SAN FRANCISCO - Established big leaguers usually don't make trips in spring training. Future Hall-of-Famers definitely don't. But Willie McCovey made the trek from Scottsdale to Tucson one spring late in his career, and Duane Kuiper couldn't have been happier about it, at least at first.
"It meant a lot to me, because the only image I had of him was what the Braves radio announcers described him as, which was as a giant," Kuiper said. "I don't mean as a San Francisco Giant. I mean, physically, a Giant. As a kid listening to them describe Stretch, in my mind, he was 6-foot-9 and 285 pounds. That's the only thing I knew about Willie McCovey other than that he was a future Hall-of-Famer who always did great things against my team. So when I took the field and played against him in spring training, that's who I envisioned playing against, and when I looked at him, I got it. He was that big. He was that guy. He just had those long legs and long arms and it made him appear to be a real giant."
That first interaction stuck with Kuiper, but it wasn't kind to him.
"He hit me a ground ball, exit velocity of 125 mph, and it took a bad hop and hit me in the forehead," Kuiper remembered. "Knocked me out of the game."
As Kuiper walked off the field, McCovey apologized.
"I didn't mean for that ball to hit a pebble," he told Kuiper.
McCovey passed away Wednesday at the age of 80. He was one of the greatest to ever play the game, and all across this country, there must be former players who have similar memories to Kuiper's. McCovey provided a "welcome to the big leagues" moment for a lot of players, including Kuiper's partner, Mike Krukow.
Krukow grew up in the Los Angeles area, watching McCovey battle Don Drysdale, his idol. Years later, he would face McCovey.
"When I had a chance to face him, I truly believed I was in the big leagues," Krukow said. "He was larger than life to me because I was raised in the rivalry."
Krukow remembers giving up a long foul ball to McCovey that actually curled inside of the pole. "It was fair, but he hit is so high and the umpire stumbled and when he looked up it was in the seats, foul," Krukow said. Years later, the two would joke about the moment. Krukow and Kuiper both remembered McCovey as a "gentle giant."
"He was a wonderful man and human being," Krukow said. "He didn't miss anything. He was very bright and we would go in there and talk baseball and talk about other generations. ‘How did you hit against Bob Gibson or Tom Seaver?' ‘How good was Sandy Koufax?' He would get into it and talk about all the players. He was just such an incredible wealth of knowledge"