25 years ago today, I attended a double-header at Candlestick Park that shows the way sports works its way into our lives not only in large ways but also in small ones.
1980 was a nondescript season for the Giants. They got off to a slow start, and by June 29, they were already 11 games out and well on their way to a fifth-place finish in a six-team division. On offense, they had Jack Clark, Darrell Evans and very little else ... the pitching was a bit better, with Vida Blue and Ed Whitson having decent years (and making the All-Star team) and the bullpen pitching well.
Anyway, a bunch of us decided to take in the double-header, which was against the hated Dodgers. My then-brother-in-law Randy came with us, and my then-sister-in-law Julie (lotta "thens" in this story) ... Julie was attending her first-ever baseball game (I guess she was also attending her second-ever baseball game). I don't remember who else went. The only thing going on for the Giants was the impending retirement of Willie McCovey, who was closing down a Hall of Fame career, and would be leaving the game at the All-Star break, which was a little more than a week away.
McCovey wasn't in the starting lineup for the first game. That spot belonged to Rich Murray, a 22-year-old pheenom who had just come up to the majors earlier in the month. (Murray's tenure as McCovey's replacement didn't last long ... he only played 57 games in the majors, and is mostly known now as Eddie Murray's brother.) The game was to-and-fro, Bob Knepper dueling with Don Sutton, and as the Giants came to bat in the bottom of the ninth, the score was tied 3-3. (It should be noted that the prospect of extra innings at a double-header wasn't quite so frightening in those days ... the game I am currently describing, for instance, only lasted 2 hours and 12 minutes.) The Dodgers brought in Bobby Castillo to relieve the tiring Sutton, and after a leadoff single by Rennie Stennett, Castillo retired the next two hitters, bringing up the pitcher's spot in the lineup.
And pinch-hitting for Bob Knepper was Willie McCovey.
There were 50,000 people at the park that day, and this was what we'd come to see: our old hero taking one last shot at our archrivals to the south. McCovey had managed only one homerun all season, the 521st of his career, but I think we can be forgiven for thinking hoping begging praying that he had #522 somewhere in that tired body.
And Castillo pitched to McCovey, and he got ahold of one. It went flying towards the right-centerfield fence, and 50,000 of us leapt into the air while Rennie Stennett circled the bases towards home. And then, since this is real life and not a made-up story, the ball fell just short of a homer, bouncing off the fence for a double that won the game for the Giants.
And I remember that game to this day.
Everything after that was anti-climactic. The Giants were shutout by Burt Hooton in the second game, and McCovey did not make an appearance. The most legendary occurrence in that second game was that Randy, who's gotta be like 6'5", fell asleep, which is hard enough with 50,000 people making noise, and even harder when you can barely fit into the seat in the first place. I've never let him forget that little nap.
The next Thursday, McCovey played his last game at Candlestick, and I played a little hooky to be there. In the third inning, with Jack Clark on third, Mac dribbled a ball past Dan Driessen at firstbase for a single and an RBI, his last at Candlestick. In the top of the 8th inning, McCovey went out to his position, and then, while everyone stood and cheered, Pheenom Murray came out to replace him. (There were 26,000 of us, not bad for a midweek day game.) Stretch McCovey was gone.
McCovey had one last shot in him, it turned out. On Sunday in Los Angeles, in his last game ever, he pinch-hit late in a tie game and lifted a sacrifice fly that gave the Giants the lead. It was his last major-league at-bat.