19 June 2024

Say Hey! Remembering One of the Greatest, Willie Mays a Lifelong Hero

My autographed picture of Willie

(Willie Mays, a retired baseball player and member of baseball's hall of fame, died yesterday at the age of 93. He played most of his career with the San Francisco Giants.)

I’ve long said that there were only two people in the world who could tell me to do something and I’d comply without hesitation: my father and Willie Mays. The Say Hey Kid. Number 24. He’s been part of my life for as long as I can remember. 

From when I was four years old through my second year in college he was a member of the San Francisco Giants. The best player of his generation — without question. In my estimation only Babe Ruth could possibly be considered as good or better a player. Mays was so good that he transcended the sport of baseball. He was mythic. He was also an honorable man, widely respected and loved. 

Such memories.

When you were at a Giants’ game you leaned forward when Mays was at bat. This could be one of those moments when he sent the ball into orbit. Or perhaps he would hit one into the gap and you’d get to watch him fly from base to base, his cap inevitably flying off. Of course if he merely singled or walked then you might get to see him steal a base. Yes, he was fast, but better still he was a shrewd base runner. Willie was the thinking man’s baseball player. When the Giants were in the field you wanted opposing batters to either strike out or hit one toward Willie so you could watch him with gazelle-like strides run down the ball. If it was a fly ball you got to see his signature basket catch.

There are many great athletes but few who are so good that they seem from another world. A better one.

Watching a game on TV side chatter would stop when Willie came to the plate, all eyes on the screen. With the game on the radio as background you’d stop whatever else you were doing when Mays was up. He drew everyone’s attention. If others were about you'd say, "Willie's up."

One of the reasons I was so proud to be a Giants’ fan was because it meant that Mays was ours. Fans of other teams admired Willie, but he was part of us. The we of a fan base. He made it extra special to be a Giants fan. He always has. Still does.

The number 24 (Willie's number) has always been special. In one of his films Woody Allen wore a shirt with number 24 on it. In another he referenced Mays as one of the joys that makes life worth living. And how!

I don’t know how many times I saw Mays play nor how many home runs I saw him hit. I can think of three. Its one of the great thrills of my life that I can say that. It’s like having seen Da Vinci or Shakespeare or The Beatles.

As an adult I went to a baseball card show where for a fee you could get Willie’s autograph. I happily stood in line just for the honor of being within inches of him. Given the circumstances he was not going to engage in chit chat or even smile. I don’t think signing autographs for hours on end was his thing — not that it appeals to most people. He didn’t look up at me when he signed the photo I presented but I didn’t care. I had his autograph and I’d basked in his presence.

Yesterday my older daughter came by as the missus and I were making dinner. I could tell from her expression that something was amiss. She strode over to me and held up her phone which showed a photo of Willie captioned 1931-2024. Mays was 93 so I’d long been anticipating the day coming when he’d no longer be with us. It still hit hard. It was like losing a parent. Someone you took comfort in knowing was around. I didn’t weep but if I wasn’t such a stoic Finn I could well have. 

I moved the autographed photo from my desk to the living room. Today I’m wearing my Willie Mays tee-shirt that I usually only don on those rare occasions when I go to the ballpark. I’m a little bit sad but more than that I’m happy that Willie was with us for so long and that I had the privilege of witnessing his magic. 

What an honor.

Say hey!

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