Appreciating Willie, at 90 and beyond

Willie Mays

Willie Mays hits his 500th career home run in the Houston Astrodome, 1965.

I started watching baseball in earnest with the 1961 World Series, when I was pushing six, and the almighty Yankees faced the almost all-surprising Reds and beat them in five. Something about the game put a vise grip upon me that hasn’t let go in the years and over the changes good and bad since.

The Reds’ Frank Robinson was named the National League’s Most Valuable Player for 1961. Willie Mays finished sixth. As I would learn in due course, Robinson won the award as much because he had an MVP-type season as because he played on a pennant winner, but there were better MVP cases in the 1961 National League by Mays and fellow Hall of Famer Hank Aaron.

Then they finished inventing the Mets. I was no longer stuck with having to think purely about the Yankees in New York, since the National League was coming back into business there. (Assorted family members, especially my maternal grandfather, began telling me about the former exploits of the Dodgers and the Giants.)

And I’d get to see Willie Mays, even if on television alone. His Giants came to play my embryonic Mets in their former cavern, a big, horseshoe-shaped, rambling wreck of a ballpark known as the Polo Grounds. They played against each other there nine times in 1962. The Giants didn’t visit their former home until 1 June, but it certainly felt like a visit to the old neighbourhood—they swept the Mets in four.

I got to see the first of those four. Mays came exactly as advertised, playing center field as though he were part of a track meet; hitting a home run off future Giants manager Roger Craig the other way in the fifth, about 390 feet from the plate and into the right field seats; taking third from first on a seventh-inning single by another future Giants manager, Felipe Alou.

The bad news is that even a Willie Mays who leaves magnificent first impressions just warming himself up in the on deck circle can have days where someone else makes bigger impressions in the game. Fellow Hall of Famer Willie McCovey hit two bombs for the price of one Mays mash. And even McCovey didn’t steal the day’s headlines.

That theft belonged to Jim Davenport, a left-side infielder who wasn’t quite that serious a plate threat, squareing off against Mets reliever Willard Hunter two batters after Mays scored, with the bases loaded and one out. Davenport hit one not too far short of where Mays’s bomb landed in the right field seats.

It made the score 9-1, the Mets’ lone run to that point courtesy of Rod Kanehl hitting Giants starter Billy Pierce for a leadoff jack into the left field seats. The Mets managed to chase Pierce in the eighth with an RBI double (Charlie Neal) and a two-run single (Frank Thomas) back to back, before Felix (Wrong Way) Mantilla greeted Giants reliever Bobby Bolin rather rudely with a two-run homer.

That was the last of the day’s scoring. I’m reasonably certain that that was not the game during which Mets manager Casey Stengel visited Craig at the mound with McCovey due to hit and asked, “How do you want to pitch him—upper deck or lower deck?”

The Giants banked the 9-6 win. I didn’t get to watch the next three games, alas. Perhaps just as well, since the Giants outscored the Mets over those three games 22-6, including a doubleheader in which the scoring difference was 16-6, Giants.

Mays had himself a grand time playing baseball in New York for the first time since the Giants went west four years earlier. In game one of that doubleheader he opened with an RBI single and a run scored on a sacrifice fly in the first and continued with a two-run homer in the second, though somehow the Mets kept him quiet in the nightcap.

Then, he had one more homecoming message to deliver in the fourth game of the series, taking one of the Mets’ two Bob Millers (the righthanded one) into the left field seats with one out in the sixth.

The Giants met the Mets nine times in New York in 1962 and beat them seven times. Mays had himself an .851 OPS during those nine games. He was a lot more rude a house guest of the National League’s other newborn team in 1962, the Houston Colt .45s: despite Colt Stadium being a whole pitcher’s park, Mays battered the Colts for a 1.214 OPS in 1962.

Mays was 31 years old in 1962. But he still played as though still ten years younger. He had that stance with his feet about half a foot forward and aft of home plate, the stride starting his swing where you saw his front foot step forward about another full foot plus, swinging down and across his midsection, not extending his muscular forearms until a split second before contact, the bat sweeping a little up going around.

The stride and swing that delivered 3,283 Show hits including 523 Show doubles and 660 Show home runs, and leaves open for question even now how many of his 140 Show triples came mostly from his bat or from his legs, considering how relentless a baserunner he really was.

