This past Saturday, I sat in the same room as Willie Mays and listened to him reminisce about Leo Durocher and Laraine Day  and find a reason to invoke Mel Ott. Bobby Thomson’s name was mentioned prominently by others on hand. Carl Hubbell and Christy Mathewson were namechecked, too.
As Saturdays go, this was a good one to be a New York Giants historical fetishist.
These are the sorts of things that will happen when you chase the Giants as I have rather actively for much of this century. You have to keep up the chase, stay on their tail and put up with a whole lot of chatter about a modern-day baseball team whose fortunes are outside your immediate wheelhouse, but once in a while you get very lucky and the New York Giants spring back to life for you. Hell, the greatest of New York Giants walks into your midst and launches into a story about “Leo and Laraine,” and everybody sharing the Saturday with you knows who he means.
Give me one Saturday like that every winter and I’ll make it to spring somehow.
Two of the past three winters have blessed me with such a Saturday, directly coinciding with who won two of the past three Fall Classics. The San Francisco Giants won the World Series. They were awarded a trophy. They had the idea to bring it east with them, ostensibly for the Baseball Writers Association of America dinner and whatever honors they were picking up there. The trophy travels with them as a sparkling conversation piece, speaking with just a trace of its ancestral New York accent.
Naturally, anything that gets Willie talking about Leo and Laraine and 1951 speaks volumes to me.
These Giants are crazy proud of their thirty-flagged bauble , as well they should be. They earned it by sweeping the final seven games they or anybody else played in 2012, and their relatively recent acquisition of a previous prize just like it, in 2010, didn’t dim their appreciation of winning this one the slightest little bit. If they weren’t proud of these trophies, they wouldn’t bubble-wrap them tightly and buy them first-class tickets to fly cross-country  so interested parties could admire them.
I guess you could call me an interested party, though my interest in eyeing this latest in a veritable string of San Francisco Giants World Series trophies was cursory, and my interest in being photographed alongside it nonexistent. No offense intended to those who were gracious enough to allow me near enough to it to theoretically say “cheese!” and hold that smile, but I can’t be spending time doing the town with glittering evidence of somebody else’s world championship. Nice way for a Mets fan to turn into a pillar of salt.
But let me not sneeze at that trophy from my team’s vast competitive distance away, for the World Series trophy was my entrée to this very special winter Saturday. It’s how I wound up in the same Manhattan hotel ballroom as Willie Mays. It’s what brought Willie and the Giants to where they both became famous and it’s what allowed me the privilege of being part of the welcoming committee as they returned home.
Well, me and a couple of hundred New Yorkers, including, I’d decipher, a handful of Mets fans whose baseball DNA remains informed by the Giant gene. Mostly it was Giants fans. New York fans of the San Francisco Giants, that is: plenty who were with the Giants when all that took was a ride uptown on the IRT; plenty more who are unbothered that the Giants hopped their last train out of town in 1957, thereby abandoning them in advance.
Funny, they don’t look abandoned.
When I began actively seeking fellow New York Giants enthusiasts with whom to commune in my historical fetishism, I assumed I’d find relatively likeminded individuals. Since I was doing my Giants-chasing in New York, I figured on Mets fans who stared at the orange on our caps and longed to touch the place and time from whence it came. I figured wrong. Oh, there are New York Mets fans who dig on the New York Giants, but the core of the crowd for this sort of meditation is comprised of those who view the current San Francisco residence of the Giants not as a major historical affront, but as, at most, a minor logistical inconvenience.
That was so at odds with my worldview of the post-1957 Giants that I deeply denied its prevalence, even as I’d been encountering it continually for the past nine years, dating back to the steamy July night in 2004 when I trekked to the far West Side to sit in a Verizon warehouse with a half-dozen older gentlemen so I could listen to each tell me what it was like to be a New York Giants fan at the Polo Grounds. Over time and across various venues, the New York Giants talk morphed often into San Francisco Giants talk, as in “Did you stay up to watch the game last night?” When the games last night were World Series games, the New York Giants diminished to a secondary concern at these get-togethers.
