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The Willie Mays Bridge

One week delayed due to a fever [1] that could have eviscerated Corona, welcome to Flashback Friday: I Saw The Decade End [2], a milestone-anniversary salute to the New York Mets of 1969, 1979, 1989 and 1999. Each week, we immerse ourselves in or at least touch upon something that transpired within the Metsian realm 40, 30, 20 or 10 years ago. Amazin’ or not, here it comes.

One player was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1979. And one team was there for him when he was first called on to talk about it. That was Willie Mays and those were the New York Mets. They went together naturally thirty years ago.

That Mays would be a Hall of Famer wasn’t much of a surprise nor a topic for debate. The shock was that his percentage of the vote was only 94.7%. It may have been the highest such percentage since Cobb, Ruth and Wagner were elected with the first Cooperstown class, but 23 sportswriters didn’t bother to vote for him. As one of that year’s J.G. Taylor Spink Award-winning scribes put it, “If Jesus Christ were to show up with his old baseball glove, some guys wouldn’t vote for him. He dropped the cross three times, didn’t he?”

The quip was delivered by Dick Young [3], which doesn’t make it any less appropriate.

It wasn’t a surprise that Mays was, in a sense, going into the Hall as a Met [4]. No, not on his cap, but in all practicality. Willie had come home to New York in May 1972 [5]. New York was home, baseball home. He did a tour of duty in San Francisco, but this was where he was born as a big leaguer (though he was probably sliding into third as soon as they cut the cord). Willie Mays said “hey” in Harlem in 1951 and he put the exclamation mark on his career twenty-two years later in Flushing when he said goodbye to America. After that, he wore the Mets uniform for six seasons as a coach without portfolio, which is why it was Met executives accompanying him to his congratulatory press conference in January 1979. He was in charge of being Willie Mays. Every organization should be lucky enough to have one of those.

We did. It was relatively brief, but we did. More to the point, New York did. New York (N.L.) did. Who else could have been gone nearly fifteen years and gotten a veritable welcome home parade and, had it not been for Bowie Kuhn, probably a lifetime sinecure at Shea? Mays and Mickey Mantle, it will be recalled, were banned from baseball for associating with a casino (think about that next time you’re knocking back Scotches at the Caesars Club). Choose one or the other, ordered the commish. The legends chose the casino greeter jobs. Not long after, the Mets were sold to a group that didn’t involve the family of the late Joan Payson — great news for the long-term health of the franchise, a development that served to make Willie superfluous at Shea.

In the following years, Willie would gravitate back to San Francisco, to the Giants. They retired his number (before a game against the Mets) in 1983. He eventually received a lifetime ambassador’s post by the Bay. They opened a ballpark on 24 Willie Mays Drive and put up an impressive statue in his honor.

I think we can do a little something to remember him ourselves. Let’s christen the Willie Mays Bridge.

You know what bridge I’m talking about: that bridge [6] out above right center, probably the most recognizable feature of Citi Field’s internal vista. For all the carping and sniping I’m prone to doing as I settle in for the remainder of my lifetime in this facility, I have to compliment the Mets and their architects for coming up with that bridge. It’s allegedly Jeff Wilpon’s inspiration, thought up while his plane came in for a landing. He saw the Hell Gate Bridge and thought something that evoked it would be a nice touch in his new ballpark.

The mets.com official propaganda puts it this way:

A structural steel “bridge” motif throughout Citi Field reinforces the Mets’ connection to New York’s five boroughs while also symbolically linking the team’s storied tradition to its future.

Intentionally or not (can you imagine the Mets doing anything successfully not by accident?), the idea echoes the official team logo wherein “the bridge in the foreground symbolizes that the Mets, in bringing back the national League to New York, represent all five boroughs.”

