Indulge me - one of my heroes died yesterday

in reality, all of this has been a total load of old bollocks
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sloopjohnc
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Indulge me - one of my heroes died yesterday

Postby sloopjohnc » 01 Nov 2018, 16:16

I know we post about our musical heroes when they die and I never get too upset about these. Music means a lot to me, but I don't know why. Only two musicians dying has really affected me: John Lennon and Willy Deville. Maybe because I can still enjoy their legacy on record.

I reserve my sentimentality more for my sports heroes dying. As anyone who's spent some time with me on here knows, sports are a very important part of my life. Some people think that's silly, but it's the basis for almost all of my longest lasting friendships. Playing football, basketball, baseball, boxing, track and field, swimming and water polo and following my home teams, and sports in general, mean a lot to me and has been a constant bond with me and my best friends.

Last night, a friend called me who I haven't talked to in 20 years. Our conversation went elsewhere, but it started out talking about our mutual love of Willie McCovey.

Yesterday, Willie McCovey died. McCovey played first base for the Giants when I fell in love with baseball and McCovey and Mays, the two Willies, were heroes to every San Francisco Giants fan around my age growing up. Mays was quicksilver, known as the greatest living ballplayer, now in his 80s, and McCovey was the gentle giant, one of the most fearsome sluggers to ever walk the planet. Next to Gehrig and Ruth, Mays and McCovey were probably the greatest 3 and 4 hitters on one team baseball has ever seen. And I got to watch them!

Dodgers manager, Walter Alston, said watching McCovey hit a home run was like "watching an act of God." And the best pitchers in baseball said watching McCovey come to the plate struck fear into them. Bob Gibson, arguably the best pitcher of his era, said McCovey was the "scariest" hitter he ever pitched against. McCovey led the NL many times in intentional walks, a statistical sign of respect that other teams gave him. McCovey is fourth, all time, in receiving intentional walks.

As a young athlete, I watched McCovey to learn how to bat, run, and field, and tried to emulate him. But unconsciously, we watch our sports heroes and take in how they handle their triumphs and their adversities. Some players can be ungracious in victory and petulant in defeat. McCovey was equanimous whether he hit a towering home run to win a game or stuck out. He gave the game, opposing players, and his teammates the respect they deserved or didn't deserve, sometimes.

As a kid, my dad used to take my brother and me to bat day, where they gave out real bats to kids (they don't do that anymore). One year, I got a 28 oz bat with Willie McCovey's autograph on it. I used that bat for two years in little league and truly believe it had McCovey magic in it when I walked to the plate. Confidence is a big part of athletics, apart from skill, and whatever I lacked in skill, that bat gave me back in confidence. When I cracked it on a foul ball, I didn't cry during the game, but did when I got back home. It was like Roy Hobbs' "Wonderboy" bat to me, if you've ever seen the movie, The Natural.

That confidence my bat gave me was due to Willie's baseball career. McCovey won the NL Rookie of the Year Award in 1959 and he had double-digit homers in 17 consecutive seasons to start his career, making the All-Star team six times. He had seven 30-homer seasons, hitting 44 in 1963 and 45 in 1969. In 1969, he won NL MVP and in 1977 he won Comeback Player of the Year, returning to the Giants after short stints with the San Diego Padres and Oakland A's. He also has 18 grand slams, the highest in the history of the national league. He finished his career with 521 home runs and 2,211 hits. And this was during what's commonly known as the "dead ball" era, where pitching dominated the game, leading to baseball eventually lowering the height of the pitching mound to give hitters more of an advantage. He was voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame his first year of eligibility.

Some BCBers have been to the Giants baseball park. McCovey was a left handed hitter and there's a statue of him outside the stadium overlooking what's known as McCovey Cove on the right field side of the stadium. Very strong left handed hitters can actually hit home runs out of the park into San Francisco Bay, where kayakers fight for prized home run balls. It's a literal monument to his prodigious strength as a hitter.

As a player, teammate and competitor, the Giants issue the "Willie Mac" award every year to the San Francisco Giant player who coaches and their teammates deem the most inspirational. You can't just be a great player to get this esteemed award, you have to be an inspirational player on the field and in the clubhouse. Even up to this last season, McCovey used to show up at the park when they gave out the award, with past winners showing up too, showing the team and winners what the award means and the legacy it provides.

