Last night my wife and I were lucky enough to attend a Willie Mays meet-and-greet at the Tommy Bahama restaurant in Scottsdale. That’s sincere, too. I wasn’t sure if this event would be much more than a way to get people to party with $395 in hopes of getting a photo and autographed ball from the greatest living ballplayer (or, arguably, the greatest ballplayer of all time). Since we didn’t pay, we did not receive any merchandise. But what we got was a lot better.
After all the paying attendees got their photos with Mays, he walked over to a table raised a couple steps above the floor. So did Marty Lurie, who interviewed Mays about his legendary career for about an hour. I’m not exaggerating when I say this — Lurie did a magnificent job. He knows all the details of Mays’ career, so he was able to feed him almost like a great point guard. Mays is also a great finisher; it’s amazing that an 81-year-old can recall so many details from individual games and plays with such precision. It speaks to how cerebral he must have been as a player, and with his athletic tools one can surmise that 99.9% of his opponents never had a chance at stopping Mays from doing whatever he pleased.
Mays is also headstrong and still carries the supreme confidence required to be a true superstar. That makes him a challenging interview. Lurie did a great job allowing Mays to be himself, and he didn’t get rattled when Mays threw barbs. One such example: when Lurie said he grew up in Brooklyn, a look came over Mays’ face like he’d just taken a bite of the sourest grapefruit in the world. “Brooklyn? Were you a Dodger fan?” Marty said that he grew up a Giants fan and wisely changed the subject.
I’ve read quite a bit about Mays, but there were some things I didn’t know:
— He played with his father for a time in the Negro Leagues. Mays said his dad was a left fielder and a pretty good leadoff hitter. One can only imagine how fast Willie Sr. must have been, and I found myself wondering how productive he would’ve been as a Major Leaguer had integration occurred earlier than 1947.
— After those famous games of stickball Mays played before games with children before heading to the Polo Grounds to play games of actual baseball, Mays would buy all the kids ice cream. He said that a group of five or six would balloon to about 30 when it came time to feed them; luckily he worked out a deal with Breyers to provide ice cream free of charge.
— Mays said he made a couple barehanded catches like the one many of us remember Kevin Mitchell making down the left field line in St. Louis:
— I already knew Mays was on deck when Jim Davenport made the final out in his four-homer game against the Milwaukee Braves, but Mays said that he had a fifth home run robbed when Hank Aaron (playing center that day) went over the wall at County Stadium and brought one back from off of Mays’ bat. Did I hear that at some point and forget? Seems like an important detail.
Some of you may have heard these anecdotes before, but it was the first time for me. And just standing 15 feet away and listening to Mays say these things himself was ridiculously cool.
Lurie opened it up for questions at the end, and even though I kind of knew what Mays would say I had to ask this one just to see his reaction.
Me: “How many home runs would you have hit if you played at AT&T Park instead of Candlestick?”
The crowd laughed, but Mays was completely serious. He mentioned how impossible it was to hit a home run back then (The Stick wasn’t enclosed in the outfield, so those gusts that are so great for windsurfers sent every fly ball back to earth prematurely). Mays went on to say he started hitting balls to right center, because the jetstream would actually take balls over the fence if hit to that area. Just think of how good someone needs to be in order to purposely hit long fly balls to the opposite field.
AMICI’S 25TH ANNIVERSARY ULTIMATE TAKEOUT CONTEST
Mays also talked about some takeout slides he made over the years, and how in the process he broke the same ankle twice of a catcher who tried blocking the plate against him. This is a decidedly nicer takeout, courtesy of Amici’s East Coast Pizzeria:
In celebration of our 25th Anniversary, this month we’re giving each of 25 lucky winners one of the iconic Brearley Collection framed 16″ x 20″ B & W photos like those that adorn the walls of every Amici’s restaurant. All you have to do is visit your local Amici’s, tell us which image is your favorite, and in 25 words or less what makes that image special to you. Our judges will pick their 25 favorite entries and each winner will receive their chosen image framed and shipped directly from the gallery in Boston.
To enter the contest, just head over here. I’m hearing there are a couple photos of Mays displayed at Amici’s locations from his New York Giants days…