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Mac and Me: Remembering my teammate and friend Willie McCovey

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When Willie spoke, you listened - and you were a better person for it.

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(L-R) McCovey, Bobby Valentine, D’Acquisto, and Marvin Miller, 1976; photo courtesy of the author

John D’Acquisto is a retired major league pitcher who pitched 10 seasons from 1973-1982. A former 1970 first-round pick of the San Francisco Giants, the southern California native played for six teams: San Francisco Giants, St. Louis Cardinals, San Diego Padres, Montreal Expos, and California Angels. D’Acquisto won a career-high 12 games in 1974, en route to winning the National League Rookie Pitcher of the Year with San Francisco. An accomplished Artist, John’s work can be found on his website and on Facebook; he is also an author of Fastball John with Dave Jordan (foreword by Dan Epstein). Dave has previously written for The Hardball Times and Sporting News is also the founder of Instream Sports, the first athlete-author website. Follow him on Twitter @instreamsports.

I was 19 years old, my first spring training game in a San Francisco Giants uniform, March 1971. We were facing the Chicago Cubs, a veteran ballclub with a number of future Hall of Famers and tons of talent on their end of the field, led by a manager in Leo Durocher who would use any advantage to beat you. Crowd of maybe 7500 fans. My nerves got the best of me in the first inning and then came the walks. I gave free passes to Glenn Beckert and Don Kessinger. I managed to fan Billy Williams and then Ron Santo stepped to the plate. Next thing I knew, Beckert stole third. Now I was rattled, especially by Beckert’s dancing outside the base line. I couldn’t focus on Santo. I should’ve just ignored Beckert because Santo had a great eye and knew how to work out a walk. I just couldn’t do it, though. With every pitch, Beckert made stomping sounds. Someone in their dugout made have even yelled out “He’s goin’.”

I calmed myself.

I toed the rubber.

I set.

He’s goin!!!”

I stopped.

Balk.

Beckert clapped obnoxiously loud as he trotted home. The Cubs dugout laughed their ass off and pointed at me. I was pretty embarrassed. They wouldn’t stop. “Muley” (Giants catcher Dick Dietz’s nickname) called time and jogged out to the mound.

You all right, kid?” he asked me. I nodded as the Cubs continued busting my chops from their side of the field. A moment later I felt this large presence approach me from behind. It seemed as though his shadow engulfed the entire mound.

“What’sa matter?” Wiliie McCovey, our first baseman, demanded to know.

“They’re busting his balls,” Muley answered, nodding to the opposing dugout.

“You don’t take that shit, Rook,” McCovey said softly, his back to the batter and umpire, rolling his eyes at Santo.

“Put that mother fucker on his ass.”

Muley flashed a knowing smirk, slapped me on the rear and went back behind the plate.

I gulped for a moment, “You want me to hit Ron Santo?”

“Mac,” as we called him, whispered two words in my ear before retreating to first base.

“Do it.”

I caught my breath and my next pitch was a 96-MPH heater stuck right in his rib cage. Santo fell like a ton of bricks. Muley stood up above him, grinning as he tossed me the ball. The laughter stopped instantly. I fanned the next two batters, glaring across the field as I walked off the mound.

Who was there to greet me as I entered the dugout? Willie Mac.

“That’s the shit I’m talkin’ about.”

That was Mac. He rarely said much, hardly ever cussed unless provoked, but when Willie spoke, you listened, and you did as you were told. McCovey held the respect of everyone in the Giants organization. Every March when I walked by him in the clubhouse for the first time at spring training, he would grab my arm and gently say, “If you ever have a question, don’t ask these guys, they’re just gonna pull your chain. You come and ask me and I’ll give you a straight answer. Understand? I’ll take care of you. You come talk to me.” And he didn’t mind me calling him Sir. He was a very sincere and honest, forthright individual. I gravitated to Mac because he was like my Dad – didn’t have a lot to say, but I knew he was there for me, for all of us. And I knew he would give me the support I would need when I needed it. I felt secure pitching in front of Mac, sensing his presence, always there to jog out to the mound and settle me with insights on guys like Willie Crawford or Ron Cey to get my eyes back to color, instead of being jet black with so much adrenaline flowing through my body, put his hand on my shoulder and just settle me, then retreat to his position, pat his glove twice and we were ready to go.

