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Third Time’s Another Charm

The kid who made The Flip, the Say Hey Kid who made The Catch. (Photo courtesy of the San Francisco Giants) [1]

The kid who made The Flip, the Say Hey Kid who made The Catch. (Photo courtesy of San Francisco Giants)

Is there any better antidote to chilly days than Willie Mays? Is there any doubt that No. 24 could melt the 24 inches of snow projected to blanket our Metropolitan Area if you gave him a bat, a glove and another go with 24-year-old legs? Is there a sunnier thought 24 days in advance of Pitchers & Catchers than that which results when one considers the greatest center fielder there ever was?

Say no to all of the above because, Say Hey, Willie Mays was in town over the weekend, reminding all of us lucky enough to spend a few minutes in his presence that greatness doesn’t grow old. It just gets better with age.

The Willie Mays I saw on Saturday was the Willie Mays who acts as ambassador for the game he made his own a scant 64 years ago. There are many Willie Mayses. Willie the phenom from 1951. Willie the megastar by 1954. Willie the idol of millions forever after. Willie from Uptown, when he lived around the corner from where he worked and played ball at both addresses (stickball on St. Nicholas Place, baseball on Eighth Avenue between 155th and 157th Streets). Willie of the West Coast after he was transferred on business. Willie who left his heart in New York and came back to find it well cared for in 1972. Willie who Said Goodbye to America two weeks before helping bid the Big Red Machine au revoir in the fall of 1973. Willie the living legend, in and out of uniform for decades since.

Yes, there are many Willie Mayses. But when you get right down to it, there’s only one Willie Mays.

The Giants — currently of San Francisco, ancestrally of Manhattan — keep coming up with good excuses to give Willie Mays a ride back to his baseball hometown. They keep winning the World Series. Not every year, which would be gauche, but every other year. Then they take a few days out of their busy California schedule and visit New York with a trophy and an icon in tow. The trophy’s a lovely keepsake, but it’s somebody else’s. When the Giants come around, I don’t greet them in order to relish their spoils of victory.

I come to be near Willie Mays. Success hasn’t spoiled that sensation.

To offer a little background to those of you who haven’t heard it before, I’ll tell you that at the age of nine, when I was already deeply and eternally bound to the fortunes of our Metsies, I became fully aware that they were preceded as “N.Y. (N.L.)” by another outfit, one that even wore the same NY on their caps. This was 1972. I was in third grade and had begun to soak up the history of those larger-than-life New York Giants. There was an article in Baseball Digest that introduced me to John McGraw and Christy Mathewson. There was a biography in the East School library that profiled Mel Ott. Suddenly, there was a trade made by the New York Mets that netted them the greatest of New York Giants.

They…we…got Willie Mays.

Critical mass thus gave me two teams, the Mets in my time, the Giants for all time, or at least the portion of pre-Mets time they spent in New York, which spanned 1883 to 1957. They became my object of historical affection. The San Francisco aspect of their ongoing activities didn’t really register with me. Those Giants, once they kindly sent Willie home where he belonged, were just another Met opponent whose games started inconveniently late. I had no strong opinion of them except that I thought it rather rude that they had absconded with Mays in the first place.

Credit where credit is due, though. The San Francisco Giants have become all about the make-good. In the 2010s, they win a World Series every other year and they make certain to share the spirit of those championships with their New York diehards. They honor two groups with which I’ve been happily involved — the New York Baseball Giants Nostalgia Society and the New York Giants Preservation Society — for continuing to honor them. They organize a biennial breakfast and invite the membership and host a black-and-orange love-in that doesn’t turn a person away just because he otherwise bleeds Mets blue.

They’re the three-time World Champion San Francisco Giants. They can afford to be gracious. Same for their Gotham-based fans. In New York Giant-loving circles (which is to say among Giants fans who live in New York and cheer for San Francisco), I’m accepted for my heritage-oriented enthusiasm. I’m welcome to take part in their festivities, given a peek into their folkways, offered the same crack at the same sumptuous buffet as they are.

I’ll be rooting against those Giants when they come to Citi Field in June. In the icebox that is January, however, I can’t think of an organization I like better.

Willie left his heart in New York in 1957. Every time he returns from San Francisco, he finds it's been well cared for. (Photo courtesy of New York Giants Preservation Society) [2]

Willie left his heart in New York in 1957. Every time he returns from San Francisco, he finds it’s been well cared for. (Photo courtesy of New York Giants Preservation Society)

The San Francisco Giants bring me Willie Mays every two winters. They brought him to me in 2011 [3] when, truth be told, he seemed a little out of it. They brought him to me in 2013 [4] when he was far sharper and more engaged. They brought him to me on Saturday when I swear that if I had closed my eyes and hadn’t known any better, I’d have thought I was listening to the same Willie Mays from when he wore 24 in Queens.

In 2015, Willie sounded A-Mays-ing. Every time the Giants win a World Series, he gets younger. This youth movement might help explain San Francisco’s autumnal success. They brought their ageless wonder to this breakfast of champions and they brought Joe Panik, who appears to me all of 14. (Joe’s actually…wait for it…24.)

The Giants didn’t need to give us Joe Panik, but what the hell, the kid is from somewhere around here and why shouldn’t he have the chance to visit with Willie Mays, too? He did just help his team win a World Series.

