Willie Mays hasn’t played ball in five decades but remains as much a part of the fabric of the game as he was when he suited up.
Most people weren’t born when Mays last played, but anyone who knows anything about baseball history or sports history or American history knows the name.
Willie Mays. It’s synonymous with bat and ball and glove. And style and exuberance and joy. And respect and integrity and passion.
The greatest living player is history’s greatest all-around player, so when his birthday comes along — May 6, as Mays aficionados (and probably many non-aficionados) know — we should all cherish the man and celebrate the moment.
Friday, the Say Hey Kid turns 91.
Mays isn’t at his physical best. But who is when your age is in double digits and starts with 9? His eyesight isn’t what it was. His body isn’t what it was. His mobility isn’t what it was. But when it comes to being alert and driven and lighting up the room with his good spirits, he remains in his prime.
I visited Mays twice in the past few days, and it never ceases to amaze me how he’s always cruising on that high road of life, turning potential negatives into positives and spitting at the obstacles that face him.
Despite any physical issues that might slow his frame but not his focus, Mays is an inspiration to anyone in his path including older folks who remember what he did on the diamond and younger folks who learned about what he did in life.
Mays may or may not attend Friday’s game at Oracle Park when the San Francisco Giants throw their annual birthday bash for the franchise icon. In large part, the pandemic has kept him from the yard, which is a bummer because it’s where he feels at home, especially in the clubhouse. Showing up at 24 Willie Mays Plaza will be a game-day decision.
Whether it’s at the park or his home, among 30-some thousand or just a dozen or so, he’ll be surrounded by friends, and he’ll have a ball because he loves birthdays, loves gatherings and loves entertaining.
Mays was in the news recently, which actually can be said at any time because of how deeply he’s rooted in the game. When Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera collected his 3,000th hit, he joined a select group of players with 3,000 hits, 500 homers and a .300 batting average. The only other members are Hank Aaron and Mays.
We will overlook that 352 of Cabrera’s hits came as a designated hitter and that Mays never got to DH. We will note an offbeat stat that emerged involving Philadelphia’s Kyle Schwarber, who hit 16 homers in his first 36 games against the Mets, surpassing Mays and sidekick Willie McCovey, who previously had the most over 36 games (back in the 1960s): 15.
We continue hearing broadcasters refer to any back-to-the-plate running snag, anywhere on the field, as a “Willie Mays catch,” always a ridiculous statement when considering the actual Willie Mays catch was made in the eighth inning of Game 1 of the 1954 World Series — where Vic Wertz’s triple went to die — and created momentum for a four-game sweep of the heavily favored Cleveland Indians.