“Willie had great instincts on the bases and he was always aggressive,” Pete Rose has said of him. “I was an aggressive baserunner also. I developed my baserunning skills watching Willie Mays play.” An interesting recollection, that—Mays took extra bases on followup hits 63 percent of the time he reached base, meaning he took more than one base on such a hit. Rose did it 49 percent of the time.

“[O]n a single, it would have been strange if he didn’t go first to third,” Rose’s teammate, Hall of Famer Johnny Bench has said. “He had one of the best turns rounding second or third you could possibly have. With his agility, he made the most perfect turns.”

Mays’s legs did as much for him playing center field as they did on the bases. He thought nothing of starting in as shallow a positioning as he could get away with before reading, hunting down, and snaring a drive. “Curt Flood was the best I’ve ever seen against the wall. He was better than Willie against the wall,” Flood’s Cardinals teammate Tim McCarver has said. “But Curt played deep. Willie didn’t play deep; he played shallow. Willie never went to the wall. Willie was the wall.”

Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller had a dugout seat with the rest of the Indians during the 1954 World Series, including and especially for the catch for which Mays remains remembered singularly, the run to the absolute rear of the Polo Grounds’ right center field, some 460 feet from the plate, to haul down Vic Wertz’s drive.

To everyone else in the house—including a writer named Arnold Hano, sitting in the bleachers and writing A Day in the Bleachers about that game and that play—the play seemed God’s next to last miracle. (My last miracle, said George Burns as God in a 1977 film, was the 1969 Mets.)

“That really wasn’t that great of a catch,” the curmudgeonly Feller once said. And why? “As soon as it was hit, everyone on our bench knew that he was going to catch it . . . because he is Willie Mays.”

Willie Mays Hall of Fame

Wouldn’t you love to know even now just whom the meatheads were that denied Mays first-ballot Hall enshrinement?

When Ted Williams was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1966, he name-checked Mays respectfully. “The other day Willie Mays hit his five hundred and twenty-second home run,” said Teddy Ballgame himself. “He has gone past me, and he’s pushing, and I say to him, ‘go get ‘em Willie’.” Willie went and got 138 more of ’em before his life as a player finally ended.

For me it was baseball fortune to get to see the better of Willie Mays even in his thirties, even if he was on the road team or I had to wait for one of the Giants’ turns on the old national network Game of the Week telecasts. It was worth the wait to see him square off against such Hall of Famers as Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson, Don Drysdale, the aging Warren Spahn, the young Tom Seaver, the young Steve Carlton.

You might care to note that Mays faced Spahn more than he faced any pitcher, Hall of Famer or otherwise, and had ownership papers on the lefthander who owned a nasty screwball and was a bit of a screwball himself. According to Stathead, Mays faced Spahn 253 times, hitting eighteen home runs among 68 hits, with a slash line pretty close to his overall career slash: .305/.368/.587, and a .955 OPS.

His first major league hit was a home run off me,” Spahn said often enough, “and I’ll never forgive myself. We might have gotten rid of Willie forever if I’d only struck him out.”

Drysdale might have told Spahn, “Why the hell didn’t you strike him out?” Mays faced Drysdale 243 times and, while he hit a measly thirteen bombs off the Dodgers righthander, the slash line is .330/.374/.604. The OPS is .978. Why the hell indeed.

Having learned more than a shard of baseball history by age 16, and having seen more than enough of Mays even as a road player to know that I was watching greatness that belonged not of this world but about five dimensions beyond it, it was easy to feel a little New York sentimentality when the Giants—entering a somewhat testy reconstruction and no longer afford to carry aging players, not even Hall of Famers—sold Mays to the Mets to let him finish where he began.

He only looked resplendent in the Mets’ fatigues, under the blue hat that brandished the same orange interlocked NY which once crowned Mays’s forehead on the old black Giants hat. Sunday, 14 May 1972, was my mother’s 42nd birthday; she was a year older than Mays. The date was also Mays’s first game as a Met.

The Mets took an early four-run lead thanks to Rusty Staub’s first-inning grand salami off erstwhile Indians howitzer Sudden Sam McDowell. The Giants tied the game with a four-run fifth. Leading off the bottom of the fifth came Mays, who’d been 0-1 with a walk and a strikeout when he checked in against Giants reliever Don Carrithers.

Mays hit one about 400 feet over the left field fence to bring the Shea Stadium house to a boil of delight. The fan’s heart prayed it might be an unlikely revival; the analyst’s head knew in its heart that it was only a question of when, not if we’d have to imagine baseball games played somewhere without Mays playing in one of them.