I spent three spring trainings with Mac and one incredible September 1973. After our workouts, I would watch Mac, Bobby Bonds, Garry Maddox play this card game “Bid Whist,” a dime a point. Marichal and Tito Fuentes would join in sometimes as well. This would lead to massive poker games, where some of the verbal barbs they were throwing at each other were just hilarious. Mac rarely said anything; he just dealt the cards, but when we did, he broke up the whole table in laughter with his dry sense of humor.

Willie was also the judge in our clubhouse kangaroo court, which sometimes occurred on the team plane. I remember one time we were flying out of Houston for a three-game set against the Atlanta Braves. I’m sitting next to Mac trying to catch a snooze – generally I was out all night running around with guys like Steve Ontiveros, who was my minor-league roommate that season and we were experiencing the Major Leagues for the first time together. So, I’m dozing off, Mac starts nudging me in the arm.

“That’s three dollars, D’Acquisto,” he said with mock-seriousness. “Court’s in session.” I would nod my head and then pass out again. “That’s five dollars, D’Acquisto.” The guys started laughing.

“Jeez, man, can’t a guy catch some shut-eye?”

“There’s no sleeping in the court,” Mac laughed, “Not while I’m the judge.” I would try to stay awake, but it was no use.

“Pay up now, because after this road trip, knowing you fellas, you won’t have it by the time we get home.” So I slowly reached into my pocket and paid. Mac laughed, shook his head and held out his palm, wigging his fingers. “Gimme a $10 spot now, ‘cuz you’re gonna nod off again in about five minutes and I’m gonna get your ass for the other two.” We had some great talks on those flights – when I wasn’t asleep.

1973 would be a pivotal offseason for the Giants organization. Attendance at Candlestick was close to the lowest in the National League, and as a result the franchise was losing money. It seemed to be more of a Bay Area issue than a Giants-specific issue, since even the World Champion Oakland A’s were having trouble getting fans to the ballpark, barely breaking the million mark at the gate, eighth in the league of 12 teams. Economic changes would have to been made on the Giants roster. We all knew Juan Marichal was going to be traded – that was all but certain – but Kingman just wasn’t ready yet, the outfield was set, third base was probably going to be a platoon between Ed Goodson and Onti. Gary Thomasson was the other first baseman on the team, a strong hitter for average, but he just didn’t possess Mac’s pop with the bat. We needed Willie for one more year. Sure, you’ll see on the back of the baseball card that Mac only had 383 at-bats in 130 games, but if you look closer, he had 495 plate appearances and even closer, 105 walks. That’s a .420 on-base percentage. Today’s baseball analysts would be celebrating those numbers as an elite performance. Mac batted .324 in 228 plate appearances during home games in ’73, also delivering a .478 OBP at “The Stick.” No one back then examined the numbers properly. The Giants of ’73 just looked at his .266 average and didn’t bother to dig deep into his production. On October 26, 1973, Willie was traded to the San Diego Padres. Due to the new 10-and-5 rule, Mac could’ve refused the trade, but assurances were made as to his salary and he decided that playing in the San Diego sun would do wonders on his legs. McCovey was traded for Mike Caldwell, a crafty left-handed pitcher who was highly regarded despite his 5-14 record, so valued that the Giants threw another player into the deal, minor league outfielder Bernie Williams. Giants fans were as crushed by this deal as much as the departure of Willie Mays a season earlier, and the Juan Marichal transaction with the Red Sox which would happen over one month later. Willie was still considered something of a box-office draw, at least to Padres management. “He’ll pay for himself,” Padres Team President Buzzie Bavasi said about the McCovey trade, “He might mean another 150,000 in attendance.”

