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Greg Prince and Jason Fry
Faith and Fear in Flushing made its debut on Feb. 16, 2005, the brainchild of two longtime friends and lifelong Met fans.

Greg Prince discovered the Mets when he was 6, during the magical summer of 1969. He is a Long Island-based writer, editor and communications consultant. Contact him here.

Jason Fry is a Brooklyn writer whose first memories include his mom leaping up and down cheering for Rusty Staub. Check out his other writing here.

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Willie’s Timing

He who has led baseball in every meaningful way for generations has been reported to have passed away. If these reports prove accurate, protocol therefore demands the flag be lowered to half-staff, then ball must be played like it’s been played only once before — from 1948 to 1973. Play it like it was played in Birmingham; in Trenton; in Minneapolis; in Manhattan; in San Francisco; in Flushing. Play it like it was played everywhere Willie Mays called home, which collective experience specifies was every ballpark he ever graced. Willie competed in the uniform of just a handful of organizations, but his brilliance belonged to every fan. So to honor him, wherever you are and whomever you root for, please remove your hat, bow your head, picture No. 24 amid your reverent moment of silence, and then play ball. Play with style. Play with heart. Play with innate intelligence that divines every nuance of the game and use what you know to your and your team’s full advantage. Play with all the ability in the world if you have it (Willie did) or all the ability you can muster (Willie did that, too). Play with joy. Work relentlessly at being the best, but don’t give the impression it’s work. Play ball.

On Tuesday night, the same night it was announced Willie Mays had moved on, the last team for whom he played professionally displayed the kind of joie de ball that made the man immortal in every sense we baseball-loving mortals can fathom. The New York Mets trailed the Texas Rangers, 6-2, after five innings, yet came away the winners in Arlington, 7-6, posting their seventh consecutive victory. They hit; they hit with power; they fielded; they threw; they ran; they understood what needed to be done; and they did it. Maybe their caps flew off in the process. If it wasn’t a conscious tribute to the National Pastime’s head of state, it was as appropriate a performance as one could summon to leaven the aftereffects of the shocking bulletin we’d been reluctantly delivered.

Willie, they said, died at 93. It’s shocking regardless of age. You would have bet even money — an action MLB is cool with these days — that Willie was the one person who would defy standard actuarial odds. Ninety-three? Watch Willie go for a hundred and then keep going. Based on everything we saw and read since he entered our consciousness, he may be deking us at this very moment just so the trail runner can take third on the celestial relay.

If this really is it, Willie still isn’t gone. Baseball is Willie’s game. Not was, is. We’ve lived in Willie’s time for so long, it seems impossible to reset our watches. There was baseball before him. There’s been Baseball with a capital Willie since. He linked every era so seamlessly that you’d almost think they’ve flowed as one. I’ve never existed a day when Willie Mays couldn’t be identified as the greatest ballplayer alive. I doubt I’m ready to start now.

Willie Mays came to New York in 1951 and put down psychic roots that outlasted both the Polo Grounds and Shea Stadium. Both parks were better off for his presence. The New York Giants, as proud and historic a franchise as ever was, personified past glory before Willie showed up. Willie made them vibrant and contemporary and winners. They left town, anyway. There are many reasons to fondly recall the New York Giants of 1883 to 1957. The first and sometimes only one people know in this century is Willie Mays.

We weren’t done cheering for Willie just because his jersey didn’t say NEW YORK on it when he returned to the old neighborhood or brightened the new environs. No “visiting” player was ever as thoroughly or sincerely or consistently embraced as Willie Mays was when he was technically a Met opponent for a decade. That’s because he was never more than technically a visitor. How could he be? He’d never stopped owning New York.

It’s wrong that the Giants ever departed New York. It’s wrong that Willie had to be anything but a Giant. It’s absolutely right that Willie Mays was a New York Met. There’s an awful lot of “you had to be there” to explain what it meant to see No. 24 rendered in orange and blue and Willie elevating the color scheme to a whole new level in 1972 and 1973. You had to know a little something about where Willie had been prior to San Francisco and how New York couldn’t forget him. Even if you were a kid of nine or ten, you got it and you were all in on what was happening. Willie Mays was here in front of you, not for a series, but for a season, then another one, then the postseason that followed. You knew it was late for him as a player. You heard it wasn’t the same as it had been when he arrived twenty-some years earlier. You, quite frankly, didn’t care. You got Willie Mays in your midst. You were blessed by the glimpse and you never forgot it.

