From the Church of Baseball:
A day late but still heartfelt.
What I know about Willie Mays, I know from the stories told by people who watched him … and the stories people tell is of someone who enlivened the moment, a player who made them feel a little bit more alert, a little bit happier, a little bit lighter on their feet.
They would watch Mays race into the gap — his hat, of course, flying off his head — and chase down a fly ball … they would watch Mays steal second base, watch the throw bounce a few feet from the shortstop and then see him take off toward third … they would watch him flail and miss at a slider in the dirt, his corkscrew swing pulling him off balance, his hat again falling off his head, and then crush the next fastball into the leftfield bleachers at Wrigley Field or Busch Stadium or Candlestick Park … and it was one of those rare times in life when they could step out of time, when everything felt particularly in focus, when there was nothing at all in the world except joy and wonder and the unmistakable gladness of being being alive.
The moment passed, of course. And nothing real changed. After the moment, bills were still due, marriages still broke up, wars still raged, hate still bubbled up inside people, all that. But that moment was not meaningless either. It was remembered. People held on to the moment. It was that moment that made people who met Willie Mays later in life cry. It was that moment that parents shared with their children. I once had a teacher who heard I was a baseball fan. He asked me who was the greatest player who ever lived. I don’t know who I said. Babe Ruth, maybe? Reggie Jackson, maybe? Duane Kuiper, maybe? I was just a kid. I just know I didn’t say the right answer.
“Wrong,” he told me. “The greatest player who ever lived was Willie Mays.”
“Why?” I asked.
“He just was,” he told me, and he had this happy look on his face that I have not forgotten though that must have been 35 years ago.
Willie Mays turns 80 years old today.