Next year, Willie won't be there at the ballpark to give it out. The world is a sadder, less pleasant place today without Willie McCovey in it.

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Six String
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Re: Indulge me - one of my heroes died yesterday

Postby Six String » 01 Nov 2018, 17:02

What a wonderful post John. I don't know doodly squat about a lot of baseball stuff and didn't know much about Willie Mc but he sounds amazing even in this day and age of PEDs. No wonder they named that cove after him.

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Re: Indulge me - one of my heroes died yesterday

Postby toomanyhatz » 01 Nov 2018, 17:29

I know you're always disappointed in my lack of enmity towards the Giants, John, but McCovey was, in all seriousness, one of my very favorite players ever. The memory of him contorting his bulky body to catch errant throws at first (where he got the nickname "Stretch") is an indelible childhood memory.

RIP, big man.
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Re: Indulge me - one of my heroes died yesterday

Postby sloopjohnc » 01 Nov 2018, 17:34

toomanyhatz wrote:I know you're always disappointed in my lack of enmity towards the Giants, John, but McCovey was, in all seriousness, one of my very favorite players ever. The memory of him contorting his bulky body to catch errant throws at first (where he got the nickname "Stretch") is an indelible childhood memory.

RIP, big man.


Koufax was one of the last guys to visit him recently.

I play up my Dodger hatred with you a bit on here. A bit.

McCovey's last appearance was at Dodger stadium. He hit a sacrifice fly to win the Giants the game.

The Dodger fans knew it was McCovey's last game and when the game ended cheered for McCovey so loud and long he had to go out and acknowledge the fans with a tip of his cap.
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Re: Indulge me - one of my heroes died yesterday

Postby Charlie O. » 01 Nov 2018, 17:38

Lovely, John.
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Re: Indulge me - one of my heroes died yesterday

Postby never/ever » 01 Nov 2018, 20:13

My first ever baseball game was a Giants-gane when I visited San Francisco in 1987 and was taken there by a family whose son had stayed at my home as part of an exchange program. They all are mad Giants-fans and I remember the mother telling me about McCovey as being one of her favorite players growing up. She remembers him as the BFG and was pretty much swept up in the game partly because of him.
Seeing the portrait yesterday on ESPN I can see what she meant.

Great post John. Sad loss for the Giants-family.
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sloopjohnc
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Re: Indulge me - one of my heroes died yesterday

Postby sloopjohnc » 01 Nov 2018, 20:24

Funny Casey Stengel story, one of the true characters of the game.

He was managing the NY Mets, who were notoriously bad, and went to the pitching mound to visit the pitcher as McCovey was coming to the plate.

Ol' Casey asked the pitcher, "You gonna pitch him lower deck or upper deck?"

Meaning, whatever they pitched, McCovey was going to crush it.
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Re: Indulge me - one of my heroes died yesterday

Postby LeBaron » 01 Nov 2018, 22:00

Great post, John. I thought of you immediately when I saw the news. He was a little before my time, but I’ve never seen or heard a bad word said about him.
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Re: Indulge me - one of my heroes died yesterday

Postby Davey the Fat Boy » 01 Nov 2018, 22:27

McCovey was a giant in every sense of the word.
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Re: Indulge me - one of my heroes died yesterday

Postby sloopjohnc » 01 Nov 2018, 22:31

LeBaron wrote:Great post, John. I thought of you immediately when I saw the news. He was a little before my time, but I’ve never seen or heard a bad word said about him.


Thanks.
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Re: Indulge me - one of my heroes died yesterday

Postby Jimbo » 01 Nov 2018, 22:42

Wonderfully written essay. Not a baseball fan per se, McCovey's name is all I knew about the guy - barely - until I read this and now I want to watch him play, call my wife in when Willie comes up to bat. But he's gone. Sadly. Many thanks for this, Sloop.
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Re: Indulge me - one of my heroes died yesterday

Postby sloopjohnc » 08 Nov 2018, 21:52

Today, the San Francisco Chronicle published some readers' letters people wrote about Willie McCovey. Here are a few. . .