When his career was over, a trope emerged that 42-year-old Willie Mays had stayed in the game too long. The next 51 years revealed Willie could stay as long as he liked, wherever he liked, however he liked. By outliving every ballplayer considered something akin to his peer, appreciation of Willie Mays as singular revived and amplified. The Giants, despite their sin of going west, took care to burnish his vast legacy. The Mets, once the proper people had their say, threw in their 24 cents on preserving his place in history. Film clips survived. Some were in black and white. Those that were in living color turned grainy. If you were shown video evidence of what Willie Mays was all about, you tended to see just so much. Unless you were regularly in those ballparks he made his, you could only imagine what he was really like to watch every day in his extensive prime. You could only listen to what was said about him doing the impossible. You could only read the breathless accounts and attempt to comprehend the breadth of his statistics. You didn’t get a nonstop stream of Willie Mays content as you would have had he come along in our time.

Maybe our loss. Probably his gain. This way he’s a legend with just enough evidence to back up the stories we’ve had handed down to us and take pleasure ourselves in handing down again. Willie Mays had all the tools. None surpassed his timing.

12 comments to Willie’s Timing

  • GGreen23

    Great encapsulation of the ballplayer my father told me was the greatest he had seen as a boy growing up in Manhattan as Giants fan in the 50s. I still (and likely forevermore) believe he is the greatest. RIP Say Hey Kid.

  • Michael in CT

    Beautiful tribute. I loved him as a young Mets fan in the 60s, taping to the wall a Sport Magazine cover of “The Incomparable Willie Mays.” I remember the WOR commercials promoting Mets-Giants games, something about the Giants giving the Mets “the Willies” (Mays and McCovey). Power, speed, style, grace, yes incomparable. RIP Say Hey Kid.

  • Seth

    I can say for sure that the day Willie returned to the Mets and hit that walkoff homer in 1972, was the day I became a Mets fan for life.

  • Curt Emanuel

    Willie Mays always made me think that one day God decided to create a baseball player. I only saw him as a Met but even in his 40s he had some great moments.

  • Jon

    So then who now is the greatest living ballplayer? If we disqualify Bonds, Clemens and ARod, I think the answer is Rickey Henderson for position players and Greg Maddux for pitchers (now that Joe Morgan and Tom Seaver and many others younger than Willie Mays have passed away). Mookie Betts may someday hold this designation.

    • Michael in CT

      I would also put Griffey Jr. and Pujols in the conversation for best everyday living player. There’s nobody who stands out like Mays.

  • Henry J Lenz

    Although my dad was a Brooklyn Dodger fan, Willie was admired anyway in our house. I went to many Cooperstown induction ceremonies in the 80’s.The fans flocked to Willie & Joe D. I spoke with Yogi, Stretch, Spahn & Campy. They loved him too! Say Hey, RIP.

  • eric1973

    Great Great Tribute, Greg, as usual, and as expected.

    Go to YouTube, put in ‘Willie Mays Night,’ and watch the ENTIRE 5 minute speech from that Wonderful night of SEP25/1973.

    Make sure you catch the very beginning where he is introduced by M. Donald Grant.
    Then watch the sincere humbleness and humility of the speech where Willie ‘Says Goodbye to America.’

    Along with ‘The Ball on the Wall’ play 5 days earlier, this speech still brings a tear to the eye and a chill down the spine. And it was probably one of the games not scheduled to be on Channel 9, but was added because the 1973 Mets were in a pennant race and the fans came first back then.

    Good Times…

  • Dr. Lou Verardo

    Nicely said, Greg: a great tribute to a great ball player and a great man. So glad our team honored him and Mrs. Payson by retiring his number at CitiField.

  • Mike

    Beautiful tribute to a beautiful player. Say Hey, Willie! Thank you Greg.

  • Joey G

    What a time! The Knicks got Earl Monroe? The Mets acquired Willie Mays???! Impossible! What a jolt of excitement that was for us. My 11 year old self begged my father to take us to Shea for Willie’s debut. It was a rainy, dreary day and his response was,”okay, but we are going to need snorkels and masks.” Then my hero hits a game winning home run. It cemented my love for the Mets and Willie forever. I had tears in my eyes when the Mets finally retired #24. RIP GOAT!