Whyever its there, it works. It gives you a feeling of place both when you’re leaning back against it and when you’re staring out at it. It’s already a magnet for pedestrians. As I was approaching it from right one sunny Saturday, I heard a traffic copter report in my head. “Backup on the Tommie Agee Bridge…”

That was my first impulse, name it for Agee. Nobody is more closely associated with center field among Mets as Mets than Agee, and that’s after Mazz, Mookie, Dykstra and Carlos have each laid their claim to imMetality. No Met centerfielder will ever have a game like Tommie Agee did in Game Three of the 1969 World Series: two indelible catches plus a leadoff home run.

But I got to thinking about Agee and how he was the only player commemorated in fair territory at Shea Stadium for a single feat: that home run in the Upper Deck, struck April 10, 1969. Just because Shea isn’t there anymore doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. That’s why I’d suggest an alternate tribute to Agee.

Look at the out-of-town scoreboard at Citi Field (if you’re seated where you can do so). There’s a big blank space to the left of the American League listings. What would look better there than a recreation of the Tommie Agee marker [7]from Upper Deck 48? Just put the same info up there and let people who remember the marker (or the homer) say “oh yeah…” and let those who don’t ask somebody. That’s how you keep an oral tradition like baseball going.

And when you do that, announce another initiative. Let it be known that when a Met hits a homer deep into the Promenade, it will be marked with an orange seat. It’s an idea stolen from Fenway [8], to be sure, and a variation was even used at the Vet for Willie Stargell and Greg Luzinski blasts, I believe. But it’s a good idea. Imagine one or two orange seats in that sea of green. “Hey, what’s that?” an out-of-town visitor might ask. “Well,” you can tell that person, “Wright was up and he got a pitch and just swung as hard as he could and…”

The Agee marker and the orange seat don’t hit you over the head, they just very calmly tell you, “Mets,” which is something you’d like to hear more often in this ballpark.

Back to the bridge, which the Mets themselves asked about last Friday in a survey of fans at the very moment I was writing this and succumbing to influenza. (Thanks to the ever-vigilant Mets Police [9] for printing the questionnaire in full.) The Mets’ survey offered up some good and frankly bad ideas for naming the bridge:

• Amazin’ Alley

• Casey’s Crossing

• Gil Hodges Bridge

• Miracle Mile Bridge

• Piazza Path

• Seaver Bridge

• You Gotta Believe Bridge

• Other

I’m an “other,” myself, but I considered a couple of these options even before I saw a survey was out. Naming something for Gil Hodges is generally a fine idea, but I’d demur on that one, as much as I want attention to be showered on Hodges.

Hodges has a bridge in New York, a real one — the Marine Parkway Gil Hodges Memorial Bridge [10] that connects the western end of the Rockaways to Brooklyn. It’s massive, like Hodges’ forearms, like Hodges’ impact on the Mets. He deserves something similarly substantial in the new ballpark. I propose the path from the Ebbets Club to the right field corner be christened Gil Hodges Hall and the man’s life story be on display all along the route. It is, after all, the first base side. Gil, a great first baseman, is the one who got the Mets to first literally and (if you take into account shoe polish) then some.

Casey Stengel had a plaza at Shea, which wasn’t much more than a street sign. Let’s resurrect it out front of the Rotunda. It’s a beautifully landscaped entrance and who did more to sow the seeds of the Mets franchise than Casey Stengel? Casey also had a deli at Shea, in Loge, but we’ve got enough places to eat for now.

Of course you’d have a Casey Stengel statue out there. Just as you’d have one for Gil, perhaps out where his Hall ends, around the World’s Fare Market. And yes, we need one for Tom Seaver, too, but I haven’t decided where it should go. (Foot traffic is a serious issue at Citi Field, so let the Mets plan it wisely.)

No, the center field bridge should acknowledge a centerfielder…it should acknowledge the centerfielder. And it should do what it purports to represent: it should link. It should tell, in a brief and classy way, of the New York National League tradition Willie Mays came from and it should tie it to the one he came home to — the one that continues today.

It doesn’t have to be a huge deal. A small plaque on each end, his likeness on one side in an NY cap circa 1951 and another image in an NY cap circa 1973.

