Padecky: Goodbye to a gentle Giant, Willie McCovey

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I waited for the day, but it never came. I waited for the day in which Willie McCovey took a swing, made contact and the baseball just exploded, disintegrated, a blowy puff of leather pieces, the victim of all that raw fury and power. Though it never happened, I still felt sorry for the pitched baseball. Even if it came from the hand of Bob Gibson.

No, no, no, I imagined the baseball was saying. Not him. I’ll take Mickey Mantle instead. Or Hank Aaron. Or Ted Williams. Those guys hit me far, but they don’t hit me as hard. Reggie Jackson? Like getting hit with a pillow case. This guy gives me a headache.

Willie Mac is gone, but to those who saw him, or those who love YouTube, he will never go. The memory of movement is there, the big swing, kinda loopy but smooth, so swift it could create its own weather system. Willie Mac, a peaceful man, a gentle man, took all his size and enthusiasm and made his bat angry.

Oh my, if only Warren Spahn knew, how Willie Mac took that swing and played him. How McCovey was deceiving the great Spahn.

“Lemme tell you how I set up pitchers,” McCovey told me one day before a game at Candlestick Park.

Excuse me? I replied. Pitchers set up hitters, not the other way around. “I set up pitchers,” McCovey said, “but only the good ones.”

Spahn was his example. Spahn won 363 games, more than any left-handed pitcher in history. Spahn humbled left-handed hitters. McCovey, a lefty, had no problem pretending Spahn humbled him. Key word: pretending.

“With someone like Spahn,” McCovey began, “you knew it would be a low-scoring game. You knew Spahn was going to pitch late into the game. So I started in my first at-bat.”

Started what?

“Found a pitch I liked but swung and missed it,” McCovey said. “Guys like Spahn don’t forget a pitch that gets hitters out.”

Willie Mac said it was like an art form. His swing had to look authentic. His frustration had to appear real. He had to appear fooled. For a quiet man, who kept his emotions concealed, this took some practice in the batting cages. Not an actor by nature, McCovey became one.

“Then I’d wait until I came up with the game on the line against him,” McCovey said. “I’d wait and go deep into the count and not look good doing it. I knew he’d remember that first at-bat. He’d throw that pitch to get me out. I knew he would but I was sitting on it. Then I’d hit it.”

Sitting in front of his locker at the ’Stick, I tried to grasp the enormity of the skill needed to set up a first-ballot Hall of Fame pitcher. I told Willie Mac I couldn’t.

“I know. I know,” McCovey said softly.

Right then, I knew why McCovey was and is the most popular Giant in San Francisco history. He didn’t mock, shrug with indifference or otherwise dismiss the interviewer like a recalcitrant interloper on his genius. That’s the way McCovey treated everyone. He was a true gentleman.

Yes, of course, Willie Mays was the talent, a legend even in his 20s. In my 40 years covering Major League Baseball I never saw a better player. Willie was the instinctive genius. “I see the ball, I hit the ball.” It was that easy for Willie.

But Mays was not always a gentleman. He didn’t always have a smile on his face. Willie could be rough around the edges. San Francisco never truly embraced Mays because, in small part, he never truly embraced them. Mays was always given a wink-and-a-nod because no one knew what it was like to be The Greatest Player To Ever Play The Game.

We remember what it’s like to live with such attention. The greatest player of his generation — Barry Bonds — was indifferent, surly, aloof, rude, seemingly unhappy most of the time. As Mays grew older he softened, mellowed. He would sit at a table in the middle of the clubhouse, available for player inquiries, playing cards, wanting to be a part of things.

Willie McCovey never had to make such an adjustment. He was the same way in retirement as he was as a player. Often in a wheelchair in a side room off the clubhouse at AT&T, Willie Mac rolled in by himself and it wasn’t long before writers, players, club officials came in to say hello.

As I recall, I don’t think I ever passed that room without sticking in my head and saying, “Hey, Willie.” It was the respect he received without demanding it. That’s how one could tell McCovey was beloved — people were always kind to him. Fawning, sometimes.

Would have been unconscionable to think of was someone yelling at McCovey. When he entered upright holding a cane, he didn’t have to say “Make a hole!” People would move to the side and create a lane of safe passage.

I only saw such reverence once. In San Jose, as Muhammad Ali made his way through a card show, shuffling from Parkinson’s, the crowd parted as the ones closest placed a gentle hand on Ali’s shoulder. As if touching a deity.

That’s how I’ll always remember Willie Mac. A man who people treated with reverence. This is the response we would prefer to treat all our superstars, but they are found wanting much too often. Sure, the digital techie age shrinks the privacy of athletes. Would a Willie McCovey of today bristle from internet trash, omnipresent vile whispers and a life that never sleeps because the 24/7 news cycle won’t let it?

Nope. Willie McCovey’s backbone was made of sterner stuff. The last 20 years of his life, when his movements became increasingly restricted, he didn’t lose his humanity. He showed up in a wheelchair. He engaged.

When a famous athlete becomes infirm, the athlete oftentimes hides from the public. Ego is shattered. Whispers lead to embarrassment and embarrassment leads to seclusion. They fade from us and it’s easy to see and understand why. A nod of acknowledgment they deserve.

Willie McCovey never hid. He was out there for us, in the good times and in the bad times. He never whined, called himself a victim, threw a pity party. Because of that, he never left us. He never asked for a crowd but the crowd always found him. They knew why they came. We all knew why they came.

Willie McCovey made us feel welcome. He had time for everyone. He was a supernova talent whose feet never left the ground. A gentle man with the angry bat, the man was not a contradiction. He was a blessing.

To comment, write Bob Padecky at

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