Friday, May 6, 2011

Happy Birthday, Willie

For some reason, I have always remembered May 6 as Willie Mays's birthday. Born in 1931, that marks today as his 80th. And whenever there are new revelations about Barry Bonds having said this or Mark McGuire having (not) said that, it makes me wonder what Willie thinks about all of the commotion that has tainted professional baseball.

Willie Mays started out with the New York Giants, but he didn't come into the full view of this Oakland kid until the team moved west to San Francisco. And for a few years, until the Athletics moved from Kansas City to Oakland to play in a stadium that I could see from my front yard, the San Francisco Giants, with Mays, Marichal, McCovey et al, were my team.

On my eighth birthday, I got a new skateboard and a trip to Candlestick Park with my Dad and brother, Robert. It was Picture Day, so we got to see the players up close. They were playing the Pittsburgh Pirates, with their own young legend-in-the-making, Willie Stargell. We sat in the bleachers behind centerfield, so as to have a perfect view of Mays playing defense. Stargell did not endear himself to me that day, hitting a long fly ball over Mays's head, not quite out of the stadium.

I still have a running video in my head of Mays scrambling frantically for the ball against the cyclone fence, no higher than what you would see in someone's backyard. Mays rifled the ball to second, limiting Stargell to a double. His throw was a dart; you cannot even begin to imagine what power emanated from Mays's arm unless you were to experience from close range.

Over thirty years later, I had the opportunity to share an elevator with Stargell, when he was a guest of the Pittsburgh Symphony, narrating Lincoln's words in Aaron Copland's Lincoln Portrait. I recalled that beautiful August day with him, when he got the better of Mays. Stargell was not well, on dialysis for his kidney ailment. He was an inch or two taller than I, and even though his body was not the tower of strength it once was, he still loomed large in that crowded elevator.

He asked me, "what year?"
"1963," I responded.

Stargell's rookie season. He was the young upstart, having come to San Francisco to proclaim his right to play on the same field (and share the same first name) with my beloved Willie. Stargell lifted his head, shut his eyes a little, trying to recall the events of that day, and then nodded his head in acknowledgement. I guess baseball legends and orchestra conductors have one thing in common -- a prodigious memory.

What I did not have the nerve to tell Mr. Stargell was that Mays could have caught his long fly ball that day. He just ran out of room. As anyone familiar with Mays's unbelievable catch of Vic Wertz's long fly ball in Game 1 of the 1954 World Series, Mays not only had a great arm and power at the plate, he was fast as they come. And since the playing field of Polo Grounds went on forever, making it nearly impossible to hit a home run to centerfield, Mays simply outran Wertz's deep fly to center, catching it over his left shoulder while still running full speed away from home plate. If you have not seen it, I invite you to do so now:

Happy Birthday, Willie. And thank you for making the childhood of this writer so much brighter with the wonder of your play. Long live the Say Hey Kid!

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