The greats don’t always go gently into that good gray night when they can no longer play the games that made their names. This son of an Alabama industrial league ballplayer  fought a small war in his soul when his age insisted he was no longer able to play the game he loved so dearly at the level on which he’d played it for so many years. Some said he’d become sullen, moody, dismissive in the clubhouse. Some resented him, others felt for him, still others mourned.

The smiles may have become rare now but when they came he still looked like the Say Hey Kid. But, yes, you can look it up: Mays never said, “Say hey!” His early habit of starting greetings to people with “Hey . . . ” inspired beat writers covering the Giants to tab him the Say Hey Kid.)

When he smiled as a Met, you still saw him in his youth, you didn’t see the manchild who was yanked rudely into manhood by a San Francisco that shocked him with skepticism as a New York import rather than a hero of their own. By a San Francisco that also shocked him, for all its reputation otherwise, when his bid to buy a home with his first wife was obstructed long enough by the sting of neighbourhood racism.

But when he accepted the now-inevitable, you cried the tears he fought to suppress when the Mets gave him a Willie Mays night, 25 September 1973, and he addressed the Shea Stadium throng and his pennant-aspiring teammates alike, when Mets announcer Lindsey Nelson beckoned him to a microphone:

I hope that with my farewell tonight, you will understand what I’m going through right now. Something that—I never feel that I would ever quit baseball. But as you know, there always comes a time for someone to get out. And I look at the kids over here [pointing toward his Mets teammates], the way they are playing, and the way they are fighting for themselves, tells me one thing: Willie, say goodbye to America.

The game couldn’t possibly love Mays back as deeply as he loved the game, but it did its best with what it had. Today Mays celebrates his 90th birthday as the oldest living Hall of Famer, and someone like me who was there for enough of his best on the field and at the plate wishes almost as much as he must at times that we could take him back to one more day in the prime of his youth and turn him loose.

This sexagenarian and a half who saw more of him than he had a right to expect would love to shake his hand and say thank you for the honour of watching him play the game the way he played, but the fear is that “thank you” would be insufficient.

We’d love to remove the glaucoma that’s caused him to stop driving and playing golf, and take him back eyes wide open to make one more rambling catch in the depth of the Polo Grounds or in the eye of the Candlestick Park hurricane. We’d love to take him back to the day he won a second National League Most Valuable Player award eleven years after he won his first; we’d love to show him the record and get him at least two or three other MVPs he should have won.

We’d love to take him back to hit one more bomb off the Warren Spahn who only thought we’d have gotten rid of Mays if Spahn had only struck him out; to have his way with Spahn, Drysdale, fellow Hall of Famer Robin Roberts, and others; to let him have one more crack at the Bob Gibson who more or less owned him in comparison; to let him have, especially, one more chance in the single most transcendent one-on-one battle between pitcher and hitter you could ever hope to see, Willie Mays facing Sandy Koufax.

We’d also love to bring back his beloved Mae Louise, his second wife, who wept with him that farewell night at Shea Stadium, and whose eventual suffering with Alzheimer’s her loving husband didn’t allow to stop him from tending her, caring for her, loving her until she died a little over eight years ago.

But all we can do is say “Happy birthday, Willie, and here’s to many more,” we Americans who’ve never really said goodbye to the man who transcended the game we’ve loved, and who have no known inclination to do so. America without Willie Mays would feel like England without the Beatles: anything except themselves anymore.

For Pujols, meeting Mays wasn’t a walk in the park

Albert Pujols just after hitting the home run tying him with Willie Mays on the career list Sunday.

A little earlier this pandemic season, Albert Pujols received a text message on his cell phone. “It’s your time now. Go get it,” the message said. The message came from Hall of Famer Willie Mays, whose 660 lifetime major league home runs Pujols has chased all season long.

With the shadows creeping in in the top of the eighth at Coors Canaveral Sunday afternoon, Pujols went and got it. With his Los Angeles Angels down 3-2 and a man on first, El Hombre turned on a meaty 1-1 fastball from Rockies reliever Carlos Estevez and drove it parabolically down the left field line and halfway up the seats.

The blast was the kind of launch for which Pujols has been fabled from the moment he first came into his own in St. Louis almost two decades ago. The kind he’s hit the last few years almost to the exclusion of anything else.

