He's still the Say Hey Kid, in his eyes and ours
Mays remains the wondrous player of our youth even at 80
The deaths of JFK, Elvis, Marilyn, John and George, Buddy Holly and others among our 20th-century icons have denied our sense of curiosity over the years. We wanted a sense of how they would have turned out, how they would have worn the passage of time, what they might have shared with those of us who held them in high regard or were merely intrigued by them.
What music would have been made had Holly lived to write and arrange for another 22 years? Would Janis Joplin have mellowed by age 50? What else would Bobby Kennedy have done with more time? How would Elvis have combed his hair -- if he had retained enough -- at 75?
We saw Sinatra, Carson, Koufax, Cronkite, Duke and Dylan, Bernstein, Redford, Musial and Hawkeye turn gray and more gracious. We appreciated all of that. We saw Bob Gibson become more gracious but no more gray -- he still paints. We heard Lucy and Julie Andrews betrayed by their larynxes. We still haven't heard enough Scully, and we never saw enough Hepburn. Mickey made it to 64 -- we wanted more years of him. Whitey's closing in on 83 and Yogi turns 86 next week. We've enjoyed almost all of it.
But what are we supposed to do now, what are we to make of this? Willie Mays is 80 years old.
It computes. It resonates. It doesn't reason, though. If the world's oldest teenager -- Dick Clark -- is 82, then Willie must be -- what? -- 25, right? OK, we'll accept 32, maybe 33, but not an hour more.
He still wears a cap, for goodness sake. And his voice, when it's amplified and when he's excited, still can shatter glass. And they want us to believe he's 80?
Some of us wondered whether Gooden really was 19 in 1984 and whether El Duque was 60 or 65. More of us are incredulous about this suggestion, presented as fact, that Willie Mays is an octogenarian as of today. Next someone's going to claim Koufax and Jim Brown are 75 and Junior Griffey is 41.
C'mon. Stengel was 85 when his time came. Who would dispute that he looked his age? Willie doesn't; moreover, we don't want him to. We'd prefer him at age 25, using center field at the Polo Grounds or The Stick as a frisky, frolicking thoroughbred uses an unrestricted pasture, as a hungry cheetah in pursuit of dinner uses the Serengeti, as Baryshnikov would use an otherwise empty stage.
In the case of Willie Howard Mays, we never were curious about how he might age, never gave it a thought. After he hit 24 and produced a brilliant season in 1955, we understood he barely could improve, but he could age, so we stopped counting. His age when we were introduced to the basket catch and the too-tight-to-stay-in-place cap is what we hold to, and the smile that seemed permanent before the Giants fled to the coast and the distinctive gait of his home run trot.
In truth, it wasn't so much a trot as it was a long-stride, chest-out, somewhat accelerated tour of the basepaths, the same territory he regularly covered with speed, zeal and daring do when his swing produced a more modest hit.
Nobody -- not Jackie or Ichiro, neither Mookie nor Maury, or Rickey or Reyes, not Carl Crawford and, from what we've been told, not even Cobb, ran the bases like Willie Mays.
Some of us went to the Polo Grounds rooting against a Mays home run and pulling for a triple (and a flying cap). Only three men have produced career home run totals that exceed his 660. Sixty-three have hit more career triples than Say Hey. But triples were cooler. They brought out the best in him, whether he was the hitter or the defender intent on denying one. Either way, his cap became airborne.
"Willie Mays' glove is where triples go to die," the great Jim Murray wrote.
No matter the hitter, the Polo Grounds, its playing field shaped like a bath tub, was a triple threat. For Mays, the park made triples borderline easy. The ball would roll, he would run. For him, the place provided a home-field advantage comparable to Boston's Green Monster, or its parquet floor at the Garden.
Triples, stolen bases, 300-foot assists, dazzling work on the warning track, in the gaps and in short center, a sense of how to unsettle or outfox an opponent and, yes, more home runs than all but Ruth, Aaron and his own godson. What was left for Mays to master? What didn't he do on a baseball field?
Of course, we mimicked him, stood in the box as he did, tried the basket catch, knocked our caps off as we ran the bases and practiced impossible catches. But none of us could match him in any area. The same could be said about his big league contemporaries.
Others were more splendid batsmen or had greater power. Maybe one or two had better arms, softer hands or quicker legs. Perhaps a few played the game as if it had been invented to showcase his skills. But no one packaged it all as Mays did. All aspects of the game combined and considered, no one played it like the guy Pirates shortstop Dick Groat called "Two Dozen."
Mays was No. 24 the way Ruth was 3, as Ms. Derek was 10 and George W. was 43.
As recognized as he was within the game, it was the words of actress/bon vivant Tallulah Bankhead, a New York Giants admirer, that put him in proper context. "There have been only two geniuses in the world," she said, "Willie Mays and Willie Shakespeare." And what did the Bard know about triples?
Mays' on-field contemporaries were and baseball historians have been a tad less effusive in their evaluations. He was characterized by them as merely the perfect player or "the best player I've ever seen."
Including the qualification "... I've ever seen" was a comfortable means for some to avoid comparing him to Joe DiMaggio, who carried the title "the greatest living player" to his grave. Mays didn't quarrel with DiMaggio's unofficial designation, though he did ask who had made the determination.
Announcer/former catcher Tim McCarver, who has monitored the game for decades, still sees Mays as unequaled in his time. Mickey Mantle, thought to be Mays' equal by some, deferred to Mays among his contemporaries. He said as much in January 1995 when he, Mays and Duke Snider, the three New York center fielders from the game's golden age, were on the dais at the annual dinner staged by the New York chapter of the Baseball Writers' Association of America.
Mantle said Duke was in agreement. Mays didn't dispute Mantle's assertion.
Mays returned to the dinner this past January, days after he had escorted the Giants' 2010 World Series trophy around his city. He was representing the '54 Giants, his World Series champions.
The dais' guests were formerly dressed. Mays eschewed black tie and the dais and opted for a black cap with an orange NY on it and a seat among the baseball commoners. That night, he was introduced and hailed as "the greatest living player." No new vote of any kind had been taken. It was merely acclamation. And on this, the 80th anniversary of his birth, it is accepted far and wide.
Marty Noble is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.