All due respect to the second baseman whose quick thinking in the field turned Game Seven of the most recent World Series around [5], but the Giant nostalgists, preservationists and fans who filled their third hotel ballroom in five winters didn’t come out in the slush to hear from Joe Panik. He was a swell complement, but Willie Mays was positively papal in his effect on the people. Hundreds rose as one when word filtered in from the hallway that Willie was about to enter. Willie didn’t enter for more than five minutes, but nobody sat down.

You don’t sit down when Willie Mays might walk by.

It was worth the wait. Willie was led in. Standing on the edge of his processional, I was going to try to get a very good picture with my phone. Instead I gave a very good ovation and got a series of blurry photos. That’s all right. There’s no shortage of published images of Willie Mays. To have one in your head of him passing right in front of you as you pay proper homage? That you can leave your phone in your pocket for.

Like I said, Willie did some version of this in 2011 and 2013. He’s plenty loose by now. In 2015, he was ready from the first softball tossed his way.

How did it feel to be back in New York?

“I never left!” Indeed, Willie Mays has maintained an apartment in Riverdale, but the way he squealed his answer and the understanding of how his backstory wound through the Polo Grounds (and Shea Stadium) made it an instant applause line.

“People in New York, when they like you, they love you.” More applause.

When Joe Panik was introduced, there was applause, too — and leading it, on his feet, was Mr. Mays. Willie, recurring youthful aura notwithstanding, is 83. He needs some assistance to get from the back to the front of a ballroom. Yet he didn’t hesitate to stand and salute Panik. He also was plenty ready to discuss what a promising player he was sitting next to. As Willie likes to say (and he said it Saturday), he doesn’t know why he refers to “we” having won the World Series. “I didn’t do anything,” he frankly admits. “They won.”

It struck me that when you hear the phrase “he’s a good baseball man,” we’re conditioned to apply it to someone like Terry Collins. He didn’t excel as a player but he worked hard and he learned things and he accumulated knowledge and he stayed in the game and, after a fashion, others in the industry looked at him and agreed, “He’s a good baseball man.”

We don’t apply that to someone on Willie Mays’s level — which isn’t a very populated level, I grant you. But when I listened to him digress on what Panik had done well last season and postseason, then heard him analyze the trajectory of the 2014 Giants and compare their confidence with his self-confessed bad case of rookie nerves in 1951, I realized that Willie Mays, aside from being the most spectacular of baseball players, is a very good baseball man.

I doubt you’d find better.

Willie addressed a range of topics as wide as CF at the PG. He remembered Ernie Banks as “someone who never got mad…and all of a sudden the ball would go over the fence.” He reported that he and Monte Irvin, soon to turn 96, “talk all the time”. He won a round of loving laughs when he confirmed that when Bobby Thomson hit his pennant-winning homer, he didn’t realize right away what all the fuss was about (Willie was in the on-deck circle and still assumed he was up next). He wouldn’t rank a next-best center fielder, but acknowledged “Junior was pretty good”. He rated as the loudest roar of his career the welcome home he received in the Polo Grounds in 1962 the first time the Giants headed east to play the Mets. He explained San Francisco’s tentative embrace when he and his teammates moved there in ’58: “They soon understood I could play baseball.”

Somewhere along the way, Larry Baer, CEO of the Giants, joined the panel to hail not just Willie and Joe but the audience, a crowd that stayed true to their team, distance be damned. (Panik said something earnest about appreciating the proliferation of Giants fans at Citi Field, which served as another surefire applause line, though I assure you I kept my hands politely folded.) Baer thoroughly tipped his cap to the Giants’ “roots” in New York, though the mere existence of this January morning event testified to his club’s sincerity.

This whole thing was on the Giants: the space in a really lovely hotel; the food that far outpaced your average Holiday Inn Express; the trophy that I’m told is awarded for winning a championship (how would I know?); the transcontinental goodwill; the pairing of the outfielder who made The Catch [6] in New York in 1954 with the New York-born infielder who made The Flip [7] in 2014. Nobody’s charged anything. Nobody’s sold anything. There are no merchandise tables, no “Giants on the Road” packages. Instead, there’s stories and reflections and standing ovations coming and going. There are grateful remarks like “three World Series in five years, I still have to pinch myself,” and reminiscences about having sat in Section 38 for Game One in ’54, left-center, and watching Willie tracking Vic Wertz’s ball all the way, and asides that Section 22 at the Polo Grounds was behind home plate and how you could remember Section 22 by number because, well, Don Mueller [8] wore 22.

For those on hand who lived the New York Giants, this was quite the gathering. For those who had the San Francisco Giants passed down to them as a family heirloom three time zones removed, it was an experience to be cherished. For me, who figures I wouldn’t have my New York Mets without those New York Giants, it was a stolen moment in the sun.

It snowed the night before. It’s snowing all over again two days later. I’ll steal every bit of sunshine I can.

My particular heartfelt thanks to Bill Kent of the New York Baseball Giants Nostalgia Society and Gary Mintz of the New York Giants Preservation Society for engineering these three Saturday mornings I’ve been fortunate enough to spend with Willie Mays, or three more than it ever occurred to me to dream possible.