Sunday, January 23, 2011
Say hey? Or just stare in awe?
By Greg W. Prince
According to Ultimate Mets Database, early-’90s outfielder Ryan Thompson crafted the 131st-highest batting average among all Mets who collected at least 400 at-bats as Mets. If I bumped into Ryan Thompson tonight, I bet I’d retain my composure.
But the Met with the team’s 132nd-highest batting average? That’s deep-breath territory.
No .238 batter in the history of the Mets ever meant as much to me as Willie Mays. So what if he couldn’t outhit Ryan Thompson in two seasons at the tail end of his career? So what if his 14 home runs as a Met were one fewer than the Met totals compiled by respective 15-homer studs Jerry Buchek, Del Unser, Mackey Sasser, Victor Diaz and Super Joe McEwing? “So What?” is my default response to anybody who expresses doubt about the glorious nature of Willie Mays’s Met tenure.
DOUBTER: “Y’know, Willie Mays was done by the time the Mets got him.”
ME: “So what? He was Willie Mays, and he was on the Mets.”
I’ve never gotten over that. Willie Mays ... of the New York Mets. Willie Mays, one of the greatest baseball players who ever lived (.302 BA, 660 HR) ... traded to the New York Mets for pitcher Charlie Williams and a clump of Joan Payson’s cash on May 11, 1972. Willie Mays, the honest-to-goodness Say Hey Kid ... he put on a New York Mets uniform and, in his first game as a New York Mets -- against the San Francisco Giants, no less -- hit a home run to beat his old team.
Willie Mays grew up a New York Giant and came home to retire a New York Met. Any shortcomings born of crankiness or creakiness I consign to the “so what?” bin. He was Willie Mays.
I am privileged to report he still is. I saw it in Harlem on Friday when he thrilled an auditorium of schoolchildren and I got an even better look at it on Saturday when former schoolchildren -- primarily in their 60s and 70s -- stared at him in awe and wonder.
Those senior Giants fans, many of whom are members of the New York Baseball Giants Nostalgia Society, were invited to a midtown hotel to share a private audience with Mays and that ubiquitous San Francisco World Series trophy. (It was all arranged by Giants owner Bill Neukom, the early favorite for Sportsman of the Decade.) The old-timers caught on to Willie in his Polo Grounds years. They caught The Catch when it happened, not as a grainy film clip. They were saying “Hey!’ not to be cute about it, but because it’s unimaginable that you could watch young Willie Mays as a New York Giant and not feel the urge to exclaim your excitement.
These vintage New York Giants rooters were lucky to have Willie Mays at the outset of his prime. Me, I had the Willie Mays of Shea Stadium: 41, 42 years old; not able to play every day; inclined to play primarily on the days that best suited his sense of self (fine for conserving his energy, not altogether useful for manager Yogi Berra); as smart and strategic a player as ever but not nearly as swift and only a fraction as strong.
My elders in that room Saturday got the Willie Mays who took Manhattan. I got the Willie Mays who said goodbye to America.
Yet -- Hey! -- I believe I was as lucky as those older guys were. I had Willie Mays for the bulk of two seasons: wearing my team’s uniform, teaching the other players on my team a thing or six about winning and being a living legend every time he appeared on Channel 9. I know of the Willie Mays who broke in with an unprecedented flourish. I know, too, of the Willie Mays who endured as an icon in California. But the Willie Mays who came to the Mets in 1972 and stayed through the 1973 postseason ... that was the Willie Mays of my impressionable childhood, and nobody will ever convince me there was anything less than spectacular about him.
Willie’s appearance Saturday morning before that roomful of loyal New York Giants fans was an incredible gift from Neukom. As if that and the trophy (and an almost “oh, by the way” visit from Buster Posey) weren’t enough, the Giants announced one more treat. Every member of our group would receive a copy of James Hirsch’s terrific biography, Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend, and if we’d line up single file, Willie would autograph it for us.
Whatever it is one puts atop the cherry atop the sundae ... this was it. As if it wasn’t enough to have Willie take questions a few minutes earlier, though technically the fans who stepped up to the microphone didn’t so much ask questions as make impassioned declarations to the effect that Willie Mays was the greatest player of all time. That will happen when you’re in the presence of an icon. Besides, question marks aren’t Willie Mays’s kind of punctuation. The man is one big exclamation point.
I’m pretty sure Willie has heard it all before. He knows he’s the greatest player of all time and didn’t seem too worried about receiving repeated reassurances. Still, what do you say to the Say Hey Kid? You’ve got to say something. And you don’t want to tell him the same old story of how you were in the Polo Grounds that one time when he made that incredible play. I couldn’t say that anyway.
So when I reached the front of the line, and my book was handed to Willie for his silent signature, I spoke the truth as succinctly as I could:
“Thank you, Willie. And thank you for those years playing with the Mets. They meant so much to me when I was a kid. Thank you.”
Willie Mays looked up from his signing table, fixed his gaze in my direction, nodded slightly and offered me as genuine a smile as I’d seen from him across these two days I’d been chasing him around town.
Nothing more needed to be said.
Greg W. Prince is co-author of Faith and Fear in Flushing, the blog for Mets fans who like to read.