Tigers’ Fielder evokes memories of Stargell and McCovey

  • Tue Jan 31st, 2012 10:17pm
  • Sports

By John Lowe Detroit Free Press

DETROIT — Even now, decades after each took his final mighty left-handed cut, their names cause a shudder.

If you were their fan or their teammate, it’s a shudder of excitement, of admiration.

If you were a pitcher who had to get them out, it might be a shudder of dread.

Their names are Willie Stargell and Willie McCovey. They’re two of the top left-handed sluggers of all time.

Their names came up last week when longtime major league pitcher Jim Kaat was asked whom Prince Fielder reminds him of.

“He is a rare combination of talent,” said Kaat, now an analyst for MLB Network. “For left-handed-hitting first basemen with that combination of power and average, you have to go back to McCovey and Stargell — that type of player. He fits right into that category.”

McCovey hit 521 homers, most of them for the Giants. Stargell hit 475, all for the Pirates. Fielder, with his thunderous left-handed swing, has hit 230 homers, all for the Brewers. Now he’ll hit them for the Tigers.

How Prince fits lineage of Hall of Fame duo

That’s no small thing that Kaat said about Fielder — that he fits in the same lineage of such left-handed-hitting first basemen as McCovey and Stargell.

There are many ways to show how grand McCovey and Stargell were.

Awesome power: By late in Stargell’s career, you could go into more than a few National League parks, point to a distant and seemingly unreachable spot, and say, “Stargell hit one there.”

At Dodger Stadium, you’d have to do more than point. You’d have to go outside the stadium. For decades, Stargell was the only player to hit the ball out of Dodger Stadium. He did it twice.

It’s said that McCovey is the hitter who made Sparky Anderson such a big fan of the intentional walk. McCovey was at his peak when Anderson started as a manager with the Reds. In 2010, McCovey recalled to the New York Times how Anderson, then the Reds manager, would see him before a game and hold up four fingers — the managerial sign for an intentional walk. Three times, Anderson intentionally walked McCovey twice in the same game.

Homer championships: McCovey led the NL in homers three times, Stargell twice. Fielder, 27, has won one homer title.

Not just sluggers: McCovey didn’t always hit for a high average. But in his MVP season of 1969 with the Giants, when he won the homer and RBI titles, he hit .320. In one five-year stretch, McCovey hit .295, according to Baseball-Reference.com.

Stargell had eight seasons over .290, three in which he hit .300. (For the first part of his career, Stargell was an outfielder, but most remember him as a first baseman.)

Fielder has batted a career-high .299 in two of the past three years.

Terrific teammates: Their swing was hard, but their smile was easy. Stargell became “Pops,” the beloved patriarch of the late ’70s Pirates. In 1979, with the theme song of “We Are Family,” the Pirates won the World Series — on a Game 7 home run by Stargell.

The Giants present an annual award, voted on by the players, to the Giant judged to be the most inspirational on the team — the Willie McCovey Award.

Remember the ’60s: McCovey and Stargell excelled in baseball’s most ferocious arena ever, the National League of the 1960s. Over the last six years of that decade, McCovey finished second in the NL in homers to Hank Aaron, 256-249.

Patrick Reusse of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune wrote last year that the 1965 NL All-Star team was “the greatest assembly of talent on one team in baseball history.” Reusse witnessed the NL’s 6-5 win in Minnesota. Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Ernie Banks started that day for the NL, but the batter who held the prestigious No. 3 spot in the lineup was Stargell. In the first inning, Stargell singled and scored. In the second, he hit a two-run home run.

Whose year? 1968 was “The Year of the Pitcher.” McCovey led the NL in homers (36) and RBI (105)

The most invincible pitcher that season was Bob Gibson of St. Louis. He had 15 straight wins, 10 by shutout, entering a late-August game against Pittsburgh. In that game, he had a 4-0 lead in the seventh when Stargell hit a three-run homer to start a Pirates comeback win. It was the only homer Gibson allowed that season with more than one runner on base.

MVP: McCovey won the NL MVP in 1969. Stargell shared it in ‘79 with St. Louis first baseman Keith Hernandez. Stargell also won the World Series MVP that season.

Cooperstown: McCovey and Stargell were elected to the Hall of Fame in their first year of eligibility.