NEW YORK -- It began with a playful 80-year-old Willie Mays talking baseball in commanding fashion for 15 priceless minutes, finally declaring "The Catch" during the 1954 Giants-Indians World Series his most memorable moment in a hallowed Major League Baseball career.
It ended with an anonymous donor texting the head of the room a $100,000 donation to the Baseball Assistance Team (B.A.T.) -- on the condition that Sandy Koufax plays nine holes of golf with him. The Hall of Fame pitcher agreed from the ballroom crowd and the night ended in style.
And through it all, the sixth-floor ballroom of the Marriott Marquis on Tuesday night was a combined celebration of 50 years of New York Mets baseball plus a giant helping hand for those members of the MLB family who are in need. The 23rd annual "Going to Bat for B.A.T." Fundraising Dinner presented by Natural Balance Pet Foods drew more than 100 current and former Major Leaguers, including 14 Hall of Famers, and it was the Say Hey Kid who drew the largest ovation of the night.
"In 1951, when I came along, I came to a city I knew nothing about," Mays told the crowd, starting a free-wheeling chat as he stood at table No. 5. "It was so wonderful that the people in New York at that time knew more about me than I knew about myself. I even [started out] 0-for-12 because I thought I would do well. But the people in New York who I had heard so much about, they're gonna kill you if you don't hit. And I'm saying to myself, 'I go 0-for-12.' And I go into the clubhouse, and I'm crying to [Giants manager] Leo [Durocher]. Leo said, 'You can cry all you want, you're going to play.' So that wasn't too good.
"When I got the first hit off of Warren Spahn, New York was like my family. They embraced me, like my mother and dad says. My dad says, 'When you go to New York, if they slap you, you turn the other cheek, because if you don't, they will shoot you.' I remember that. But it's just so wonderful that I could live in two wonderful cities, New York and San Francisco."
Mays said he "loved defense. My father said, 'If you score one run, they gotta score two.' And I remember that, I tried to score three, because I was tired out there with some of these pitchers."
Then co-emcee Gary Thorne asked Mays what his "moment" was from his baseball life, and after playing with Thorne for a bit, Mays drifted back to the eighth inning of Game 1 in 1954, with the game tied at 2. It was the play that helped lead the Giants to a shocking four-game sweep of the favored Indians -- generally considered the best defensive play ever.
"What's the moment? You want me to try to lay it out for you, is that what you're trying to say?" Mays said. "OK, I'll try to lay it out. ...
"Vic Wertz was hitting at the plate. I was playing very, very shallow. When he hit the ball, I never worried about catching the ball. My problem was, 'How was I going to get the ball back into the infield?' I was lucky enough to understand that, once you hit the dirt, there's a warning sign coming up. And I know if I hit the wall at the Polo Grounds, I'm not going to get up. So I said to myself, 'I gotta stop!' And as I stopped, I made a 360 turn, I threw the ball back into second base.
"To me, that was the whole World Series. OK?"
The large crowd erupted in unison, a feeling of fulfillment -- almost like having seen Mays in a game again. The show went on for nearly three more hours, and truth be told, it was impossible to top that opening act. But there were many treasured moments to come, including the gathering of former Mets for a group photo, ranging from six members of the loveable 1962 losers to Darryl Strawberry surrounded by teammates from the 1986 champs, to Tom Seaver and the 1969 Amazins.
After the annual video showing former MLB family members who passed away in 2011, co-emcee and former Mets pitcher Ron Darling asked the crowd to keep Hall of Fame catcher Gary Carter, fighting for his life with brain cancer, in its prayers. A video of Carter's career was shown, highlighted by his Game 6 heroics that helped the Mets to the 1986 title. Thorne asked the audience to take a moment to "think of Gary as you wish," and there was a long still in the room.
"Gary's special to us and will always be in our heart," former Mets infielder Tim Teufel said. "He was part of the '86 team, great catcher, teammate of mine. God is with that family. He loves the Lord. His family loves the Lord, it's obvious. Kimmy has been writing the blogs, and they know that at some point in time Gary is going to be at a great place and we'll meet again. That's the trust and the faith that we have."
New Cardinals outfielder Carlos Beltran was presented the Bart Giamatti Award, given annually to an individual who best exemplifies the compassion demonstrated by the late Commissioner. The event reunited Beltran with fans who saw him guide the Mets to the brink of a 2006 National League pennant before he was struck out looking to end Game 7 by Adam Wainwright -- his 2012 teammate.