Buzzie was right – their attendance shot through the roof, even with the exact won-lost record as the season before, from 611,000 to over a million coming through the gates. From 32k fans on Opening Day 1973 to over 39k with McCovey in the lineup for 1974.

There was also unsettled ownership in San Diego. The trade happened in the middle of a proposed move to Washington D.C. No one knew how this would play out, hell, even Padres manager Don Zimmer was in the dark about his future with the ballclub. When the proposed owner was talking choosing his new manager, he named 12 guys, and not one of them was ol’ Zim. He got the hint. The announcement of the managerial change was extremely quiet. We were at a golf tournament in Arizona that winter. An executive from another ballclub actually said to Don, “You guys got McCovey.” Zim was like, “Not me – them.” Hardly anyone in the league (or the media) realized Zimmer was out.

Growing up in that area and being heavily recruited by the San Diego Padres, I knew what Willie was walking into. Although the deal by many was thought to be complete (as many of you know, even TOPPS baseball cards delivered the initial printing of their 1974 set with the “Washington- Nat’l League” destination), but most of us on the inside felt the transaction was far from a done deal. Ultimately, local financiers were found, and the team remained in Southern California. McDonald’s pioneer Ray Kroc bought the ballclub, examined his roster as well as the Major League landscape and soon began a campaign to bring the Designated Hitter to the National League. Why wouldn’t he? The move was a major success on the Junior Circuit, preserving the careers of stars like Orlando Cepeda, Tony Oliva, Harmon Killebrew and Tommy Davis. Kroc also already had a slugger at first base in Nate Colbert, who was one year removed from a 38 HR-111 RBI-145 OPS+ season.

New Padres manager John McNamara’s plan was to hide the still only 28-year-old Colbert in left field on days Willie played first and hope for the best until Kroc could convince the other owners to accept a universal DH. The problem was that Colbert, who was a three-time all-star and the Padres first baseman their entire existence, felt slighted, his back issues rose again, and he suffered a terrible year in ’74, batting .207, which led to his departure after the season. You can make an argument that Bavasi turned out to be right about the McCovey trade from an economic standpoint. Attendance at San Diego Stadium shot through the roof, even with the same won-lost record as the season before, from 611,000 to over a million coming through the gates. Over 7,000 more fans came to Padres Opening Day with Mac penciled into the lineup in 1974 than ’73. Excitement over new ownership as well as innovative promotions certainly played a part, but it’s tough to deny McCovey’s presence in the renewed excitement for the young, floundering franchise.

Mac delivered a campaign of nearly identical numbers for San Diego, even coming to the plate 50 times less than in ’73. He scored one more run, hit seven less homers, but smacked 12 dingers on the road in 228 plate appearances, and still walked 96 times. Possibly Willie’s greatest accomplishment for the Padres was the nurturing of their prized possession, 1973 number one draft pick Dave Winfield, who spoke glowingly of his time with McCovey on Twitter recently. As for the man traded for Mac, Mike Caldwell? To a credit of the die-hard Giants fans, they never held the trade against him. Mike, who became one of my friends on the team, thrived in his new surroundings, going 14-5 with a 2.95 ERA, 130 ERA+ and the defensive support of all our teammates. But, boy did I miss Mac.

