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Learning baseball from Willie Mays

Going to a Giants baseball game as a kid with my Dad involved a lot more than hot dogs, sodas and souvenirs. I look around at AT&T Park, and youngsters are kept busy at the game with an ongoing supply of food treats, video games on a phone and time spent on the big Coke bottle slide in left field. Even at seven years old, the age when I saw my first game, I would have likely passed up the slide because I might miss something on the field. My Dad always kept score and I would assist him, so you couldn’t miss a play or the scorecard would have a big empty spot in it.

My Dad had played high-caliber ball in high school and in Bay Area semi-pro leagues in his younger days, and was eager to pass on the finer points of the game to me. He knew that there was no greater authority on playing baseball than Willie Mays, so he’d have me pay special attention to No. 24. One of great techniques of Mays was how he would draw a throw as a base runner as a way to give a batter a chance to take an extra base. For example, if Mays was on second and the batter singled to left field, Mays would run at half-speed to make the outfielder think he had a chance to get Mays at the plate. Just as the outfielder got ready to unleash the throw, Mays would put on the after-burners, and arrive at home ahead of the throw. The batter, then, was able to make it safely to second base.

I couldn’t wait to try this out when I played my first little league game for my fourth-grade team. I somehow got on second base, and then the batter singled to left. I took inventory of where the outfielder was and how far I had to go to reach home. Right around third base, I slowed up, causing my bench to erupt with cries of “Run! Run! Run!” The relay throw from the leftfielder came in to the third baseman, who then fired the ball to the catcher. As soon as I saw the defense had swallowed the bait, I dashed down the line at full speed and touched home plate as the ball skipped past the catcher, allowing the batter to go to second. The coach came up to me a few seconds after I took my seat at the end of the bench. While praising me for getting on base and scoring, he asked why I didn’t run hard all the way. I looked up at him in all innocent sincerity, and replied, “I was trying to draw the throw.” This was not a strategy he had taught the team, so he said. “OK, OK, That’s good. That’s good.” He started to walk away and then stopped, turned back to me and asked, “Where did you learn that from? I said “from watching Willie Mays.” He smiled and said that’s a good player to follow. My Dad, of course, knew exactly what happened as he watched from the grandstands, and when I told him about my conversation with the coach, well, I don’t think I ever saw my Dad with a wider smile than that moment.

I’ve been thinking about that story of so long ago upon the occurrence of Willie Mays turning 83 on May 6. I rate Mays as the greatest ballplayer in history. The only one who comes close is Babe Ruth, because his offensive numbers were so far ahead of his contemporaries. Great players are referred to as having five tools: Running speed, arm strength, hitting for average, hitting for power, fielding. But Mays had a sixth tool: baseball instincts. I’ve never seen another player who had a better grasp of all facets of the game like Mays.

In raw numbers, Mays finished with 660 home runs. He missed two years early in his career to military service. When he returned, in 1954, he hit 41 homers. He also played all his home games with the San Francisco Giants from 1958 to 1972 in Seals Stadium and Candlestick Park, where strong winds routinely kept long drives in the park. I don’t think its a reach to say that he lost 100 homers for those two reasons.

I saw my first Giants-Dodgers game on Sept. 1, 1958, and I still have the program from that game and the scorecard inside where my Dad kept score as we watched in Seals Stadium.  Mays went five-for-five, and I assumed that was what he always did. Giants fans of that time had reason to believe the same thing. In a four-game stretch against the Dodgers in May 1958, Mays led his club to four straight wins with a phenomenal slugging outburst. His totals for those four games: AB 17, RUNS 10, HITS 12, RBI 15, HR 7. Followers of Mays can recall his fascinating skills as a base runner. My favorite came against the Dodgers in 1966. In the 12th inning of a tied game at Dodger Stadium, Mays walked and Frank Johnson singled. Mays never stopped running and when the right fielder’s throw went to the second baseman, he came charging around third to home. Mays crashed into catcher John Roseboro, knocking the ball loose, and the Giants won 3-2. When asked later if the third base coach tried to stop him, Mays laughed, “Man, I wasn’t even paying attention to him.”

Despite such rough moments with the Dodgers, the hated Southern California rivals made an exception when it came to Mays. On the occasion of Mays’ 20th anniversary in baseball, the Dodgers held a pre-game ceremony to honor him in 1971. The scoreboard message board listed his accomplishments, and added, “We’ll always remember that there was never a more exciting player than Willie Mays.”

Such is the respect that sets Mays apart even beyond his extraordinary on-field feats. Mays still would receive that kind of warm reception today in any ballpark.

I saw my grandson play ball the other day for his pony-league team. He’s only five now, and still focused on the basics like which way to first base and which way to the post-game ice cream stand. But in a few years, I’ll sit him down and tell him about a man named Willie Mays, and maybe give him his first baseball strategy lesson on how to draw a throw.

All the best Mr. Mays, and Happy 83rd.

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