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Say Hey Again

Sept. 15, 2003
Sept. 15, 2003

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Sept. 15, 2003

Say Hey Again

Maybe later I'll deny I ever said this, but it's time to thank
Barry Bonds.

This is an article from the Sept. 15, 2003 issue

Thank him for being 11 feet tall and achingly human at the same
time. Thank him for pulling off feats that make not only our
pulse race but his--to the point that he had to be hospitalized.
How does a man keep breaking windows and fences and records while
his own heart is breaking?

But of all the gifts Bonds has given us lately, the best is this:
His drive toward his 660th home run--coming soon to a goose bump
near you--has returned the spotlight to baseball's greatest
living player, Willie Mays.

Please. That title never belonged exclusively to Joe DiMaggio or
Ted Williams or--godlike as he's been lately--Bonds. Call Bonds
the most feared slugger ever if you want. Say he's having the
greatest finish to a career in history. But no way, no how, in no
universe, is Bonds a better baseball player than William Howard
Mays Jr. If he is, then Paul McCartney's best band was Wings.

The Say Hey Kid did everything in a ball game but wipe off your
seat.

Run? There may have never been a better base runner than Mays. He
was one step faster than a telegram. He could score from second
on a pop-up. One time he scored from first on a ground-ball
single--"and he wasn't even running on the pitch," recalls
Philadelphia broadcaster Harry Callas. Mays ran so fast his hat
was always trying to catch up to him.

Field? Mays was the best ever. Hell, he should've worn snowshoes
to even things up. Playing centerfield, he had the range of a
Harley-Davidson. He covered so much earth, some people wondered
why the leftfielder showed up at all. His 1954 World Series
catch--making up 50 yards on Vic Wertz's 475-foot blast, catching
it with his back to the plate, whirling and catapulting a perfect
330-foot dart to save a run--may be the single most
pupil-dilating catch ever filmed.

Jim Murray once wrote, "Willie Mays' glove is the place where
triples go to die," but sometimes Mays didn't even need the
glove. He would occasionally snare fly balls bare-handed. His
7,095 putouts are the Mount Everest for outfielders. Nobody else
has had even 7,000. He won only 12 Gold Gloves (to Bonds's
eight), but that's because the award wasn't created until 1957,
his fifth year in the majors.

Throw? Even DiMaggio admitted Mays had the greatest arm he'd ever
seen. The closest thing to Mays's arm that you see now is a
rocket-propelled grenade launcher on CNN.

Play with joy? Before games, he'd play stickball with kids in the
New York streets. Once, he was asked to take to the umps a lineup
card that didn't include his name. By the time it got there, it
did. Bonds once threatened to quit the day he became the first
member of the 500 home run-500 stolen base club. People wondered
if Mays would ever walk away. At 42 he was still hanging on, if
only because life without baseball petrified him.

A leader? Mays was a Giants captain. He was a team guy until it
hurt. One year he bought a new Mercury, even though he couldn't
drive, and left it in the parking lot all season for everybody
else on the team to use.

Hit? Mays hit balls farther than you could go on a quarter tank
of gas, but he wasn't trying to be a slugger. Why would he? Mays
played in two of the worst home run ballparks ever for a gap
hitter like him. The alleys at New York's Polo Grounds were just
slightly deeper than Zion National Park--450 feet! Center was
483! Do you realize that of Bonds's famous 73 home runs in 2001,
only one would've cleared that centerfield fence?

In San Francisco, Mays toiled 15 years in wind-whipped
Candlestick, which was to home runs what a flash flood is to a
lit match. Plus, he lost almost two seasons, in 1952 and '53, to
the Army. If you give him a conservative 50 homers over those two
seasons and five a year for playing in those two graveyards, he'd
have about 800 bombs and nobody ever catches him. Not Aaron, not
Bonds, nobody.

Maybe Leo Durocher, Mays's first manager with the Giants, put it
best: "If Willie could cook, I'd marry him."

Bonds knows all this. Bonds knows it better than anyone. He loves
his godfather, who has been a special assistant to the Giants
president for the last 17 years. Mays was the longtime friend of
Barry's late father, Bobby, a man who didn't have many. Barry
must also know that Mays paved the way for other black stars like
him. Mays was a gum-cracking, cowboy-movie-watching,
glove-pounding, squeaky-voiced, 1,000-watt bulb so beloved by
1950s America that he helped bridge the gulf between Jackie
Robinson's being tolerated and Bonds's being worshipped.

Grieving and tired since Bobby's death on Aug. 23, Bonds must
feel lucky to have Willie Mays around.

Now he knows how we felt.

B/W PHOTO: JEFFERY A. SALTER

Of all the gifts Barry Bonds has given us lately, the best is
returning the spotlight to baseball's greatest living player,
Willie Mays.

If you have a comment for Rick Reilly, send it to
reilly@siletters.com.