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Hands on the Torch

Willie Mays emerges in centerfield after the briefest videoboard introduction in which he was pictured mostly in the cap and uniform [1] he wore when he was first wowing his millions of fans several thousand miles to the east. He’s engulfed Teddy Ballgame-style by a mostly new generation of All-Stars: a few perennials, but primarily young guns. They’re kids born way the heck after 1973, after Willie has said goodbye to America. But they know their baseball.

Maybe the 2007 National League and American League All-Stars have been too cutely choreographed into their veritable group hug with the Say Hey elder, but the affection and reverence seem genuine. These are the best in today’s game and they know greatness when they are touched by it. It’s reassuring to see these fellows understand what they’re a part of — and I don’t mean the 2007 All-Star Game [2].

Willie’s at home in center. You’re not going to ask Willie Mays to leave his house on this occasion, thus these will be the grounds from which he’ll throw out the first pitch. Willie in centerfield…the game coming to him…nice touch.

He’s handed a ball. Willie, 76, had one of the great arms ever; just ask the 1954 American League (not World [3]) Champion Cleveland Indians. So of course he’s waving back his catcher, a glint of genuine fire in his eyes. It’s one thing to bring the game to him. It’s another to make it unnecessarily easy on him. He doesn’t need your help. He’s no visiting dignitary. Never mind where they’ve moved the plate for the festivities. Willie’s clutching a baseball in his right hand. That, too, means Willie Mays is home.

His catcher obliges the pitcher’s request.

He backs up.

He crouches.

And he’s…

Jose Reyes?

How did starting shortstop Jose Reyes, in the cap and uniform [4] Willie Mays wore when last wowing his millions of fans several thousand miles to the east, wind up with first-pitch catching duties? Was it just the logistics of the lineups? The N.L. and A.L. turned and snaked from the infield to center after their introductions more or less in the order they were standing. Was it planned that our Jose be on the receiving end of a throw from Willie Mays because by dint of batting leadoff for the home team he’d be trailing at the back of the queue? Was it just convenience? What, Russell Martin couldn’t emerge from tending to Jake Peavy and do a catcher’s job? Would Willie not throw to a Dodger? What about Brian McCann?

Say hey and who cares? Look at that tableau! Willie Mays and Jose Reyes! Pitcher and catcher — unlikely positions, but we’ll take them.

Willie rocks and deals. A strike! (Who’d argue?) Then, as all of All-Stardom serves as parted Red Sea, the two approach each other. What happens next? Does Professor Reyes untuck his pinstripes and engage Mr. Mays in a trademark celebratory cha-cha? Does Willie just keep walking as Willie has been known to do? Willie has just thrown the first pitch at 24 Willie Mays Plaza. He can do what he wants.

Willie Mays wants to greet Jose Reyes.

They clasp hands soul-shake style. They clasp like brothers, like members of a very select fraternity of ballplayers. Thrill Epsilon Wow. You’re initiated on the basepaths, at the plate, all over the field. You don’t get in by being merely great. You have to be incredible.

The moment between Willie Mays and Jose Reyes is a laying on of mitts. It’s a passing of the torch from the one New York National Leaguer you could never take your eyes off to the next. Willie Mays may be godfather to somebody else here tonight, but it’s Jose Reyes, 24 and still figuring things out, who plays like his spiritual heir.

A lot of time, too much time, has flown between the twilight of Mays and the age of Reyes for us to call this a direct flight. Three decades moseyed on by after Willie exited and before Jose entered. It was an eventful enough interregnum for our New York Mets, but it was lacking something. Verve…panache…joie de ball. There were some fine and extremely dandy everyday players in our particular midst who preoccupied us from 1973 to 2003, but none to whose career we New York (N.L.) types can lay some or total claim who generated, just by showing up, as much pure and spontaneous excitement as Willie Mays did or Jose Reyes does. The game we love is just better when there’s a cap departing Willie’s head or a base greeting Jose’s arrival. We didn’t get more than a taste of the former on our terms. But we’re making up for it with loads of the latter.

Now they’re together, in centerfield a continent away, cementing what feels like — through the television and a lifetime of rooting for the only team that has sent Jose Reyes and Willie Mays to an All-Star Game — an intensely sacred bond.

Theirs. Ours.

These members of the highly exclusive Order of Swift Feet, Cannon Arm, Quick Bat, Awesome Instincts and Genius for the Game unclasp hands. The Charisma Summit is ending almost as soon as it started. But before it concludes business for good, Willie knows exactly what to do.

He signs the ball for Jose Reyes.

A sport, recognizing its greatest living practitioner, is savoring him. A city, one that eventually smartened up about adopting a favorite son, is embracing him. Yet Willie Mays puts all that on hold to sign a baseball for Jose Reyes.

Jose Reyes accepts what Willie Mays has given him. “I’ll save that ball all my life,” he says.

I, too, will keep what Willie Mays and Jose Reyes just gave me. You don’t have to travel to San Francisco in July to know what a chill feels like.