The kind that reminds you of both the greatness that will punch his Cooperstown ticket and the greatness that’s been eroded by the injuries that have sapped him since after his first season as an Angel, turning his ten-year, $255 million contract into the unfair poster child for terrible sports contracts.

When Pujols commented after Sunday night’s game, it was tough to know which affected him more, finally meeting Mays in the record book or Mays himself urging him on in the first place. “Legend,” said the agreeable Dominican who was born seven years after Mays played his last major league game. “I mean, it’s unbelievable.”

Oh, it was believable, all right. Pujols’s swing remains a work of art, even if it’s supported by legs that betrayed him almost a decade ago, a knee that underwent a surgery here and there, a heel that fought with painful plantaar fascitis costing him the final two months of 2013, feet requiring surgeries after 2015 and 2016.

“When his days are done and his legend is told,” wrote The Athletic‘s Fabian Ardaya, shortly after Pujols’s milestone blast, “they will talk about the swing — that beautiful, powerful swing — and the follow-through and the strut when you knew, everyone knew, that Albert Pujols got every piece of a baseball.”

The swing cemented Pujols as perhaps the best right-handed hitter the game has ever seen. It is slower now, a reality that happens with age, and the majestic drives don’t occur as often. But when they do, even for a split second, they take you back to when Pujols wrecked the league, ruined historic closer seasons and, quite simply, hit.

They take you back to when the only thing keeping Pujols’s three-run detonation against Brad Lidge inside Minute Maid Park in the top of the ninth, 2005 National League Championship Series, was the bracing for the park’s retractable roof. The bad news: that bomb won the Game Six battle but merely saved his Cardinals from losing the war in Game Seven.

They take you back to when Pujols ripped three in a kind of reverse cycle in Game Three of the 2011 World Series—a three-run blast, a two-run blast, a solo blast, in that order, and every one of them after the sixth inning in a 16-7 demolition of the Texas Rangers. The solo provided the sixteenth run.

They take you back to when Pujols was younger, unimpeded by his lower body health, and liable to either drop Big Boy or otherwise make life miserable for opposing pitchers and fielders, in a St. Louis run that left him as the Cardinals’ second-best all-around position player ever, behind the man on behalf of whom Pujols doesn’t always accept having been nicknamed El Hombre.

They take you to his deadly postseason record—the lifetime postseason .323/.431/.599 slash line; the .725 lifetime postseason real batting average (RBA: total bases plus walks plus intentional walks plus sacrifice flies plus hit by pitches divided by total plate appearances); the 109 runs produced. Enough Hall of Famers don’t look half that dangerous playing for all the platinum.

Two years ago Pujols tied Hall of Famer Stan Musial on the all-time runs batted in list. Five years before that, when Musial died, Pujols was almost inconsolable. He and Musial became that close personally. “I know the fans call me El Hombre, which means The Man in Spanish,” he insisted, “but for me and St. Louis there will always be only one Man.”

So insistent on the point was Pujols that, when he became an Angel and the club began hoisting billboards touting El Hombre‘s arrival, Pujols flipped. He insisted very publicly there was only one player who should ever be called The Man, and it wasn’t Albert Pujols. The billboards disappeared faster than the Angels executed their scouting staff after an international signing scandal.

When Pujols talks about his own place in baseball, he does it almost as though the idea that he’s part of it is secondary to what came before him. “I know my place in history,” he told Ardaya. “(But) it’s hard. I don’t want to — It’s almost like I take it personal, like I don’t want to disrespect this game.”

He’s even ready to hand history off to the teammate who played his first full season in an Angel uniform the same year Pujols joined the team. The teammate who’s now the Angels’ all-time franchise home run leader and has been the game’s all-everything player almost right out of the chute. The teammate who doesn’t have a team baseball’s All-Universe player can be proud of.

“We have the best player in the game,” Pujols told Ardaya of Mike Trout, “and five or six years from now, he’s going to be making history, too.” As if he hasn’t already. Pujols knows it.

You think that’s an affectation? Pujols is the same player who refused to join the ruckus in Detroit last year, when he hit one out in Comerica Park for his 2,000th career RBI and, for whatever perverse reasons, MLB and the Tigers together tried to strong-arm the Tiger fan who caught the ball by refusing to authenticate it, until or unless he turned it over, assuming before asking that he wanted to cash the ball in big.

