San Francisco may be the most cosmopolitan city in the world but conversation there tends to narrow down to two topics: the weather and Willie McCovey. No wind in the history of the world, not the mistral, not the monsoon, not the chinook, is so frequently described, so analytically dissected, as the wind at Candlestick Park. If Willie McCovey wasn't around to hit home runs off Don Drysdale, the wind is all that San Francisco would ever talk about.
As it is, when the Giants play the Dodgers and McCovey comes to bat against Drysdale, the crowd in Candlestick Park forgets for the moment that the banners on the twin flagpoles in center field are blowing in opposite directions. Faces peek out from wool blankets and upturned sheepskin collars. Eyes ignore the dust that has just blown into them and focus on home plate. Excitement murmurs its way through the crowd. Then Willie hits a home run, the crowd yells with delight and settles back to continue its seminar on the reasons why the wind appears to be blowing out of the first-base dugout.
It is a shame that McCovey is upstaged by the wind, because his relationship with Drysdale is one of the most endearing things in baseball. If it had happened a thousand years ago it would have been recorded in a saga, like Beowulf ("Then Tall Will strode unto the plate and faced the Drysdale, he..."). Drysdale is a superb pitcher. He has had a desultory season thus far in 1963, but last year he won 25 games and was given the Cy Young Award for being the best pitcher in the major leagues. He is, or was, particularly effective against San Francisco; he has won more games from the Giants than he has from any other club in the league.
McCovey, on the other hand, is just another erratic power hitter. He broke into the majors with a huge splash in 1959 and on occasions since has hit awfully well, but most of the time he has been no more than an ordinary ballplayer. But against Drysdale, McCovey is a left-handed hitting Paul Bunyan, a legend in a baseball suit. Unlike Bunyan, McCovey's feats are verified by statistics. He has been to bat against Drysdale 47 times in his career and has 22 hits for a .468 batting average. Nine of the 22 hits have been home runs, four have been doubles, one a triple. Bunyan never hit like that. Of course, Paul was not as big as Willie.
Last week the Dodgers tooled into San Francisco for a three-game series with the Giants and split the first two. Sandy Koufax, an epic himself, awed the Giants in the first game when he shut them out with four hits, and the San Francisco batters in toto awed the Dodgers in the second game by getting 11 hits and nine runs in five innings to take care of that one. Drysdale was to pitch the third game. Don is an extremely tall man who throws a very hard fast ball with a whiplike sidearm pitching motion that gives right-handed batters the impression that the ball is coming right at them. At first this impression seems a groundless, unreasoning one because Drysdale has excellent control; he has averaged less than two walks a game this season. But, though he does not walk very many batters, Drysdale does have this thing about hitting them. Over five seasons he has potted 73. The ball gets away from him, or something. Whatever the reason, Drysdale feels bad when he hits opposition batters (they don't feel too good themselves), and he always apologizes.
Last week in San Francisco a Giant front-office man, talking to a member of the Dodger camp and his wife just before the game Drysdale was to pitch, said pleasantly that he had just passed the Dodger clubhouse and that he could hear Drysdale inside practicing, saying, "Watch out! Sorry."
The Dodger man looked at him coolly.
He said he was distressed to hear that several of San Francisco's right-handed batters were feeling poorly and, indeed, that a couple of them would not be in the lineup against Drysdale. He commented on how curious it was that they always seemed to come down with something when Drysdale was scheduled to pitch.
The Giant official smiled an evil smile. "Everybody but McCovey," he said. "Willie feels fine."
The Dodger man paled and his wife wept.
In the first inning Willie came to bat against Drysdale with a man on second and one out. In the press box Jim Murray, the Los Angeles sportswriter, said, "First base is open. He could walk him." Murray was informed by a New York sportswriter sitting next to him that an intentional base on balls would be unwise, that the better move would be to pitch to McCovey. "After all," it was pointed out, "McCovey hits a homer only about once in every 15 at bats. That means you have odds, generally speaking, of about 15 to 1 in your favor."
It is possible that Murray did not hear all of this argument because Drysdale had pitched the ball and McCovey had hit it over the right-field fence. It was Drysdale's first pitch. If there is anything Willie cannot stand, it is a long, drawn-out discussion.
The Giants won that game, too, and then everyone went off to see what the St. Louis Cardinals and the rest of the league were doing. St. Louis had fattened on the New York Mets, grabbing the league lead while the two California clubs were chewing at each other. The Cincinnati Reds were coming on. The Chicago Cubs were holding up. The league race seemed to be moving into a decisive stage.
However, under the strange schedule ser up this year, San Francisco and Los Angeles, who played each other 11 times in little more than a month, will not meet again until the end of August. The pennant race could be all but settled by then and attendance may suffer (the 11 games between the Giants and the Dodgers in May and June drew nearly half a million people, an average of more than 44,000 per game). But don't bother Don Drysdale with these details. He couldn't care less. Let somebody else pitch to Willie McCovey.