Giants continuing the legacy of past franchise greats
There are those binds from the past that further our present, our immediacy. On Wednesday, in the best baseball park ever built, I was honored to interview Willie McCovey, and he talked about the Candlestick Park winds that blew foul what would have been the winning homer off Ralph Terry in Game 7 of the 1962 World Series.
A day later, I got to interview Willie Mays, the best player I ever saw.
Neither tried to explain what's happening here in this World Series, any more than either could have explained Moby Grape or Quicksilver Messenger Service or Sons of Champlin.
"We had a lot of power," said McCovey of those Giant teams of the 1960's that, but for McCovey's windblown shot in Game 7 in '62 would have won that World Series. "These [current Giants] do it differently."
"These Giants play with a lot of passion and do a lot of things to win," said Mays.
What is important is that two Giants legends have been at AT&T Park for these two odd ... well, unusual ... victories over the Tigers. McCovey is at every game, and he stays until the final out. Mays is here often, and said, "I watch everything closely."
"The Giants take care of their own," said McCovey, not realizing that he was quoting Bruce Springsteen. "They always make us part of their present. It's great."
In some ways, McCovey is the consummate Giant, because his 521 home run career ("remember, we played our games here at Candlestick, where it was pretty difficult to hit home runs," said Mays) began in 1959, a year after the Giants left the Polo Grounds in New York and moved to San Francisco.
McCovey was at the plate with two outs and two on in the ninth inning of that seventh game of the 1962 World Series against Terry and the Yankees, only to hit a bomb to right field that the winds blew foul before hitting a series-ending rocket at second baseman Bobby Richardson. That was as close as San Francisco came to winning the Fall Classic until the Giants lost to the Angels in the sixth and seventh games in Anaheim in 2002 (blowing a 5-0 lead in Game 6), and until the '10 Giants beat the Rangers in five games for their first World Series championship since 1954.
Mays was with the Giants in 1951, and he was reminded that he was part of baseball's great cultural history in that series. Manager Leo Durocher moved playoff hero Bobby Thomson in to third base, made the rookie Mays his center fielder and moved third baseman Hank Thompson to right field. Thus, with Monte Irvin in left, Mays in center and Thompson in right, Mays was part of the first all African-American outfield in baseball history.
"I'm proud of that," Mays said.
Across the city, Jackie Robinson made American history with the Brooklyn Dodgers and changed much of this country's social structure, seven years before Brown v. Board of Education. Mays, who was Michael Jordan long before Jordan was born, made kids of every race and creed want to be like "The Say Hey Kid." Thursday afternoon, as Mays rode a cart to an interview desk on the field, fans chanted "Say Hey, Say Hey," 61 years after Mays, Irvin and Thompson roamed the Polo Grounds outfield.
Mays was with the Giants in 1954, when they beat a Cleveland Indians team that went 111-43 and included three Hall of Fame starting pitchers (Bob Lemon, Early Wynn, Bob Feller).
"Media people may have thought it was a big upset," Mays said. "But we played them a lot in Spring Training in Phoenix and Tucson (Ariz.), and we knew we could beat them."
It was in Game 1 that Mays made the catch that every generation knows, that grainy, black-and-white footage of his over-the-shoulder stab of Vic Wertz's shot into the cavernous Polo Grounds outfield, the whirl, the throw back to the infield. But in that game, Mays did far more than just make that historic catch. In the first inning, he raced into the alley to cut off a Wertz hit that scored two runs. But according to Mays, "[It] would have been an inside-the-park homer if I hadn't been able to get to it. Since the game got to extra innings, it was important, and it was a very tough play to make."
For many, Mays and Robinson changed the way baseball was played with their daring and breathtaking styles. Grainy history constantly reminds us of Robinson's steal of home in the 1955 World Series, but in the 10th inning of that 1954 opener -- in a sport where league stolen base champions had 15 or 20 steals -- Mays altered that game, and the game of baseball.
It was 2-2 in the 10th inning, one out, none on and Lemon pitching for Cleveland. Mays had a ten pitch at-bat, and eventually walked.
"Their catcher [Jim] Hegan had some injury, and they put in his backup," Mays said.
He couldn't remember the back-up catcher's name. It was Mickey Grasso.
"I was the on-deck hitter as Lemon warmed up, so I watched everything carefully," Mays continued. "The backup catcher didn't warm up much. So when I got to first base, I gave Durocher the sign that I wanted to steal."
Mays took off and stole second. The Indians then walked Thompson intentionally to set up the double play with the sinkerballer Lemon facing Irvin. Durocher sent up Dusty Rhodes to bat for Irvin, Rhodes hit the famous home run into the Polo Grounds overhang, and the Giants were on their way to a four-game sweep.
When the Giants moved to the Bay Area in 1958, Peter Magowan's family moved from New York to San Francisco. When Bob Lurie agreed to sell the Giants for a move to St. Petersburg in 1992, Magowan put together a group to keep the team in San Francisco, then signed Barry Bonds. In 2000, Magowan opened Pac Bell Park on The Embarcadaro running along the water in a warehouse district that had essentially gone to seed, and did so without taxpayer involvement.
The park, with the acumen of Brian Sabean and his baseball operations folks, changed history, as well. This is the third World Series played in Pac Bell/AT&T Park in 13 years, including that 2010 World Series championship, the first for the franchise since Mays' 1954 team. In the past 13 years, only the Yankees, Dodgers and Cubs have outdrawn the Giants. In 2012, their average attendance of 41,695 was fourth in majors, with a limited number of seats. Their 99.5 percent home capacity was third in the majors. Between home and road games, only the Yankees and Phillies played before more paying customers. And no ballpark better captures the glory of its city. No body of water this side of the Magellan Strait has been named for a historic figure like McCovey Cove.
Go to spring training in Arizona, and every Giants road game is sold out. Pac Bell/AT&T Park has taken the glorious history of a franchise that has the most players in the Hall of Fame and made the Giants one of the game's six national teams, with the Yankees, Cubs, Red Sox, Cardinals and, at least in the past six years, the Phillies.
When Barry Zito beat out the first bunt hit of his career that helped turn the Cardinals series, it wasn't Mays-esque. Fine. So, Pablo Sandoval hit three homers in a World Series game? Neither Mays, McCovey, Mel Ott nor Bonds ever did that. Hunter Pence hit a double that struck his bat three times? Neither Willie ever did that. Thursday night, Gregor Blanco laid down a bunt that somehow stopped dead on the line -- a trick Blanco admitted might happen "one time in 100 tries" -- that set up the go-ahead run in the seventh inning of a scoreless game being pitched by Giants starter Madison Bumgarner, whose 2012 postseason line up to Game 2 was eight innings, 15 hits and 10 earned runs.
When the lights went down in The City, the Giants of Mays, McCovey, Juan Marichal, Marco Scutaro, Buster Posey and The Panda were headed out of the best ballpark on the continent for Detroit, two wins away from their second World Series championship since Mays and Rhodes pulled their memorable upset of the 111-43 Indians.
Peter Gammons is a columnist for MLB.com and an analyst for MLB Network. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.