NEW YORK (N.L.) 1951-57, 1972-73

He spanned a generation.
He spanned a continent.
He transcended the game.

There. That’s all. You don’t need a multimedia extravaganza. We don’t need to see him in a non-Mets uniform. We just need to pass it on [11]. The caps say it all: New York (N.L.). Every time the camera lingers on the Willie Mays Bridge, Gary, Keith, Ron or Kevin (to say nothing of Ralph) will tell the story of the Say Hey Kid, how he played stickball in the street [12] after a long day’s work chasing fly balls blocks away. We’ll hear the occasional mention of the 50% of the Mets’ forebears [13] who, to date, have been completely hidden from view at Citi Field. When Beltran or his successor makes a great running dive, we’ll see footage from the 1954 World Series and we’ll be reminded, too, of what Agee did in center and Swoboda in right and Chavez in left.

It fits the Citi motif perfectly, too. Have you seen that outfield? Can you imagine a better challenge for a young Willie Mays? Remember the line, “Willie Mays and his glove: where triples go to die”? Can you imagine the greatest centerfielder taking on the terrain that seems designed to gestate triples? You will imagine it because you’ll be walking across the Willie Mays Bridge.

I thought about the Polo Grounds Bridge, seeing as how Willie and a lot of other pre-Met New York National Leaguers played there — plus the Mets for two seasons — but that seems forced. Same for Coogan’s Bridge. Too much to explain there. As my friend Charlie Hangley pointed out to me while we took in a game, the structure beyond the bridge, the Mets’ administration building [14], gives off a bit of a Polo Grounds center field clubhouse [15] vibe. Thus, it really feels like a subtle stroll from the past to the present and beyond when you name the span the Willie Mays Bridge.

Best of all, he was a Met [16]. It was for fewer than two seasons as a player, but for the next six as a coach, almost eight full seasons in and as part of the fabric of this franchise. He had come home and he appeared to be staying home. It was the best kind of connection: a New York National Leaguer in the ’70s because he was such an important figure as a New York National Leaguer in the ’50s. It was such a huge deal when he came back — emphasis on back. A light was left on in the window for New York’s favorite son, and through the good works of Mrs. Payson, the light went heeded. Then he remained when he was done playing, guiding the “kids,” as he called the young players he tutored formally and informally in pre-game maneuvers, as noted in Mary Kay Linge’s biography [17].

Don’t believe Willie Mays was a significant contributor as a Met? Just ask those who played with him down the stretch of that legendary ’73 pennant drive (courtesy of SABR’s John Saccoman [18]):

Tug McGraw: “I guess I learned as much from Willie Mays as anybody.”

Jerry Koosman: “He was still our best player. I begged him not to retire.”

Tom Seaver: “Many of the New York writers made him out as a load we had to carry, but, quite the contrary, he helped us carry the load we had all the way down through the season, especially the last month and a half, when we got hot and put it all together.”

Willie Mays, the best player in National League history by most reckoning, was a Met. It wasn’t a stopover. It was a homecoming. He touched home plate at Shea after a dramatic homer on May 14, 1972 and he touched home plate at Shea leading off a dramatic farewell on September 28, 2008. He did span a generation and a continent. He did transcend the game. He did it as a New York Giant and he did it as a New York Met. He did it in center field. He was the bridge. He should be the bridge.

One of the all-time greats was a Met. Don’t quibble with how much of his legacy belongs to us. Glory in that he was here. Speak his name and further his legacy, that of National League baseball in New York. Reclaim it, burnish it, don’t hide from it.

Willie Mays’ current employers come to Citi Field August 14-17. Might be a good weekend to dedicate a bridge and cement a legend.

Say “hey!” to Faith and Fear in Flushing: An Intense Personal History of the New York Mets, available from Amazon [19], Barnes & Noble [20] or a bookstore near you. Keep in touch and join the discussion on Facebook [21].