"I feel very happy today being here, and being able to receive this award really confirmed what I am doing back home in Puerto Rico is a good thing," Beltran said. "We built a high school specializing in baseball. Right now we have 105 kids going to our high school. It is 100 percent bilingual, but at the same time we are teaching the kids how to play the game of baseball. Hopefully what we are doing in Puerto Rico is going to impact a lot of kids back home.
"For me, I just have to say that the years I was here with the Mets, I had a real good time. Being able to go to the playoffs was a real good experience. Being able to win the division, unfortunately that year we lost [in the NLCS], but it was something that is in my heart, a great memory."
Orioles outfielder Adam Jones was presented by Bob Watson with the Big B.A.T./Frank Slocum Award. It is named after B.A.T.'s first director and given to the player who most exemplifies his values that built the organization. Jones is very active in the Baltimore community, routinely making appearances at Boys & Girls Clubs, hosting clinics for Baltimore's Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program, or supporting Baltimore Animal Rescue and Care Shelter. He is considering joining B.A.T.'s board of directors.
"My mission is simple -- it's to help," Jones said. "Anytime you are recognized in your community for the efforts and time that you put in, it's nice. It's not always about the money. I think that getting up on off-days, spending two or three hours of my off-day -- I'm not doing anything but watching DVR shows anyway -- and spending that time seeing the smiles on kids' faces, that's tremendous. ... I'm just overwhelmed to be in the presence of everyone in this room."
In addition to Koufax, Mays and Seaver, Hall of Famers who were in attendance included Luis Aparicio, Orlando Cepeda, Goose Gossage, Ralph Kiner, Juan Marichal, Joe Morgan, Phil Niekro, Jim Palmer, Tony Perez, Gaylord Perry and Mike Schmidt.
Entering its 27th year, B.A.T. has assisted members of the baseball family through financial grants, health care programs and rehabilitative counseling. More than $25 million in grants has been awarded to date, benefiting more than 2,800 members who needed assistance.
For Marichal, this was an annual rite.
"I try to help any organization that helps others," he said. "That organization is one of them, maybe No. 1, because they help so many people around the world, people in need, people who played this game and have nothing. They played in 'the wrong era.' Today, anybody that plays in the Major Leagues, automatically they become a millionaire. But in those days, you don't. So the B.A.T. organization is trying very, very hard to help anyone that needs assistance, hospital, medical, food, anything. That's why I try to be here and I try to help this organization in any way I can."
Seaver is still "The Franchise" when it comes to the Mets, and he held court longer than anyone else who participated in a special media session from 2-4 p.m. ET earlier in the day. Seaver told stories and embraced the moment, traveling playfully from year to year throughout a legendary career.
"Players in our era didn't make the multimillions that the guys are making today," Seaver said. "There are guys in need that can't be helped, and there is a lot of money in this industry that can be used to support them. They gave their lives to the game that they loved, and they appreciate the help."
It was impossible to pin him down on one best Mets memory.
"I've got 20 years worth of memories. It's very difficult," he said. "On Monday, it might be one thing. The induction of going into Cooperstown as a Hall of Famer and joining the list of that era. Some of them who were my heroes, sitting down and having a meal with the Marichals and the Koufaxes, the Bob Fellers, that history. ... It's never past tense. It's your life. It's something you always dreamed that you wanted to do. And you're fortunate enough and disciplined enough to make your dream come true."
For the second consecutive year, both the Yankees and Dodgers were recognized as recipients of the annual Bobby Murcer Award. It is presented to the team in each league whose players contribute the most money to B.A.T. through the B.A.T. Payroll Deduction Program that previous season. The Yankees have won the award for the AL each year since it was created in 2009, and Yankees manager Joe Girardi accepted the award for his club from Murcer's widow Kay.
Speaking of the Yankees, former Mets pitcher Sid Fernandez wanted to get one point across. Little time was given to the rebuilding 2012 Mets at the dinner, save for a brief chat with manager Terry Collins to discuss his infield, but Fernandez wanted to remind everyone that New York is a two-team town.
"The Yankees are a fantastic organization," he said, "but so are the Mets. I don't like when people say, 'It's just a Yankee town.' No. It's both."