As Willie McCovey sat in the San Francisco Giants' clubhouse at Candlestick Park last Friday, blissfully contemplating the start of his 20th major league season, he was approached by a curious figure attired entirely in red. A mechanical monkey clutching cymbals hung from the intruder's neck, and in his right hand the man held a kazoo. "I have a telegram for Willie McCovey," he announced, heralding his arrival with a kazoo chorus. "Are you that gentleman?" McCovey identified himself, and the stranger, from Grams-n-Gags Singing Telegram Service, began to warble, with simian accompaniment and more or less to the tune of Seventy-Six Trombones, "How d'ya do, Willie McCovey/ the Riviera Rats have asked me here/ to express best wishes to you...."
McCovey exploded with laughter. "That's from my fan club in San Diego," he told his teammates at the ditty's conclusion. "I used to live on Riviera Drive when I was playing down there. The Riviera Rats were my neighbors." Because the Padres were the Giants' Opening Day opponents, was it not odd that he should be celebrated in song by San Diegans? "Oh, no, they're just good friends. They root for me wherever I am," McCovey said. "I have fans down there. Nothing like here, though. This is something special. There's nothing really like it." True. Remarkably true.
Not many professional baseball players today are actually loved by their fans. Admired, certainly; encouraged, naturally; respected, possibly. But loved? Not on your life. People just do not go around loving guys with $3 million, 10-year contracts. And players these days are rarely considered integral to the life of the community they supposedly represent. How can they be when they constantly seem to be talking about playing out their options and "getting the hell out of this lousy ball park to someplace where they'll appreciate me"?
What truly sets McCovey apart from the run of modern athletes, then, is not so much that, at 40, he is the oldest of major league regulars but that in a time when cynicism is rampant in the clubhouses he embodies the ancient virtues of love and loyalty. He recalls simpler times, older sentiments—Enos Slaughter weeping at the news that he had been traded away from St. Louis, Lou Gehrig sobbing out his farewell to the Yankee faithful. During spring training last month McCovey was having dinner in a Phoenix restaurant with two fans, one nearly 70, the other in his teens. Both the man and the boy were wrestling with the anomaly of McCovey's wondrous popularity in a city, San Francisco, that has hardly clasped its baseball team to its communal bosom in recent years. "Maybe it's because you're such a nice guy, Willie," said the older fan. "I think people sense that."
McCovey is not one for hasty responses. Among his good qualities is a penchant for thinking before speaking. And his speech itself is distinctive; though there can be no questioning his impressive masculinity, he has the vocal mannerisms of an elderly Southern black woman. Speaking softly, employing homespun phrases, he is reminiscent of Ethel Waters in The Member of the Wedding. He considered the older man's compliment for a moment, set his napkin aside and said, quietly, "I would rather be remembered as a decent human being than as a guy who hit a lot of home runs. I love San Francisco and the people of the Bay Area. I think people there consider me a part of the city. San Francisco is identified with certain things—the bridges, the fog, the cable cars. Without bragging, I feel I've gotten to the place where people are thinking of me along those lines. I'd like to think that when people think of San Francisco they also think of Willie McCovey. It's where I want to be, where I belong. I hope the people there love me a little in return."
Do they ever! Traded to San Diego in 1974, McCovey returned home in triumph last season. When he was introduced with the rest of the Giants' starting lineup on Opening Day of 1977, he was cheered for a solid five minutes. When he stepped to the plate for the first time, there was another standing ovation. The applause continued all year long. It was an outpouring of affection unparalleled in the city's athletic history. And on Willie McCovey Day last Sept. 18, it achieved idolatrous dimensions. If McCovey harbored even the faintest doubt about his place in the life of the community, it was quickly dispelled by this love feast. Newspaper editorials extolled him, television news programs recapitulated his life story. Even academe joined the celebration with a paean composed for the San Francisco Examiner by San Francisco State University English professor Eric Solomon. "He has always been one of ours, as boy and man," the professor wrote of the player, "and he typifies San Francisco's ambiguous relationship to youth and age.... We all want to come to the edge of the Pacific, find success when young, and discover success again, gain another chance before it's too late.... In an era of hard, financially aggressive, contract-minded athletes, Willie McCovey seems free, kind, warm, the way we like to think of San Francisco itself, a bit laid-back, no New York or Chicago, cities always on the make.... Let New York have the brawling power of Babe Ruth, let Boston have the arrogant force of Ted Williams. Let us have the warm strength of Willie McCovey."
McCovey responded to this encomium with a splendid season. He hit 28 home runs, the most since he last played as a Giant. He drove in 86 runs and batted .280. He broke Henry Aaron's National League record for career grand-slam homers by hitting his 17th and 18th. He got his 2,000th hit. His 493rd home run put him in a 12th-place tie with Lou Gehrig on the alltime list. And because he had batted only .203 with San Diego and .208 with Oakland in 1976, he was named the National League's Comeback Player of the Year. It was the stuff that dreams are made of.
And now, at 40, he is prepared to do it again. "I can't rest on my laurels," he said after a strenuous workout at the Giants' spring training camp. "I have to approach this season the way I approached the last. People will be looking."
McCovey still hears it said that he is too old and infirm—he has arthritis in both knees and in his hips and is in more or less constant pain—to duplicate or even approach last season's feats. Such talk mildly irritates him—nothing severely irritates him—for, like many a middle-aged man of parts, he considers age merely a condition of the mind.
"A lot of it is up here," he says, tapping his hairpiece with long fingers. "An older player loses his interest before his body goes. I really think Willie Mays could've played longer. What he couldn't quite handle was coming down to the rest of the league from where he had been. He was so much above everyone else that it bothered him to know he wasn't still 10 times better than the rest of us. He couldn't handle that mentally, but he still had a super body when he quit. A guy who's been that good never really loses all of his ability. The only thing he does lose is his desire.