The scene was the same after every Giants game.
Willie McCovey, in a wheelchair, would be taken down the elevator behind the plate at AT&T Park. As a security guard walked ahead to clear a path, McCovey would be taken to his car.
“Willie!” some fans would yell.
Others touched him on the shoulder or patted him on the back.
At first, I felt sorry for Mac and the spectacle, which he did not have the physical capacity to avoid, until I started hearing parents tell their children, “That’s Willie McCovey. Remember this,” or words to that effect. Some of the moms and dads were not old enough to have seen McCovey play.
Then it hit me. That old cliche about being a “man of the people” truly fit. McCovey, who died Wednesday at 80, did not seem to mind the ritual. He had to know how happy he was making these folks.
Of the five Giants greats who are memorialized around the ballpark in bronze, Mac was the most accessible. He was there every day. You could see him through the window of his booth in the broadcast suite.
McCovey also was the first of the “statues” to leave us, and his death compelled many fans to tweet or write how down-to-earth he was when they met him. Too many Hall of Famers are not remembered that way.
In January, the Giants threw McCovey an 80th birthday party at the Gotham Club. He sat at the end of the long, narrow room greeting visitors one by one and spending as much time with those who barely knew him as he did with his old friends.
It was a joyous occasion, especially when Willie Mays launched into one of his Rube Goldberg speeches about how he first met McCovey, explaining that he insisted the then-prospect stay in his Manhattan apartment when he came to New York for the first of his many knee surgeries.
When McCovey got the microphone, he busted up the room by saying, “First of all, I have to set the record straight, because Willie got a few things wrong.”
Many in the room had the same unspoken thought. With all the illnesses and surgeries McCovey had to overcome, including an infection that nearly killed him in 2014, there might not be many more birthday parties.
Barry Bonds’ voice cracked when he spoke and, for the first time, cast aside his “who cares?” attitude about his failed Hall of Fame votes. He expressed an urgency to being elected because he wanted his “uncle” McCovey and godfather Mays to be in Cooperstown for the ceremony.
In one of several touching tweets Bonds posted Wednesday, he revealed that he and McCovey had a conversation about the inevitable.
“Mac, I am crying over losing you even when you told me not to,” Bonds wrote. “I remember asking you what I would do without all of you around. You told me when that day comes — and it will one day — to keep the tradition of Giants baseball living forever.
“You told me to help the next generation of ballplayers get better. You told me to be thankful that we had so much time to spend together and talk about the love we have for the game, San Francisco, the Giants and for each other.”
Giants fans who still can picture McCovey’s ferocious swing and the speed of the ball off his bat — and those who saw it only in pictures — cared for McCovey, too, not just the man, but what he stood for.
Every year, I get emails and tweets as early as the All-Star break asking whom I believe will win the Willie Mac Award as the Giants’ most inspirational player. Fans love this award, partly because it reveals which players are the most respected within the clubhouse, but also because they know how much it means to the players to have their name attached to McCovey’s.
In 2019, which will be full of tributes to McCovey, the hardest day will be the final Friday home date, when McCovey is not there to announce the winner.
Fans care about the other “statues,” of course.
Mays, in today’s vernacular, is the GOAT — greatest of all time. Orlando Cepeda, who survived his own near-death experience in February, is the player who took a backseat to Mays and McCovey and became an ex-Giant far too soon, but he is around and somewhat accessible, too.
Gaylord Perry and Juan Marichal are beloved, but in a more distant way. Neither lives in the Bay Area. They rarely visit AT&T Park.
McCovey was the one we truly got to know. He was one of the first Giants stars who began his career in San Francisco and did not emigrate from New York. He ended his career with the Giants after a brief detour, stuck around and remained visible at the ballpark until his body finally forced him to stay away.
Most of all, fans over the decades learned firsthand what had been written and said: This literal and figurative giant, who could inflict so much violence on a baseball, was a better human being than he was a player.
McCovey had a place in the clubhouse and on the field as one of the stars, but in his final decades, he was a fan who sat in his box and rooted for players he believed were every bit as talented, or sometimes more so, than those from his era.
As much as a person of McCovey’s stature and fame could be, he seemed like one of us.