A Giant Dose of Hope

When the San Francisco Giants and their delirious fans finally tasted World Series glory for the first time in 52 years, Willie McCovey wasn’t about to miss out on all the fun.

Against the odds, the Giants’ legend was on the field at AT&T Park for a first-pitch ceremony to christen the series. And after his former team vanquished the Texas Rangers in five breathtaking games, he joined a raucous victory parade in the streets of San Francisco.

That McCovey, 73, was able to participate in the festivities was due in no small part to extensive spine surgery performed last summer by Charles Sonu, M.D., a spine surgeon at NorthBay Medical Center in Fairfield.

“I had to be there. It was too special to miss,” McCovey says of last fall’s World Series celebration. “But if I hadn’t had the surgery, I probably wouldn’t have been able to do what I did.”

The man teammates called “Stretch” is seated in the master bedroom of the impeccably maintained Woodside home he built, having just reviewed follow-up X-rays with Dr. Sonu. On his nightstand is a card from the Hall of Fame signed by more than 30 baseball greats, including Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, Gaylord Perry and Rickey Henderson. “Get well soon,” it reads. “We look forward to seeing you in Cooperstown next year.”

If McCovey has his way, he’ll make it there. And it would be quite a feat considering that, for much of last year, he was so hampered by debilitating back and leg pain that just making it around his tri-level residence proved to be a major struggle.

“I was deteriorating little by little,” he recalls. “I’m used to being a very independent person.

But it got to the point where I needed help. I couldn’t drive anymore. I needed people to help me get up and down the stairs.”

Early in 2010, McCovey was referred to Dr. Sonu by Dr. Arthur Ting, the team doctor for the San Jose Sharks and a renowned orthopedic surgeon. After conducting a series of MRIs, Dr. Sonu concluded that his patient was suffering from Diffuse Idiopathic Skeletal Hyperostosis (DISH) and spinal stenosis. “Try saying that fast three times,” a smiling McCovey says, his sense of humor well intact.

DISH is a form of degenerative arthritis characterized by excessive bone growth along the sides of the vertebrae and spine. Dr. Sonu found the ligament calcification in McCovey to be so advanced that it was causing nerve compression severe enough to result in paralysis. “I saw the trouble he was in,” says Dr. Sonu. “It was obvious what needed to be done.”

McCovey is no stranger to operating rooms. During his 22 seasons in the big leagues, he constantly battled injuries, mainly to his knees. He endured so much pain that a sportswriter compared him to the Bible’s Job.

“I lost count of how many knee operations I’ve had, but I probably hold the record,” he says. “(Former Oakland Raider) Jim Otto and I used to tease each other about who had the most.”

With that extensive surgical history, McCovey was in no hurry to undergo another one. And so he put it off to attend spring training and be near the team and game he loves.

“Spring training was a big priority for him, which I thought was amazing,” Dr. Sonu says. “It sort of reflected that whole Giants spirit. For him, it wasn’t about the individual. It was about the organization.”

But McCovey couldn’t hold out for long. In August, he was admitted to NorthBay Medical Center and underwent a grueling 12-hour surgery, during which Dr. Sonu worked to relieve the pressure on his nerves and fuse areas of instability. The procedure was made more complicated by the number of vertebral levels involved, the severity of scar tissue (from two previous operations) and the density of the bone spurs.

Dr. Sonu, who came to NorthBay in 2008 to develop its Spine Center, is accustomed to working with athletes. He’s the official spine surgeon for the MotoGP (motorcycle championships) held annually at Laguna Seca Raceway, and cared for the U.S. gymnastics team during the 2007 nationals in San Jose. During his consultations with McCovey, he was abundantly impressed by the patient’s attitude.

“He’s easy to work with, very motivated,” Dr. Sonu says. “We have an open communication with him. He’s been very receptive to my advice regarding what I think he needs to do to get better.”

In fact, Dr. Sonu jokes that the only minor difficulty he had with his patient came in the first couple of days post-surgery, when McCovey was intently focused on the TV in his hospital room, watching the Giants in their drive for the National League pennant. “I had to turn it off to get him to listen to me and take in what I was saying,” he recalled. “I had to tell him, ‘Hey Willie: Eyes on me.’”

McCovey, meanwhile, has pleasant memories of his two-week stay in NorthBay Medical Center. “All the nurses and staff were great. There wasn’t any negative stuff at all,” he says. “And nobody bugged me. Sometimes in a case like this you can have people running in and out, sneaking autographs. But it was all programmed that they weren’t supposed to do that and they abided by the rules. There were certain (staff) people I voluntarily gave autographs to because I thought they were so nice to me.”

The months since McCovey’s surgery have been consumed by physical rehabilitation. He’s logged plenty of miles on his deluxe exercise bike in front of an expansive window with a panoramic view of the East Bay and Mount Diablo. The lack of mobility can be frustrating for a man who clubbed 521 home runs and, at 6-foot-4, towered over the plate like, well, a Giant. But he’s been down this road before, so he knows to be patient—and to cherish the incremental signs of progress.

Speaking of which, he points out that, although
he needed a walker to get out on the field before the World Series opener, he did so without pain. “That was a big change in itself,” McCovey says. “Before that, just to get out of my chair and stand up put me in excruciating pain.”

With progress comes hope. As he builds up his strength, balance and coordination, McCovey has his sights set on making regular visits once again to the restaurant he owns in downtown Walnut Creek and maybe even playing some golf.

“That’s where I’d like to be right now—making the turn on some country club course,” says McCovey. “That’s been my wish since I’ve been down and I don’t think I’ll be satisfied ’til I get to that point.”

Baseball, of course, is in McCovey’s plans, as well. When summer arrives, he hopes to return to his suite in the ballpark where mammoth home runs plunge into a body of water named after him.

But first things first: Spring training has just gotten under way this month and McCovey wants to be there in his regular role as a Giants’ senior adviser. “I don’t want to set a goal and be disappointed,” he says. “But I know I’ll be there… and I’ll certainly be in better shape than I was last year.”

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