Ely Hydes didn’t like being treated like an opportunist. “Honestly, if they were just cool about it I would’ve just given them the ball,” Hydes told a WXYT interviewer. “I don’t want money off of this, I was offered five and ten thousand dollars as I walked out of the stadium, I swear to God . . . I just couldn’t take being treated like a garbage bag for catching a baseball.”

Pujols understood. Completely. “Just let him have it, I think he can have a great piece of history with him, you know,” he said. “When he look at the ball he can remember . . . this game, and I don’t fight about it. You know, I think we play this game for the fans too and if they want to keep it, I think they have a right to. I just hope, you know, that he can enjoy it . . . He can have it . . . He can have that piece of history. It’s for the fans, you know, that we play for.”

Hydes eventually gave the ball to the Hall of Fame in memory of his little son who died at 21 months old a year before Daddy caught the Pujols milestone.

Mays finished his career both with 660 home runs and as a shell of his once-formidable self, ground down by all those seasons and no few off-field heartbreaks, unable until his body finally put him in a stranglehold to admit that the game he loved and lived to play was no longer fun when he was Willie Mays in name only.

Those were real tears that almost poured out of Mays when he faced a Shea Stadium throng on Willie Mays Day, with the Mets who brought him back to the city of his major league youth, and told them, “There always comes a time for someone to get out. And I look at these kids over there, the way they are playing, and the way they are fighting for themselves, and it tells me one thing: Willie, say goodbye to America.”

It shouldn’t shock anyone when Pujols’s time finally arrives. You can say his time is past, that his lower body ruined what should have been a simpler, kinder, gentler decline phase, leaving him prone to as much criticism under ordinary circumstances as praise when now and then the vintage edition makes a cameo as it did Sunday night.

You should also say, as Angels general manager Billy Eppler did two years ago, that few really knew, never mind understood, Pujols’s determination to play through every lower-body malady he’s incurred since trading Cardinal for Angel red.

“He plays through discomfort,” Eppler told MLB.com. “He endures a lot and doesn’t talk a lot about it. But I can tell you that he’s definitely someone that wants to play and fights through a lot of adversity to make sure he’s out there and contributing to the club.”

There’s something to be said for that as well as against that. It’s not as though Pujols needed to burnish his Hall of Fame resume. And, it’s not as though the Angels couldn’t have cashed him in for things they needed even more than they needed Pujols’s cachet—things like a pitching overhaul, mostly.

He has one more year to go on his Angels deal. The Angels as they stand now are still going nowhere and they still need a radical pitching overhaul if they have any prayer of returning to competitive greatness, with Trout committed to them for life and Pujols knowing he can tell Father Time to go to hell only so much longer, if at all.

Would the Angels even think of trading Pujols this offseason, to a contender with young pitching talent to spare, in need of a veteran mentor to whom they’d be grateful for all his counsel and whatever hits he has left, before the Angels bring him back for that ten-year personal services deal that begins when his playing days end? Who knows?

Such a team could do a lot worse than drawing counsel from the man whom Baseball-Reference lists as the number two first baseman ever to play the game. Only Hall of Famer Lou Gehrig is ahead of him. But Pujols has an arguable case as the greatest all-around first baseman of all time simply because, as devastating as he’s been a hitter, he was also a far better defensive first baseman than Gehrig before his lower body resigned its commission.

Or, maybe, Pujols himself will take stock, surrender to his body’s and Father Time’s mandate at last, leave next year’s $30 million on the table, start that personal services term, and congratulate himself as baseball should on a one-of-a-kind playing career. Maybe. Only Pujols knows for certain, and he doesn’t seem to like talking about that any more than he liked talking about what it took for him to just stroll up to the plate any more.

Maybe the combination of this year’s pandemic surreality and the current major league regime’s continuing inability to promote its best and give proper due to its milestoners kept Pujols’s Sunday night smash hit from blowing the social media universe up too much beyond about an hour’s worth of ordnance.

“To be able to have my name in the sentence with Willie Mays is unbelievable,” Pujols said Sunday night. The Angels have an off-day Monday. He hasn’t hit well this season, and Sunday’s smash was only his fourth home run in 31 games. One homer every seven games on average. He and they have twelve games left.

All Pujols needs is one more meaty pitch to drive, one more summoning up of whatever remains of that impeccable swing, and they’ll be saying his name in the same sentence as Mays once again. This time, for passing him to become sole possessor of number four on the all-time bomb squad.

Maybe then, he’ll get the twenty-one guns he deserves. Maybe.