Holy Tito Fuentes’s Headband , I thought, the team plays 3,000 miles away under the banner of another city, yet these people are still Giants fans.
Apparently, the Mets fans who dug on the Giants moved on fully to the Mets, pausing now and then to grumble  that the Giants are shortchanged in the Mets origin story, but mostly shrugging at that historical omission before returning to snarling at current Met ownership over more pressing missteps. The people who took the legacy of the New York Giants most seriously stayed with the Giants, even if the Giants didn’t stay near them.
Good thing they did, or I wouldn’t wind up in a hotel with the Say Hey Kid, not once but twice in three winters. This, per Lennon and McCartney, happened once before, when the Giants came to our door with their World Series trophy in January of 2011. That was pretty spectacular in its own right, though Willie on that morning kept his Say Heyness rather reined in. Willie seemed tired and reluctant to be adored. When Willie Mays, at his advanced state, doesn’t appear capable of rhetorically running out from underneath his cap, you worry about him a little.
No worries Saturday. I came away from watching him thinking that except for his being 81, I’d take him in center in 2013. Maybe not in center field, but at the center of any baseball convocation.
The Giants brought a trophy. They brought their executive corps. They brought goodwill and World Series press pins and complimentary breakfast. They brought the kind of class a fan dreams his team oozes, championship-caliber or not. But mostly they brought Willie Mays, and Willie works best when he is the main course. In 2011, he shared the spotlight with Buster Posey, and Willie’s self-awareness seemed to tell him to not overwhelm the new kid in town with his own all-time greatness. Willie was Willie, and Willie was the greatest ballplayer ever? Two years ago, many in our ranks couldn’t wait to tell him so. Yet no matter the awe he inspired in men and women of multiple generations, he wanted to make sure we knew how special Buster being Buster was.
His tune hasn’t changed in that regard. The first thing Willie said to us on Saturday after a couple of standing ovations (one just for showing up, the next after he was introduced) was “I didn’t do nothin’” where the 2012 world championship was concerned. “It was the kids,” he said. He meant Posey (who was in town with the Giants for the BBWAA dinner, but not at this event), Sandoval, Zito, Cain, Pagan, Scutaro…all kids relative to Mays. They’re the ones who won the darn thing. Willie Mays knows too much about accomplishing great feats on a ballfield to pretend he should be taking credit for those he had nothin’ do with.
He has plenty of his own anyway. And this year he wasn’t shy about absorbing adoration for any of it. Willie doesn’t actively court worship. He doesn’t have to. But c’mon, he’s Willie Mays. He knows who he is. He knew where he was, too, on Saturday: in the city where it all started for him, from the days when he was the kid, let alone the twilight when he was the wily veteran whose 1973 with the Mets wasn’t altogether dissimilar from his 1951 with the Giants in terms of pennant pressure and fan appreciation. This time, unlike two years earlier, he wasn’t tired. This time he didn’t raise a force field around him to diminish the adoration. This time he was relaxed, engaged…on.
And let’s not forget grateful, which is hilarious, because the gratitude flowed massively from the audience to the featured speaker. We were grateful to be listening to Willie Mays, but Willie Mays was grateful for what New York did for him as a 20-year-old prodigy who was an Alabama babe in the Gotham woods, yet never lacked for mentors at or away from the ballpark. He kept talking about how people in New York “took care of me,” and I got the sense that Willie chatting amiably and answering questions he’s probably answered 24-zillion times was his way of taking care of New York back.
Consider us well taken care of.
Great day to be a New York Giants fan, a San Francisco Giants fan, even a New York Mets fan if you were willing to put aside the continual calls for making these post-World Series celebrations “an annual event” for a team that isn’t the Mets. I’d profusely thanked the fellas who’d connected with the Giants and let them know they still had a Metropolitan Area following — historical and otherwise — but then I felt the need to thank someone with the Giants directly. Thus, I went up to the guy who runs the Giants, Larry Baer, and said:
b) thank you for all this;
c) I’m a Mets fan who loves the New York Giant roots  and I really felt at home here today.