Kroc’s pursuit of the universal DH would last close to 16 months, where the vote on the matter occurred during the 1975 All-Star Game. National League owners voted aggressively against it. Kroc was annoyed by the ruling, and with the Padres’ continued struggles, began a slow transformation of the roster. With Winfield’s emergence from Mac’s trusting protection, Bavasi along with his son, Peter, another team executive, started making changes. Although McCovey enjoyed a solid second half of the ’75 season (.272/.366/.488 with a 142 OPS+), the Bavasi’s told Willie they were going to cut his salary from $125,000 per year to $100,000. This insulted Mac, but it wasn’t the end. During the winter meetings, that offseason, the Padres addressed their third base woes, trading two of their young arms to the Houston Astros for veteran third-sacker Doug Rader. What did this mean? The acquisition of “The Rooster” as he was called – got in Mac’s heart big time; then he knew he was on his way out. McNamara would be moving Mike Ivie to first base to “platoon” with Mac. Here’s where the politics of the business come into play. Ivie was the Padres number one draft pick in 1970, and even though it was five, six years earlier, a team never wants to believe that they wasted their top pick. People lose jobs over stuff like this. Mike Ivie was going to be given every single chance to succeed and make the organization look smart. How do I know this? Because I was picked in the same draft as Ivie, I was also a number one pick, and the Giants gave me every single opportunity to be the face of the organization. The point is, with this trade, Mac knew it was the beginning of the end of his time in San Diego.

So, here’s where it gets interesting. Spring Training, 1976. The San Francisco Giants themselves found a new owner in Bob Lurie. The team threw a party at the ranch of a minor investor in the franchise. A room filled with VIPs, season-ticket holders, advertisers, the whole nine, and all of us players. Me, Count, Caldwell, Gary Mathews, everyone. Three guesses who also walked through the door?

Mac. The room went nuts. Lurie’s a real sharp guy, sees the reception, has his ear to the ground, realizes he needs a drawing card for his new investment. The rumors begin.

A couple weeks later, I attended a labor meeting at a Phoenix hotel during Spring Training, where Marvin Miller discussed what we accomplished from the lockout. During the cocktail party afterward, Mac approaches me holding a beverage in his hand with a big smile on his face.

“I hear the boys are trying to get me back in town,” Mac says.

“Seems like the they’re trying to bring in all the old favorites,” I said. Made sense with Bill Rigney, the manager of the Giants from their first season on the West Coast in 1958 back at the helm, old Giants players like Jim Davenport on the coaching staff. Anything to get their fans through the turnstiles.

“Who would we have to give up?” I asked, sipping my beer.

“Heh-heh-heh, you don’t wanna know,” Mac said through his heavy laugh.

“What?”

Yup, yours truly. The Padres were making a concerted effort to bring me home to San Diego. Lurie ultimately passed on the offer. I was one year out of receiving the NL Rookie Pitcher of the Year award. Again, teams doing everything they can to justify number one picks.

So McCovey continues spring training in Yuma, Az with the Padres, 1976, after the lockout, where the true birthplace of Major League free agency occurred. Mac also decided to play the season for the Padres without signing a contract. He also found out that San Diego had invited Joe Pepitone, the legendary Yankees first baseman, to try out for the ballclub. He knows he’s platooning with Ivie already. What happens? Pepitone plays all of March with the team, got shipped out to Hawaii to get in shape. Another veteran first baseman lying in wait. So now that’s in the back of his head. There’s so much on his mind. Mac ended up batting .208 in 201 plate appearances during the first half of the season. He repeatedly tried to reach out to the Bavasi’s, to get an idea of where he stood with the organization, and they weren’t returning his phone calls.

Many observers believed Mac was finished as a competitive player after his 1976 season, but to me it was clear he was dealing with so many issues both with management as well as the lineup card that affected his production beyond old knees and older age.

Willie McCovey would end up coming to the plate just 50 times over the next two months for the Padres, ultimately being sold to the Oakland A’s, right before the September deadline, so at least if the team made the playoffs, Mac could participate in the postseason, still unhappy with the move. Mac didn’t report right away.

“I’m not sure I want to go at all,” he told the Associated Press. He did report, but his heart wasn’t into it, and his limited numbers reflected this.

Wouldn’t matter much. Willie wasn’t staying in Oakland. Finley just seemed to collect veteran players sometimes, seemingly on a whim – even ex-Padre Nate Colbert was on the A’s roster when Mac was there - especially with starters Gene Tenace, Joe Rudi, Sal Bando, Bert Campaneris and Don Baylor all playing without a contract. The other A’s elder statesman DH Billy Williams had announced he was retiring after the season. Mac’s time in the American League version of the Bay Area would be short-lived.

