To praise Willie McCovey, you start with the man

Class is a noun in the dictionary, but an adjective in sports. Right now I can't think of a better word to describe first baseman Willie McCovey of the San Francisco Giants, whose baseball warranty finally ran out last week after 22 seasons in the big leagues.

Normally when someone in public life retires, you mention his accomplishments first, and the Giants' slugger certainly had a trunk full of those. But with Willie you start with the man.

McCovey had a natural dignity and sincerity about him that simply could not be missed, even from the last row of the grandstand. To him the Giants were always home and his teammates -- well, family.

He had the kind of intense loyalty to the organization that first signed him in 1955 which seems to be fast disappearing from baseball. Sure he took vast sums of money out of the game, although that long ago ceased to be the main reason he played, if in fact it ever was.

Willie was always in shape mentally and physically. He needed spring training about as much as Van Cliburn needs piano lessons. As recently as this year, McCovey's stomach was so flat and hard that you could light matches on it. OK, so I'm exaggerating a little, but not much.

When reporters tried to get Willie to talk in depth about his retirement the last time the Giants were in Dodger Stadium, he seemed surprised that anyone would be interested.

What he told the media was this: "It was my own decision and I've been thinking about it all season. I've always said someday a kid phenom would come along who could push me out of there and -- well, it's happened." The kid is Rich Murray, the younger brother of the Baltimore Orioles' first baseman, Eddie Murray.

Without taking anything away from Rich, it's doubtful that his first season in the majors will come close to matching Willie's. McCovey hit .345 in 1959 en route to being named National League Rookie of the Year. He also slammed 13 balls out of the park in '59 which came down with snow on them.

McCovey, who batted left-handed, finished with as many lifetime home runs ( 521) as Ted Williams, 18 of which were grand slams. He is also the only player in major league history to hit two home runs in the same inning -- and he did it twice.

Since most National League pitchers were never able to uncover a permanent weakness in Willie's swing, they paid him the supreme compliment of always moving the ball around on him and by walking him more than 1,300 times.

Actually McCovey was never too particular about the dimensions of the strike zone. He always figured if he could reach the ball, he could probably drive it someplace where nobody could catch it.

That was another reason that opposing pitchers hated to see Willie come up with runners on base. They knew he could beat them by hitting their best or worst pitch out of the park. His strike zone was whatever he wanted it to be that day, and his bat, whether it actually was or not, always looked long enough to reach across Rhode Island.

Back in 1974, after 15 superproductive years in San Francisco, the Giants (on a youth kick) traded the most popular player in their history and that includes Willie Mays) to the San Diego Padres.

Although Willie gave San Diego his best shot, he was never happy there as a spot player, nor was a later 11-game stint with the Oakland A's satisfactory, although he was getting closer to the side of San Francisco Bay he loves best.

It wasn't until the Giants re-signed him as a free agent in 1977 (at age 39) that his batting average climbed from .206 the previous season to .280, and his home run total from 7 to 28. His return also had a marked effect on attendance.

Asked about his improvement at the time, McCovey replied that knowing he was going to be in the lineup every day was the secret of his success. This is an explanation that players in this situation have been using for years, yet in Willie's case it was probably quite accurate.

The Giants have already found a place in their organization for the warm strength of Willie McCovey. I only hope they realize they're going to have to give him at least one day off in about five years while he flies to Cooperstown to be inducted into baseball's Hall of Fame.

Of course McCovey belongs right now, except major league baseball has a mandatory five-year waiting period before it gives its heroes a chance at enshrinement.

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