Friday May 6th, 2011

The Say Hey Kid is 80 today. Willie Mays, whose combination of power, speed and ebullience became baseball's version of improvisational jazz, was born on this date in 1931 in Westfield, Ala.

Mays helped launch the modern era, a star on the field and at the box office on both coasts who became its greatest all-around player, whether dashing out from under his cap on the bases, turning routine pop-ups into stylized basket catches or smashing one of his 660 home runs with a whirling, violent swing that was a thing of beauty even when it whooshed in failure to connect with the baseball.

The Say Hey Kid at 80 is baseball royalty, a beloved figure whose transcendent career grows even richer with time, whose presence, because of how he played the game, inspires joy as much as reverence. With that spirit in mind, here is a lineup of fun facts to appreciate about Mays:

1. Mays played in 24 ballparks. But today in only three of them can you still watch major leaguers play on the same field Mays did: Wrigley Field, Dodger Stadium and Fenway Park (Mays played in an All-Star Game there in 1961).

2. Only four players ever hit 20 doubles, 20 triples and 20 homers and stole 20 bases in the same season. Mays (1957) was the only player to do it in a 96-year span in between Frank Schulte (1911) and Jimmy Rollins and Curtis Granderson (2007).

3. Mays played 22 seasons and hit 22 extra-inning home runs, a record.

4. Mays was in centerfield for all but 12 of his 2,753 starts in the outfield. Three men can claim to have started in centerfield with Mays in a corner outfield spot: Matty Alou, Ken Henderson and Bobby Bonds.

5. Ten players reached base more times than Mays -- but only one of them exceeded Mays' rate of scoring 43.03 percent of the time he reached base: Babe Ruth (43.07).

6. Mays played shortstop twice in the big leagues, both times moving from centerfield after his manager, Alvin Dark, pinch-hit for the Giants shortstop late in games. Mays had no chances in four total innings.

7. Mays hit home runs out of all nine spots in the lineup and every inning from one through 16, a record.

8. Mays recorded his first hit in 1951 off Hall of Famer Warren Spahn -- the first of 253 times he batted against Spahn.

9. Mays also recorded his last hit off a Hall of Famer, Rollie Fingers, in Game 2 the 1973 World Series.

Last August, toward the end of the worst month of his baseball life, a pale, wan Tim Lincecum sat across from Giants manager Bruce Bochy and heard an alarm bell. Bochy reminded Lincecum that he needed to pay attention to his nutrition, conditioning and between-starts work. Lincecum promptly tweaked his workouts and began arriving earlier to the ballpark to make certain he had all the time he needed to keep up his strength.

That moment was the beginning of an important discovery for Lincecum that just might make him a better pitcher: He likes packing on some muscle. He continued training harder this offseason and spring, and now pitches at 178 pounds, up from "155 or 160 maybe," he said.

"You know what? I found out I like putting in the work, I like the gym, I like the way I look and the way I feel," Lincecum said Thursday after knocking Christy Mathewson from his 95-year stay in the Giants record book for most career 10-strikeout games (29). "And the more I work the more I need to eat."

Lincecum is a notorious chow hound, or as he put it, "I eat what I like. I eat for taste. I'm not a guy who eats a whole lot of vegetables. I don't like them. They don't like me. It's mutual."

Lincecum is noticeably stronger, and the difference shows on the mound. Against the Mets Thursday he consistently brought back the 94 mph fastball above a hitter's hands, a pitch that would go missing for him the past two years. Not only did Lincecum throw 127 pitches, he also whiffed the final five batters he faced.

"His velocity picked up and he maintains it better with added strength," Bochy said.

After seven starts, when Lincecum goes past 75 pitches he has held batters to a .220 batting average with no home runs and a 4:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Last year those benchmarks were a .254 average, four home runs and a 2.3:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

After this season, the Giants are looking at two more arbitration-eligible seasons for Lincecum, who already is working from a base salary of $14 million. It makes sense for the Giants to follow the industry trend and lock him up to a long-term deal that buys out not just arbitration years but some free-agent years. A more fit, stronger Lincecum, who turns 27 next month, can only make that long-term investment more attractive to the Giants.

Bochy had no problems extending Lincecum in the first week of May past 125 pitches. Said the Giants manager, "I think it builds strength and stamina. For us, one of the things we're able to do is give the starters an extra day whenever we have an off day. We don't line anybody up to throw on the fifth day every time. When we have the chance to get them an extra day, we get it for them."

Lincecum and C.J. Wilson of Texas made it 10 starts already this season in which a pitcher threw 125 pitches or more -- by 10 different starters. That's more 125-pitch games through May 5 this year than occurred by the same date of the past five years combined.

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