If you listened to KNBR the day after Willie McCovey died, you heard us play an unforgettable four-minute stretch of audio from June 29, 1980.
It was the day Willie McCovey made a fan base weep with joy.
He came out of the dugout as a ninth-inning pinch-hitter, in a tie game, one week before he would retire from his Hall of Fame career, to beat the Dodgers with an emotional wallop of a game-winning double.
“We Want Willie! We Want Willie!” over 50,000 fans chanted at Candlestick Park.
They chanted for minutes, fueled by love and nostalgia and joy. The chants never stopped, until 42-year-old Willie McCovey, tall, regal, aged, in a snow-white home Giants uniform with black cursive script “Giants” across the front, the letters outlined in orange, his long legs topped by a black-and-orange hued waistband, the No. 44 on his back, came out to doff his cap.
Thirty-eight years later, at AT&T Park, Willie McCovey made a fan base weep again — this time with melancholy and memories.
His farewell service on Thursday marked the end of his life, a life lived so well as a son, a father, a teammate, a connective thread to generations of San Franciscans; the day marked the end of his life as a Giant.
Willie Mays was there. Barry Bonds was there. Buster Posey was there.
McCovey linked the legends, from New York, to Seals Stadium, to Candlestick Park, to AT&T.
Orlando Cepeda was there. Gaylord Perry was there. Felipe Alou was there. The mayor of San Francisco, London Breed, was there. Jack Clark was there. McCovey’s beloved Bay Area family the Dudums, were there. Joey Amalfitano was there. Kruk and Kuip were there. Former Willie Mac Award winners — Nick Hundley, Dave Dravecky, Marvin Benard and Tiny Felder, who brought his award with him — were there.
If you were a Giants fan, even if you weren’t there, you were there.
Mike Krukow said it beautifully. He said that for every McCovey story told by Cepeda, Perry, Dravecky, Alou, Amalfitano, Bonds, that if every fan was given a microphone, he or she could tell a McCovey story, too.
What would yours be? I know you have one.
Why was McCovey so beloved? You could try to enumerate. The 521 home runs helped. The golden era of the 1960s, when the Giants won so many ballgames, helped. His return engagement from 1977-1980 certainly helped, when he was able to imprint his career on a whole new generation, those of born in the 1960s.
Perhaps more important, it was his sweet nature that engendered love. A honeyed Southern accent soothed the ears. Stories of McCovey treating strangers kindly were legion. A shyness and quietness to his personality offended almost no one. The word so often mentioned by his teammates — humility — was a huge reason.
But love is mostly undefinable. It’s an amalgamation of things, and whether it’s a home run to win the game, or the jaw-dropping sight of the most vicious left-handed swing you ever saw, or a chance encounter with a gentleman from Mobile, Alabama who became a lifetime San Franciscan, the love for Willie McCovey came in waves and never stopped until his dying day.
Even past his dying day.
Amalfitano pounded the lectern when he said Willie McCovey will live forever. Not a soul present doubted it.
At the close of the ceremony, the video screen showed the images from June 29, 1980 with Lindsey Nelson’s call of the game-winning double layered over it. The combination was powerful. Candlestick Park, with its chain-link fence, with its raucous fans, was alive at AT&T, just for a few moments. And then, a breathtaking sight — the video of McCovey coming out to doff his cap to the 50,000 chanting “We Want Willie! We want Willie!”
I don’t think I’d ever seen the video. It was a time warp of baseball and childhood and the Giants and . . .
There he was. Tall. Proud. In the home uniform. Waving his black-and-orange cap, then walking slowly back to the dugout.
Willie McCovey. Alive forever.