And then there is Willie McCovey. Just when it seems the professional sports world is peopled exclusively with greedy cynics for whom such words as "loyalty" and "sentiment" are as alien as an inscription on the Rosetta Stone, along comes a McCovey to restore what remains of innocence. That there are such gentlemen on our playing fields is comfort enough; that Willie McCovey should be there at an age, 39, when he should be reaching for the pipe and slippers instead of a Louisville Slugger, is an unexpected bonus.
McCovey, playing every day after several seasons of mostly part-time work, has been driving in roughly a run a game for the San Francisco Giants and has a batting average of .314. Even more remarkably, he has been playing first base with youthful fervor, snatching errant throws out of the dirt and the skies with great flapping motions, flagging down potential base hits with regularity. And every now and then he will reach back and launch the sort of rocket that caused him to be one of the most feared power hitters of his generation. Of his 16 hits, four have been home runs and four doubles. His slugging average is .627.
Anyone who has hit as many home runs as McCovey—469 to date—has his athletic credentials in order. What sets McCovey apart from the ordinary run of ballplayer is his deep attachment to and love for his team. The Giants, he will say unabashedly, are "family to me." Although he agreed to the trade that sent him to San Diego three years ago, he was never comfortable in Southern California and he openly longed for a return to San Francisco. His despair was only partially assuaged when the Padres dealt him off to the Oakland A's last September. Still, McCovey never had any doubt that someday he would return to the Giants. It was, in fact, his understanding that he would simply put in two years in San Diego helping that struggling franchise attract some fans. His duty performed, he would come home again. "I thought I'd be free to call my own shot," he says, "but the people down there must not have thought I was serious. They wanted too much for me and a deal with San Francisco was never made."
He finally got home on his own hook as a free agent. This spring he checked in to the Giants' training camp as a non-roster player, but his confidence in his ability to make the team never wavered. Not everyone was so sure of him. In 71 games with the Padres last year he hit only .203 with seven homers, and in 11 late-season games with the A's he hit .208 with no extra-base hits and no runs batted in. It looked to many baseball people as if a brilliant career was at an end. Joe Altobelli, the new Giants manager, was not one of these. He and McCovey had a long talk before spring training about his chances. "Joe gave me the impression he wanted me," says McCovey. "He more or less assured me that unless I completely fell on my face, I'd have a job." Still, that job looked to be a part-time one—some first base, but with a primary responsibility as a left-handed pinch hitter.
May 1, 1977
McCovey reported to spring training in peak condition. His weight was down to 215 pounds from 230 or more at the end of last season and his arthritic knees were troubling him less than they had in "10 or 12 years." He had an outstanding spring and won sole possession of first base, a position he had had pretty much to himself throughout his career with the Giants. "He earned every bit of it," says Altobelli. "He is just a super individual. Each day I admire him more."
McCovey is elated. "I've never felt I belonged anywhere but here," he says. "Putting on a San Diego uniform seemed strange to me. It didn't feel like mine. It didn't feel like my team. I'd been in the Giant organization for 19 years. I couldn't really get away from the team. I'd always look at their box scores first in the paper and I'd find myself hanging around with ex-Giants wherever I was. Like I said, it's like family. I've continued to live in and around San Francisco. I expect I always will."
If there was any question in McCovey's mind about where he belonged, it was dispelled last September when he played in his first home game with the A's. "I got a standing ovation as I came to bat. I was deeply touched. I knew there were a lot of Giant fans in that crowd. I knew they were welcoming me home. I was just on the wrong side of the Bay, that's all."
He is on the right side this time, and Opening Day in San Francisco proved it. He was the last player to be introduced, and the response he elicited from a crowd of more than 40,000 reduced him to tears. For several minutes the fans stood and applauded him. Not in many years—probably not since he left—had there been so much noise in Candlestick Park. McCovey is beyond argument the most popular player in the history of the San Francisco franchise. Willie Mays was admired, but he was the creation of New York. McCovey's career began in San Francisco. He settled in quickly and became a part of the city, a popular speaker, a willing participant in any team promotion, in any civic event. He had a natural dignity and modesty that charmed the citizenry in ways Mays never could. It seems more than merely coincidental that in McCovey's first three games at home this season the Giants drew more than 100,000 fans, nearly a sixth of what they attracted all of last season. The cheering had begun again.
"It had all been pretty routine until then," McCovey said last week. "Spring training was the usual thing. But Opening Day—that was something. I knew then what it felt like to be a Giant. I knew then that there is still some loyalty around." And if you are a Giant fan, it is good to have a loyal guy like Willie McCovey around again.