Tuesday, February 9, 2010
#155) WILLIE MAYS
The greatest baseball player of all-time returned to New York when Willie Mays was traded by the San Francisco Giants to the Mets in exchange for Charlie Williams and $50,000 on May 11, 1972. The "Say Hey Kid" arrived to much fanfare, but did not disappoint. On May 14th, at Shea Stadium he would play his first game as a Met. In a magical moment, the 41 year-old slugged a tie-breaking home run in the fifth inning off pitcher Don Carrithers. The drive would prove to be the game winner as the Amazins' triumphed over the San Francisco Giants by a score of 5-4.
The veteran was brought in to be an option from the bench that season, but ended up playing in 69 games. A rib-cage injury to center fielder Tommie Agee forced Willie into the unexpected starting role. Mays had lost some of his youthful speed, but still impressed new teammate Tom Seaver. "One thing that surprised me when Willie joined the Mets was how well thought-out his defensive play was. You'd think, here was a guy that ran so fast and got such a jump on the ball that playing center field was easy for him. It might have been, but he thought about it too. He'd come up to me with a list before a game I was pitching and ask me how I was going to pitch each batter. I'd tell him in detail and he'd decide just what he'd do with each player in each circumstance. He'd put the list in his back pocket, and if I looked around during the game, there he was, just like he said he would be."
Willie entered spring training the next year questioning if he was capable of another season. He brought an old friend, Herman Franks to Florida with him to observe and offer judgement. Despite a slow start in the grapefruit league it was decided that Mays would indeed try one more season. Willie and the entire Mets team struggled in the first half of the 1973 season. New York would still find themselves in last place of the Eastern Division on August 30th. Willie had experienced knee problems that required fluid to be drained and was then out of the lineup due to cracked ribs. Things did indeed look bleak. Miraculously the Mets finished strong and mounted a surprising 21-8 run to clinch the division title. The baseball legend publicly verified his decision when the team announced his retirement on September 20, 1973. Five days later Shea Stadium hosted, "Willie Mays Day". It was there that Willie would explain that if the club did indeed make the post season he would figure a way to play. "Anybody who has seen my play," Mays said, "knows that I loved what I was doing. I didn't play for me. Americans deserve a 100% ballplayer on the field. The ball club is moving now. Somebody else is doing it, and I'm not going to interfere with who's doing it."
The Mets would defeat the Cincinnati Reds and reach the World Series in 1973. Willie had made a brief appearance in the victory over the heavily favored "Big Red Machine". He would collect a hit in the deciding Game Five. However, it was more difficult facing the Oakland A's. The man who had once simply stated, "I don't make history. I catch fly balls." was seen stumbling in the outfield he had once ruled. Mays' did manage to make his last hit a game-winner, but ultimately New York would fall to Oakland in seven games. A great career was over. Willie put it into words best when he said, "Baseball and me, we had what you would call a love affair."
Willie was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1979. After his playing career he would remain with the Mets for a time before becoming a public relations executive for Bally's Resorts and Colgate-Palmolive. In 1986, he returned to the San Francisco Giants organization where he serves as special assistant to the president of the club. The Giants made this a lifetime appointment in 1993.
I created Willie Mays' card in the set from an autographed index card that was a gift from my good friend Jessie on January 26, 2010.