But Giants owner Bob Lurie still had an idea in his head.

Thursday, November 4th, 1976, the only franchise to select Willie McCovey in the first Free Agent Re-Entry Draft would be the Giants. Of course, all the other teams either figured Mac was through or simply assumed that San Francisco was the only place Willie would probably go to continue playing. I so happy to see the first steps for Mac returning to the club were in place, except that I was now a St. Louis Cardinal, having been traded by the Giants a week before. But that’s another story.

You have probably read much about Mac’s Comeback Player of the Year season already since his passing last month, but what’s amazing was how well he hit on the road. Sure, Giants fans were delighted to see Willie back in the orange and black, but his numbers were tremendous outside of The Stick, batting to a .293/.384/.605 clip with a 173 OPS+ with 22 dingers in less than 300 plate appearances.

I would see Mac before games over the years. We faced one another about 40 times or so. Not very much insight into such a small sample, but Willie had a strong memory of the pitchers he faced. He wasn’t one to keep a notebook like Rusty Staub or Carlos Delgado, but he knew.

Boy, did he know.

I was with the Padres in 1979, our fifth game of the season, against my former Giants in San Francisco. Gaylord Perry gave us eight innings of two-run, six-hit ball. Our manager Roger Craig pinch-hit for him with runners on first and third in the top of the ninth with the score tied at two, hoping we could get a lead against Vida Blue, who wasn’t in his top form, but we still had trouble catching up to his fastball. After Vida fanned Kurt Bevacqua to end the inning, Roger brought me into the game. I made quick work of Mike Ivie (who by now made his way to San Francisco) with a strikeout and I was pitching to the Giants’ catcher Marc Hill. I noticed Mac in the on-deck circle, whispering to San Francisco’s third-string catcher John Tamargo. Even though I felt extremely confident out there, I could feel Mac studying my every move. Then he smiled as he spoke with Tamargo. I knew he saw something in me.

When Mac came up to pinch-hit for Roger Metzger, the crowd came to their feet. It was a pretty thrilling moment. Mac was one of those sluggers who knew when to lay off bad pitches and work the count. I felt that I was throwing well. I was just gonna blow it by him. McCovey had elite bat speed his entire career, but by age 41, I felt I possessed the edge with my stuff. Mac dug in, I set, I pitched and Willie drove a soft single to right-center. Three years earlier, that pitch would’ve been in the parking lot. Mac would be quickly replaced by a rookie-pinch runner named Max Venable, leaving the game to a standing ovation.

Giants’ manager Joe Altobelli went all-in to win it at that point, having Tamargo bat for Vida. I couldn’t worry about the speedy Venable on first; I was just concerned about striking out the backup catcher so we could go into extras, where we would have the top of the order coming to bat.

“C’mon, Johnny,” I said to myself, “Just blow it by him. He’s not gonna touch it.”

I checked the runner, kept him close, from the stretch, set and threw a 96-MPH heater right down the plate.

John Tamargo hit that damn ball at least 450 feet into the stands.

Walk off home run. Standing ovation for Tamargo as he rounded the bases.

Who was the first one at home plate to greet him? Yep, the man who gave tips to the young player to beat the old veteran. Again, Mac.

Willie and I would see one another less and less over the years. A random golf outing here, a SF Giants alumni event there. Mac would sit in his special section at the new ballpark. His presence was to the delight of every Giants fan – hell, every baseball fan – who caught his eye. Including me.

I last saw Mac at the ballpark a couple of years ago. I was brought over to present him with a copy of my book. He gave me a wide embrace and a wider smile. He flipped through the pages with his huge hands once I handed him a copy.

“Am I in it?” He asked me, once again, breaking out into his heavy, burly laugh.

“Of course,” I smiled back. Willie McCovey made everything and everyone he touched in baseball better. He was a great leader, a great teammate and an even better friend.