The Man (Willie Mays) arrives
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Willie Mays’ presence is just as powerful as it was when he stood in the batter’s box.
Baseball’s greatest living player made his first appearance of the spring at San Francisco’s camp Monday and immediately commanded awe upon entering the clubhouse. You simply have to appreciate being in the same room with a genuine legend — particularly one as lively as Mays, who loudly greeted visitors.
Veterans such as Todd Wellemeyer, Aubrey Huff and Mark DeRosa, who had never seen Mays in the flesh, simply stared at the man. Players who previously had met Mays, such as Aaron Rowand and Kevin Frandsen, gleefully shook hands with him. Now the spring can begin, right?
Two rookies were especially intrepid. Outfielders Darren Ford and Thomas Neal, who hope to achieve a fraction of what Mays did as a Giant from 1951-72, sat for more than an hour with the Hall of Famer, absorbing advice — as well as some good-natured abuse.
Ford is 24 years old and has never played above Class A. Mays unabashedly recited some of the accomplishments he had piled up at the Major League level by the time he reached that age. Ford, perhaps the fastest player in the Giants organization, mentioned that he had won a stolen-base title; Mays reminded everyone within earshot that he led the National League in thefts four years in a row from 1956-59. “Then I quit,” Mays said, meaning that he ceased concentrating on stolen bases and focused more on slugging.
This was a you-had-to-be-there scene. Any comparison between Mays and Ford is certainly unfair. But Mays made all of this sound playful, not mean and condescending. The smile never left Ford’s face. Toward the conclusion of his visit, Neal and Ford had their fielding gloves on, listening to Mays — a 12-time Gold Glove Award winner — share secrets of his defensive excellence.
Roger Angell, one of the finest baseball writers ever, once wrote of Mays, perhaps the best all-around player ever, “The leader is still leading.” That was in a 1971 article. Some 39 years later, it’s still true.
– Chris Haft