To that, the president and chief executive officer of the World Champion San Francisco Giants made a fist and tapped his heart.
I did mention their organization oozes class, didn’t I?
It wasn’t only a great day to be a San Francisco Giants fan, it’s a great era. They’ve got the World Series trophies. They’ve got the transcontinental lovefest. They’ve got somebody getting up at this thing on Saturday to tell the general manager, Brian Sabean, “you’re a genius” and applause breaking out in assent. That’s what baseball happiness sounds like, I guess.
That goes for Giants fans wherever they’re based. Before Willie spoke, Baer made reference to the Giants being the Giants for 131 years, New York included — “heart and soul” and “heritage” figured prominently in his remarks. Peter Magowan, the man most responsible for keeping the Giants in San Francisco when they were on the verge of vagabonding it to Tampa Bay, described growing up around here: him sneaking a radio into school on October 3, 1951; his dad breaking away from work, going to the winner-take-all match versus the Dodgers beneath Coogan’s Bluff and staying when his companions had given up and left. They were both rewarded with the Shot Heard ’Round the World. The two of them played hooky together the next day to attend the first game of the World Series at Yankee Stadium. Magowan’s message, like Baer’s, was the Giants are the Giants as far as the Giants are concerned, and that designation knows no geographic boundaries.
Willie concurred. “You’re wearing a uniform that says Giants,” he reasoned. “It doesn’t matter where you are.” That (and his lifetime position as special assistant to the president) compelled Willie to declare, “I’ll always be a Giant.” On the other hand, when one audience participant waxed sentimental over his “Say Goodbye to America” speech at Shea Stadium, Willie didn’t renounce his Met detour whatsoever. He even insisted the Mets should’ve beaten the A’s in the ’73 World Series: “We had the better team.”
Two years ago, even though Willie wasn’t all that “on,” my inner ten-year-old did manage to elicit a kindly smile from him when I was granted a sliver of his time, which I used to thank him decades after the fact for his relatively brief Met tenure . No matter whose uniform to whom he pledges eternal allegiance (and he did play in Giant colors for 20 years), he still has a knack for making Mets fans happy…and not just me.
Last April at the Hofstra 50th Anniversary conference, there was a panel discussion on the link between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Mets. One man in the audience stood to ask the panelists why the talk in this realm is usually Dodgers and rarely Giants. I knew instantly this was a kindred spirit, so I introduced myself. The man’s name was Howard, a Giants fan from way back — my kind of Giants fan in that he was sore at the Giants for moving and switched to the Mets once they were invented. I saw him again on Saturday, this time with a program from the 1954 World Series. Howard bought it at Game One at the Polo Grounds and kept score. He showed me the ‘X’ he penciled in to mark the extraordinary putout the home team center fielder made in the eighth inning. You may have seen pictures. The batter was Vic Wertz. The center fielder was Willie Mays. The catch was The Catch .
Howard brought the scorecard to the hotel, and he and his son, Andy, asked someone with the Giants if they could maybe perform a mitzvah before the festivities officially commenced. Sure enough, the scorecard was whisked away and delivered back to its owner a few minutes later…freshly autographed by the center fielder.
“After 55 years,” Andy told me, “my father’s finally forgiven the Giants for leaving New York.”
Immense thanks to Gary Mintz of the New York Giants Preservation Society  and Bill Kent of the New York Baseball Giants Nostalgia Society for making Saturday mornings like these possible — and for keeping the New York Giant flame burning so brightly.
You can read about Willie Mays’s greatest moments in a Mets uniform in The Happiest Recap: First Base (1962-1973), available via Amazon .
I recently discussed the book in-depth on the appropriately named Happy Recap Radio Show, which you can listen to here . Also, check out Ed Marcus’s thoughtful review of The Happiest Recap at Real Dirty Mets Blog .
Image courtesy of NYBGNS.