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05/06/11 12:00 AM ET

Mays was the perfect baseball player

None better than 'Say Hey Kid,' who celebrates his 80th birthday

LOS ANGELES -- The first time I saw Magic Johnson perform his basketball artistry in the flesh, I wrote a column comparing the exhilaration to what I felt as a kid watching Willie Mays play center field for the Giants.

A lifelong baseball fan, the Lakers' superstar understood that this was the sincerest form of flattery.

Like Johnson a generation later, Mays was known as "Buck" to teammates in deference to his workhorse mentality. Willie also was magic long before Earvin arrived on the scene.

As extraordinary as his physical gifts were, Mays was so much more than electricity. He was tougher and smarter than the rest. This combination is what made him the best ever, in my judgment.

Willie Mays is Mr. Baseball -- forever young and magnificent.

My family owned and ran a cafe in Santa Monica, Calif., in my youth. Sam the Grocer -- bless him -- occasionally would drop off a pair of prime Dodger Stadium tickets along with a truckload of goods. When the Giants were providing the opposition, the drive to Chavez Ravine with my dad would seem to last two hours, not the 20 minutes it took in those less-congested times.

The excitement for a baseball nut just reaching his teens would rise as we made our way to those third-row seats behind home plate, first-base side. A dream view of the greatest of the game's confrontations: Mays vs. Sandy Koufax or Don Drysdale.

In our midst, a few aisles away, was Nat King Cole, sleek and elegant. Michael Landon also was visible. The ballpark was new and stunning, and the athletes were right there in front of us, baseball cards in the flesh.

If you were a kid in Southern California in those days, you loved the Dodgers. The home uniforms worn by Koufax, Drysdale, Maury Wills, Willie Davis, Jim Gilliam, Frank Howard, John Roseboro -- the whole amazing cast -- were a dazzling white.

The bad guys wore gray. None was as bad as Mays. This man was Muhammad Ali bad.

I was supposed to detest Mays, giant among dreaded Giants. I tried, I really did. But I just couldn't bring myself to do it.

From those yellow seats, I could not take my eyes off No. 24. He was just so ... perfect. The walk. The smile. The easy, relaxed manner he had with everybody, laughter in the air. There is an unmistakable aura to the athlete who knows he's the best and proves it, night after night.

That was Willie Mays. He was poetry, Ali in cleats. He moved with such grace, and played with so rare a combination of joy and purpose, he was simply irresistible.

Even when he clubbed a home run to break up a game or made a spectacular play to rob Davis, my hero, I couldn't bring myself to boo Willie Mays.

You don't boo gods.

I got lucky and went on to spend my adult life around athletes of the highest order. Nobody in baseball, across a half-century of summers, ever moved me the way Mays did. I knew he was the best I'd ever see when I was 12 years old, and that never changed.

I've covered them all in succeeding generations, and nobody matched "The Say Hey Kid." His blend of skills and will and style was impossible to equal. I didn't see Babe Ruth -- colleagues would argue that point -- but I find it hard to imagine that he could have been better than Mays -- or as good as Mays.

In my travels, I have run across men who saw many more players than I did. Larry Doby, Don Newcombe, Roy Campanella and Gilliam all told me to forget the stories about old Negro League legends being superior to Mays. Simply not true, they all assured me.

I also ran across old men who saw Ruth. They would tell me how riveting he was with his overpowering presence. He might have had Mays' power and charisma. I recognize how astounding it is that he pitched almost as well as he hit. But I know he couldn't run like Willie, and that is where the separation is.

Mays was a perfect 10, the ideal.

Speed thrills. It is why I'm so drawn to Peter Bourjos, the Angels' young center fielder. He has Mays speed. The kid flies to the alleys for breathtaking catches. When he hits a ball to the gap, you hold your breath, hoping he makes that turn at second. There is nothing in the game as beautiful as a triple.

Mays on the basepaths, cap flying off, was pure magic. There and in the outfield, his remarkable instincts were on constant display.

The ability to visualize movements, to intuitively grasp what needs to be done before the moment arrives, is a rare quality. We've seen this anticipation with Ali, Magic, Larry Bird, Wayne Gretzky, Joe Montana.

Mays was the master. His perceptions were extrasensory.

But his intelligence was the most overlooked aspect of his perfect game. Mays studied intently. He grew up with a baseball-loving father believing defense was the most important phase of the game. And it showed.

He never took a play off, never cheated the customer. He played every out of every inning as if it meant everything. That's another thing that separated him.

Fatigue was the only form of Kryptonite confronted by the great Mays. Periodically he would check into a hospital for forced rest. It was the only sure way he wouldn't push himself beyond his seemingly limitless boundaries.

On top of his unsurpassed physical skills and mental capacities, Mays is a good, decent man. We discovered how good and decent on that fateful Sunday in San Francisco's Candlestick Park when his teammate, Juan Marichal, took a bat to the head of Dodgers catcher Roseboro in one of the ugliest incidents in the game's history.

Unforgettable is the image of Mays, in the midst of all the insanity, pulling bodies apart, playing peacekeeper, restoring order with the respect he commanded.

It is Mays who grabs Roseboro and walks him to his dugout, soothing him, trying to contain the blood flow on his head.

It is Mays doing what needed to be done in the moment, his famous instincts humanitarian at the core.

I have spoken with the man a few times. I wish I'd have told him what I once said to Buck O'Neil, yet another wonderful Buck.

There was nobody like you, Willie.

This is the man who took baseball to its summit and was kind enough to bring us all along for the ride.

Happy birthday, Mr. Baseball. May there be many more.

Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.