Saturday, May 7, 2011

Happy Birthday, Willie Mays

Willie Mays turned 80 yesterday. It's hard to believe the "Say Hey Kid," frozen in time making the most famous catch ever has reached that milestone.

To a lot of fans, Mays is the greatest player ever. The image of his cap flying off as he chased down an impossible-to-catch fly ball proof of his superior ability. No doubt Mays is among the greatest ever; he is even celebrated wit the immortal refrain "Willie, Mickey and the Duke" in Terry Cashman's ode to baseball, "Talkin' Baseball."

I find Mays career fascinating for the way it played out over two decades. Last year, I read "Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend" and I came away with two overall thoughts about Mays.

First, there were three distinct periods to Mays' career. In part one, he was the young kid who came from nowhere to make Gotham's Nation League team a champion. Then, in part two, the team moved west to San Francisco. It took the fans there years to warm up to Mays (which shows just how fickle sports fans can be: How do you give a cold shoulder to the "Say Hey Kid?").

Finally, part three, the final act of his career. Mays is traded to the Mets so he can have a triumphal return to New York. Instead of being joyous, the farewell tour has left many New Yorkers with a bad taste. They often lament that it's a shame Mays' career had to end the way it did.

But I think they have selective memory. Yes, the aging hero did lose a ball in the sun during the seventh inning of Game 2 of the 1973 World Series against the Oakland A's. And yes he did look bad stumbling and falling. But, after that, in the 12th inning, Mays drove in the last run of his career. It gave the Mets a lead they wouldn't relinquish. In other words, the last RBI of Mays' career was a World Series game winner. I've never heard anyone mentions this. All they remember from his Mets' days is one lousy missed fly ball.

The other image I formed of Mays was of a man whose entire life was baseball. The account in the book is of a man who in retirement never really found something to spark his interest the way being the "Say Hey Kid" had.

But for a black kid from Alabama who was born before Jackie Robinson broke into the majors, it's quite an accomplishment to be the man many consider the best ever. For him, the first act was so large it's possible that no second act could live up to it.

Happy Birthday, Willie Mays.

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