FRIENDLY TO KIDS

As kids, we would sometimes take five buses from east Oakland to Candlestick Park. (You wouldn’t let 12-year-olds do that now, but we had total knowledge of AC Transit and the Muni systems.) Postgame we would bus to Market Street to roam the stores before taking a streetcar to the East Bay Terminal. A “must stop” was Manny’s Coffee Shop & Bakery. My mother (for permission to go to S.F.) made me promise to bring her a loaf of Manny’s cinnamon bread, as it was no longer available in the East Bay. While standing in line waiting to pay, there behind me was Willie McCovey.

My buddies and I were too intimidated to say anything to this very large man. He broke the ice and said, “Hi, boys”. Asked us if we had gone to the game (we ALL had Giant hats on) so it was an educated guess. Also asked where we lived (replied Oakland). He asked how we got to S.F. and the game. Told him four buses and a streetcar. He offered to give us three kids a ride to the East Bay terminal. We accepted the offer and here’s Willie Mac driving us in the largest car I had ever seen (new Cadillac) to the terminal. A story for all of us to remember (and few of our friends ever believed).

Willie McCovey ... a class man and a real gentleman.

WOWING THE TEACHER

My mother, an Irish immigrant, the first in her family ever to attend college, graduated from S.F. State and was hired to teach fourth grade at Raphael Weill (on Buchanan off Geary) in the early ’60s. Tough school. First day, the toughest kid in the class, Jimmy, picks up a desk and throws it out of the second-floor window. He looks over at my mom and says, “What you gonna do?” Somehow she survives that fiasco, and a few months later, Jimmy is walking her to the car after school as a protector. One day he doesn’t show up. The kid has heard from a friend that his hero, Willie McCovey, lives in the penthouse of a building on Russian Hill. So Jimmy decides to walk over there. He finds the building, sneaks into the underground garage and climbs the stairs to the top floor, knocks on the door (simpler times!). McCovey answers, looks down and sees a 9-year-old boy smiling. He invites the boy in and makes him sandwiches.

At some point, McCovey asks Jimmy what he wants to be when he grows up. “I want to be a ballplayer like you.” “No,” McCovey says, “you don’t want to leave school like me. You want to go to college.” Later, McCovey drives Jimmy back to Raphael Weill and walks with the child into my mother’s classroom. He invites the whole class to a ballgame! And he stays in touch with Jimmy.

My mother loathed spoiled athletes, not to mention the American male obsession with sports, but she LOVED Willie McCovey; she followed his career and any mention of him in the media for the rest of her life. “A lovely man.”

MAC, THE DINNER GUEST

I grew up in Manteca, just south of Stockton. During the early 1960s, when the Giants broke camp at spring training, they would travel up the Valley playing exhibitions in Fresno, Modesto, and Stockton. When they got to Stockton, my best friend’s older sister just had to hang out at the Stockton Hotel, hoping for an autograph or two. She approached Willie, and one thing led to another and she invited him to her home in Manteca for dinner. He accepted.

My friend called me all excited and frankly, I didn’t believe him. But I showed up at his house and sure enough, a large limo showed up and Willie came to the door. We had roast beef and mashed potatoes with Willie sitting at the head of the table. He was such a delight and a real gentleman. My dad, who played professionally in the late 1920s and early 1930s for the Oaks, thought Willie was a no-good, lazy ballplayer. That lasted about five minutes after he, too, joined us for after-dinner and dessert and got to see the real gentleman.

I can still picture him sitting at the table, a large man with a larger heart. May he rest in peace.

DODGER STADIUM HONOR

Willie McCovey was an all-star in every sense of the word. I grew up in the ’60s in a suburb of L.A., surrounded by Dodgers fans. Nevertheless, when I was 8 I fell in love with the Giants and adopted “Stretch” as my favorite.

Childhood can be tough. My love of the Giants and Big Mac helped me through it. I followed every game, even through high school. I was at Willie McCovey Night at Dodger Stadium in 1978 — Willie was only the second non-Dodger to be honored with a “Night” — and my 40-year-old hero hit a home run! That was one of the best nights of my life. Thank you, Mr. McCovey, for all the great memories
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