Matt Cain is the epitome of a Forever Giant. He spent his entire 13-year career wearing the orange and black -- quite a feat in today’s game. He earned countless accolades while being at the center of magnificent moments time and time again during his Giants tenure.
Matt’s consistency in performance and personality always made him seem wise beyond his years. And his stoic yet professional demeanor always resembled players of a former era.
Players like Willie McCovey.
Since Matt is a former Willie Mac Award winner, I thought he’d be the perfect person to share what another Forever Giant meant to him personally and to his teammates. It helps that Matt now lives in the same town as I do, and so over a cup of coffee, he recently told me how the Hall of Famer known as Stretch -- who died last week at age 80 -- impacted him as a player and a man.
Matt was drafted by the Giants out of high school in 2002, and as a young kid, he was plucked out of his parents’ home. He found a little piece of comfort when he realized he and McCovey both hailed from Alabama.
“It was brought up,” Matt said. “He was from southern, southern Alabama (in Mobile). I was born in Dothan and grew up in Birmingham.
“We would exchange stories and try to figure out where everything was, but I was still very young (when I lived in Alabama), and my geography wasn’t great. But we would try to put all the pieces together. It came up every once in awhile.”
I was curious about Matt’s initial thoughts when he first met Willie McCovey. What kind of presence did this great Giant have, and what kind of impression did he make?
“You’re in awe at first because you’ve learned what he did over his career,” Matt said. “And then that fades, and you realize he’s just a genuine person who cared about his teammates and the teammates that followed him. He took care of those guys.
“He was really the picture perfect Forever Giant. He’s what really all of us have lived up to. You saw what he did for the team as an ambassador throughout the years, even when he was done playing. His numbers and everything explain him on the field, but it’s more of getting to know him on a different level being in the clubhouse, having some personal time with him, seeing him as a true human.”
Being so young when he was drafted, Matt didn’t have a lot of time to expand his knowledge of former pro players before he actually became one. His day consisted of playing baseball, not studying the history of it. But when he got the call from the Giants, his curiosity about who else had been with this organization was piqued, and he sought out well-known individuals to fill in any blanks about just how storied this franchise and its Hall of Famers were.
“This was back when we had the flip phones and we weren’t as in tune with what was going on Internet-wise,” Matt said. “A lot of it was word of mouth, talking with Will Clark and Rags (Dave Righetti), and hearing Felipe (Alou) and all these guys just talk about what these Hall of Famers did and what Willie brought to the team.
“It was word of mouth, which was so much fun, like talking with (Jim) Davenport -- that was fun for me, and I’ve always enjoyed learning about people through stories because they always get skewed a little bit -- a little better, a little worse -- but it’s always fun to be able to hear stories about guys and talk about them, and I really enjoyed learning about all the Hall of Famers, but especially Willie McCovey.”
The access to Giants Hall of Famers always has been impressive. Rookies learn to relish it, while veterans who come to San Francisco via trades or other acquisitions often find themselves stammering over the Hall of Famers’ presence. It’s something that sets the Giants organization apart, and Cain always greatly appreciated it in his playing days.
“McCovey would always come in, and he was always willing to ask questions. He was one of the guys,” he said. “You would talk with him, and it wasn’t so much ‘what I did’ and what was going on ‘back in the day’ that we can tend to hear about, and I’ll end up doing it too, but he would talk to you about what guys are thinking or what’s going on with the team. He was always trying to keep up to date with the game.
“He did a great job of relating to everybody and not just making it a sideshow of himself. That’s what everybody loved about Willie.”
McCovey was known for attending every Giants home game, unless an ailment kept him away. This was noticed and respected. When Willie spoke, Matt listened.
“For a guy to actually see what was going on day in and day out. Heck, he might have been there more than we were!” Matt said. “He was always there. He knew what was going on. It wasn’t take in a game or two, and all of a sudden dissect the whole team – ‘That’s what’s wrong with the team,’ or, ‘That’s what’s great about the team.’ He understood what was going on for the whole 162 games.
“There was something about his voice, something about the way he spoke and articulated to everyone. He earned that, and he gathered that, and he had one of those voices that when he spoke, everyone listened and really soaked it up.”
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Matt and I talked about the numerous times McCovey made himself available to the media. McCovey set an example to the players who came after him.
“That’s so impressive about him. If he said no, it wasn’t very often,” Matt said. “… It takes a lot of energy to say yes when you have a lot of people pulling at you, and I can’t even imagine what he had, being the status that he was, so for him to say yes and a handful of times say no, that’s draining, and that says a lot about his personality.”
Cain and McCovey forever will be connected, not just as Giants but in name. Matt was the 2009 Willie Mac Award recipient, and he confirmed my assumptions that this honor means more to Giants players than all the other hardware they play for in the season.
“Personally, it was something that is up there with any of the rings that we have or any All-Star Game or any highlight that I’ve ever had,” he said. “To know your teammates and your coaches and everybody respected you and what you did for them and the way you carried yourself as an athlete and a professional, that was something that meant a lot to me and something I’ll always take away.
“It was mentioned to me as a young guy. Dave Roberts said, there are a lot of things that you can be given in this game. One of the biggest, when you’re done and walk away, is to have the respect of everybody in the clubhouse. To be honored that way with the award solidifies that. It’s something that can’t be taken away from you. You can’t quit on it, you need to keep carrying it, but it means you were doing things the right way.”
And then we joked that we kind of rooted for Dave Roberts and ONLY Dave during the Dodgers-Red Sox World Series.
Lastly, I wanted to know, beyond a tangible connection to McCovey having won the award, what stays with Matt about Willie, whose life will be celebrated Thursday at AT&T Park.
“His presence. The way he carried himself. The way he took over a room when he spoke. I’ve always been impressed with people who could walk into a room and chat with anyone and hold court and get people to listen because what they said, it was meaningful and it was coming from a good place.”