Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Willie's Giant Christmas Present

Willie Mays at the Giants victory parade in San Francisco last month.
Wall Street Journal
December 24, 2010

This Year, the Greatest Living Ballplayer Finally Got His Wish: a San Francisco World Title

By James S. Hirsch

There were moments during the San Francisco Giants' final World Series game last month that Willie Mays could simply no longer watch. In his den, amid the framed magazine covers, the yellowing photographs, and the sturdy plaques that line his walls, he would lift himself out of his easy chair and take his poodle ("Giant Too") for a walk.

"He was a different Willie," says Jessie Goins, one of several friends who watched the game with Mr. Mays at his Bay Area home. He said very little, even during the most exciting moments. When Edgar Renteria hit the three-run homer in the seventh inning of the clinching Game 5, Mr. Mays's friends cheered, but, Ms. Goins recalls, "Willie showed no emotion."

Of course not. There were still three innings left, and Willie had been close before.

"I didn't think we'd ever win a World Series," he would later say.

Willie Mays, who turns 80 in May, is the greatest living ballplayer. He's also the link that connects the Giant championship team of today with its rich heritage in New York, a reminder of both the glory and the disappointments of the franchise. As a lifetime employee with the Giants, Mr. Mays now serves as an ambassador for the organization—visiting minor-league teams, hobnobbing with investors, or attending every home game at AT&T Park, which itself is a semi-shrine to the Say Hey Kid. The park's address is 24 Willie Mays Plaza, and a magnificent nine-foot bronze statue of Mr. Mays stands in front.

Willie won a World Series ring in 1954, when his signature over-the-shoulder catch in Game 1 propelled the New York Giants to a championship over the Cleveland Indians. Other World Series triumphs would surely come, but not in New York. In 1958, the Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers moved to California, with the media focusing on one player. "WILLIE MAYS GOES WEST," cried the cover blurb of Look magazine. (Winston Churchill appeared on the cover as well.) Mr. Mays's job was to sell tickets, win games and bring a championship to the West Coast. He did the first two, and a World Series trophy did come quickly to California—unfortunately for Giant fans, it went to Los Angeles, in 1959.

Mr. Mays got the Giants close, never more so than in 1962, when they played the Yankees in the World Series. Down by one run in the ninth inning of the seventh game, Mr. Mays doubled a runner to third. Mr. Mays stood 180 feet away from bringing a World Series to San Francisco, but the next hitter lined out to end the game.

Frustration only mounted in the 1960s when—despite having future Hall of Famers like Willie McCovey, Orlando Cepeda, Juan Marichal and Gaylord Perry—the Giants always came up short. During one stretch, they finished in second place four consecutive years.

The Giants won their division with Mr. Mays in 1971 but were eliminated in the playoffs, and then Willie was traded the next year to the New York Mets. He retired in 1973, with only one World Series ring.

Ask Mr. Mays about any regrets in baseball or in life, and he waves off the question. He only thinks about the positives, a protective reflex that has served him well. "I had my time in baseball," he says, "and I enjoyed every single day of it." Not really. He had plenty of bad days, but he would no more acknowledge them than he would acknowledge a burden that he has carried all these years: San Francisco had counted on him to deliver a championship, but for all his heroic efforts, he had not delivered. Nor had any other team.

These days, Mr. Mays follows the games as closely as he can. He has glaucoma, so from his private box at the park, he watches the action on a television. He leaves early to avoid the onrush of fans and listens to the rest of the game on the car radio.

Mr. Mays is happiest when he visits the clubhouse before ball games, holding court with players young enough to be his grandchildren. He sits at a card table and asks the players to sign it, and he'll bring the table home as a souvenir. He doesn't care for the loud music, but he is nonjudgmental about the players. Asked if Major League Baseball is ready for an openly gay player, Mr. Mays says, "Can he hit?"

Associated Press
Mr. Mays threw out the first pitch before
a playoff game against the Phillies.

This past season, he particularly enjoyed catcher Buster Posey, who reminded Willie of himself. Like Willie, Mr. Posey was called up to the big leagues at the end of May in his rookie season, and Mr. Posey—in Willie's view—is a "thinking player." He attributed the Giants success to their unity. "There were no stars out there," he says. "They were 25 guys fighting together. Very simple."

Before Game 1 of the Series, Mr. Mays was supposed to throw out the first pitch, with several other Giants, but a bad cold forced him to stay at home, and he was still a bit under the weather when he shoved on his Giants cap and settled in to watch Game 5 at his home. According to people who were there, the volume was turned high, and Mr. Mays stoically watched the pitching duel with Giant Too on his lap. When the last out was recorded, Mr. Mays cracked a smile, and Ms. Goins rushed for the Mumm Champagne chilling in the refrigerator. But before she could return, Mr. Mays was gone.

He went into another room and stayed by himself for five minutes. When he returned, his eyes were red.

"Can I spray some Champagne on you?" Ms. Goins asked.

Mr. Mays said no—he doesn't drink—and he asked for some tea instead.

The telephone calls started to come from reporters. "Oh, man, I don't get overly excited about baseball," he told them, "but looking at these kids and how excited they were, I had some tears in my eyes."

His cold notwithstanding, Willie Mays slept well that night. San Francisco had its first World Series.

—James S. Hirsch is the author of "Willie Mays: The Life, the Legend."