Lowell Cohn: Peter Magowan left indelible mark on San Francisco sports scene

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Peter Magowan kept the Giants in San Francisco, saved the great baseball team for the great city. That’s all you need to know. Although there’s much more.

Previous owner Bob Lurie, a good man, in some ways an innocent man, would have allowed the Giants to relocate to Florida. You know that. Ancient history. Blood under the bridge. But Magowan stepped up to the plate in 1993 — a baseball metaphor, his favorite kind — put together an investment group which bought the Giants, and paid a fortune for Barry Bonds which gave the lowly Giants stature and credibility.

And then he built the ballpark in 2000. That ballpark. Did it with private funds, almost unheard of at the time. The most beautiful park in the major leagues if you include the setting on the bay, views of sailboats, views of Oakland and the East Bay hills, glittering jewels in the sparkling sun.

And Magowan did all this because he loved ball. He was Eddie DeBartolo Part II. He already was rich, didn’t need the team as an investment or a retirement vehicle. He saw the Giants as a sacred trust under his care and that’s how he treated the team. Something sacred from his past.

He grew up in Manhattan and was a Giants fan and mourned when they moved west. And then he moved west after them and took to them all over again — falling in love the second time around. For him the Giants were a calling, never a job.

The Giants don’t have their three world championships without him. They don’t have the ballpark or all those fans or all those sellouts or all the buzz or Bruce Bochy, who probably would have gone someplace else. Everything you love about the Giants today, right now, Magowan bequeathed you.

May I call him Peter? Now that he’s gone after fighting cancer for years, I’ll call him Peter.

We did not like each other at first, Peter and I. Two aggressive New Yorkers, two verbal guys who saw interaction as conflict. At first, that’s how it was. First time I met him, we were in his office in Oakland at Safeway headquarters — he ran Safeway at the time. The office was surprisingly small with a shabby couch. “This is where the Safeway emperor works?” I asked myself. Before I even sat on the shabby couch, he was scolding me for something I wrote. I don’t remember what it was. He held out the article like Exhibit A in a murder trial. He thrust it at me. He had marked it in red like my third-grade teacher. And he overwhelmed me with his insistent words. He had graduated from Stanford and studied at Oxford, was hard to argue with.

As he lectured me, I noticed his hair. I wanted that hair. Like a movie star’s, and there was something of the star about him. Elegance. Confidence. Self-assurance. I wanted that, too.

When he took over the Giants, I criticized him in print. Said he didn’t know as much baseball as he thought, should leave things to the professionals. Maybe I was right. Maybe I wasn’t. There were tense phone calls between us.

Dusty Baker’s contract was nearing its end. I was told Baker had a codicil in his contract mandating an extension. I phoned Magowan, asked about the codicil. He was surprised I knew. Said that was the problem the Giants had with me. I didn’t know what the problem was. Probably general obnoxiousness, for which I plead guilty. Baker got his extension.

But I always knew Peter had done something special. Made the Giants who they should have been all along. Added to the glamour of San Francisco. Made a franchise worthy of the city. Acted with the best motives. And I always kept that in mind.

People criticized Peter for Giants players taking performance-enhancing drugs, for what Barry Bonds did to himself. It’s a fair criticism. Some say the Giants forced Peter out because of scandal. Peter said, no. Said it was time to move on.

Sure, Peter did screw up on drugs. All of baseball screwed up. Look at the Oakland A’s. But Peter’s contribution to local sport, to local culture was overwhelmingly positive. No asterisks. No second thoughts. No counterarguments.

After he retired, we saw the good in each other. We made up. We hugged when we met. We saw each other at San Francisco City Hall in April 2017 when the city dedicated a mural to Dwight Clark in the redeveloped Candlestick Park neighborhood.

Dwight, already gravely ill with ALS, waited in a private room before the dedication. Peter and I were talking alone in the rotunda when Joe Montana and his wife, Jennifer, walked over. Peter told Joe he had tickets to a Giants game. Would Joe want them? Heck, yeah. Peter reached into his pocket and handed the tickets to Joe and Jennifer like someone dispensing Halloween candy. Joe and Peter, two old friends communicating through sports.

When the Montanas left, Peter told me he took 20 pills a day to keep him alive.

“Can you imagine that, Lowell? Twenty pills a day,” he said.

I said he looked good. That made him happy. Then out of left field, he said the Giants needed a left fielder. “When I ran the club, we would have had a left fielder by now,” he said.

Still keeping his hand in. Still opinionated. And the Giants, who surely needed a left fielder, lost 98 games that year. They needed a lot.

Last time I saw Peter, it was at the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame dinner later that year. Carmen Policy was being inducted and had invited me. When it was all over, the speeches, the tributes and the food, I was walking out and saw Peter ahead of me. His posture wasn’t good. Looked like he lugged a 30-pound backpack on his shoulders. Bad health wouldn’t keep him from attending the banquet. He was a pillar of San Francisco sports. And he was devoted.

I called his name. He turned around. Smiled. We hugged. His wife, Debby, was there. The three of us chatted. He smiled the whole time. A contented man. Happy with where life took him. And then he walked off, and I meant to call him, I really did, but life got in the way. And now he’s gone.

God, I’m glad we made up. God, what a loss. RIP, Peter.

You can reach Lowell Cohn at lacohn@aol.com.

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