovey took a heaping help of it.

Charles Einstein’s book about the 1962 Giants, A Flag For San Francisco, came out when McCovey was 24 and very much not a Hall of Famer yet. It doesn’t go in on McCovey fully, but it gets halfway there and lets you know that the fans had been there the whole time.

Yet McCovey stumbles by nature. At his best, he is a murderous hitter, a more than adroit fielder. Such are his physical construction and appearance, however, that the flicking one-handed grab, that converts into an out an errant through no other first baseman could reach, becomes an insouciant lack of effort if the ball is missed, juggled, or dropped. The impression takes the place of the reality. McCovey resembles a flamingo. The flamingo is by no means an ungraceful bird. But no flamingo was ever asked to run bases.

And if players are still fighting uphill against stereotypes in 2018, you know they were much further down the hill in 1962.

What was unsaid between (the author and manager Alvin Dark) was that McCovey, a Negro, invites the prototype reaction. In his case, the invitation is both objective and subjective. (Harvey) Kuenn, a white man, is not subject to that particular screen test.

Einstein later wrote that he meant to ask Dark what baseball did for for fall guys before there were black players in the majors. But he didn’t, and the hypothetical question was just left hanging there at the end of a chapter about McCovey, confirming that he was getting a raw deal from the media and the fans.

McCovey was getting a raw deal because he had the temerity to look awkward at times and also because he was slow to live up to his scintillating rookie year. After annihilating the National League with a .354 average in 1959 — hitting well enough to win the Rookie of the Year, despite getting just 192 at-bats — McCovey was good-not-great. He slumped so hard in the middle of his sophomore season that he was sent back to Triple-A for a short while. When he came back in September, he was fine, and in the following year, he was fine. But he wasn’t great, not yet, and the fans let him know it.

McCovey’s ‘62 season featured a strong offensive performance that helped the Giants win their first pennant in San Francisco, so you would think that would be the end of it. Except McCovey was an extreme platoon player that year, getting just 229 at-bats. In addition, he was in the outfield a lot that season, which was an inelegant solution, at best. He got more at-bats in ‘63, but the outfield defense was still rough. So even when he was hitting, there was something for the cynics to grumble about.

In 1964, McCovey hit .220, and his outfield defense was as bad as ever. His problems were both physical (a foot injury) and emotional (the death of his father that January). By that point, McCovey’s career looked like this:

  • Two great-but-abbreviated seasons
  • Two good seasons that were obscured by a low batting average, a stat that meant a whole lot more back then
  • One dreadful season

The dreadful season in question was the most recent one in this timeline, and it’s worth remembering that he’s playing the outfield because Orlando Cepeda was on the team, and that’s who was considered the most popular player on the Giants. So look at those bullet points again, and remember that only one player can play first. Remember all of the unconcealed racism that was impossible to escape. I can’t imagine how hard the fans were on McCovey. I can’t imagine how hard the writers were on him.

And yet.

That’s when McCovey put his head down and kicked some ass. Then he kept his head down and kicked more ass. When his arthritic knees made it painful for him to keep kicking ass, he winced in pain and kept kicking more ass anyway. For nine years, McCovey was one of the best hitters in baseball, except for the years when he was the best hitter in baseball. He was an MVP and a beloved Giant. Following the Cepeda trade, he was easily the most beloved Giant.

Then when the Giants fell into an open manhole in the ‘70s, they traded McCovey to the Padres because he was too expensive. The club was probably on its way to Toronto, anyway. That was the pot of gold waiting for him at the end of the rainbow. See you later. You make too much money, Stretch.

So after that struggle-success-and-jettison sandwich, it would have been easy for McCovey to be resentful, to treat the Giants and a vocal minority of their fans with the same fairweather temperament as he was treated. It would have been so easy.

Instead, he came back on a minor-league deal and gave the Giants another great season. To the fans’ credit, they got it by now.

In the Giants home opener, the ovation from the 40,000 fans, lasting several minutes, reduced McCovey to tears. “I knew then what it felt like to be a Giant. I knew then that there is still some loyalty around.”

McCovey stuck around for the rest of his life, a constant presence at Giants games. Forget the Coke bottle or the water behind the right-field wall: The coolest thing about AT&T Park had to have been that on most days, health willing, you could look up into a box and see Willie McCovey there, enjoying baseball because he wanted to be there. There was no reason for him to be anywhere else, apparently. What would be better than catching a Giants game on any given day? If the answer wasn’t “nothing,” McCovey kept it to himself, and we could all look up and remind ourselves that, yeah, there probably isn’t anything better than being at the ballpark right now.

And think about what McCovey must have seen when he looked out from that box:

He saw a beautiful ballpark, perhaps the most beautiful, that was the complete opposite of the cold, unfeeling gulag he played in.

He saw a championship team three times over, which finally helped peel the monkey off the back of every Giants player from the ‘60s, when the teams were often filled historically great collections of players who didn’t deserve to be also-rans.

He saw a fan base that didn’t think about New York vs. San Francisco, that didn’t think about the great McCovey vs. Cepeda debates, that weren’t even really aware of the platooning and injury struggles that marred the earlier parts of his career. They just knew Willie McCovey as Willie McCovey, a baseball icon, the continued face of the Giants, the legend with a statue on the other side of the body of water that carried his name.

It must have been so incredibly satisfying. Giants fans have been spoiled over the decades, but that all started when the franchise moved to San Francisco in the first place. They had Willie McCovey. Fans got to watch Willie McCovey for years, even if it took them a while to realize how special that was. It’s hard to get more spoiled than that.

So here’s to Willie McCovey, one of the greatest reasons anyone will ever have to follow a team and be in love with its history. It’s hard to imagine the park without him, but it’s always been hard to watch the park without him. Ever since the 1950s, he was Giants baseball. And he will continue to be Giants baseball for as long as this team and this sport exists. We’ll miss him so, so much, but we were all so incredibly blessed that he was ever here in the first place.

Rest in peace, Stretch. And thanks.