A Toast to Willie Mays

Willie Mays turned 84 on Wednesday, so let me tell you quickly about two days of his life in 1967. That was the year I was born, 48 years ago now, and it seemed like Mays was finally showing his mortality after 13 years of being incomparable. He was in a death-defying slump. He looked so helpless that on August 13, for the first time in years, Mays was dropped to the fifth spot in the lineup.

The next day, facing Atlanta, something happened to him that had never happened before: A team intentionally walked a player in order to face Willie Mays. This was the top of the third inning, a man was on third, and Jim Ray Hart stepped up to the plate. Hart was a terrific player; he was hitting .300 with power. The Braves walked Hart to get to Mays.

“It wasn’t that I don’t respect Mays as a hitter,” Braves manager Billy Hitchcock told reporters. “I certainly do. But Hart is their hot hitter, and Mays hasn’t been hitting.”

“That was a good move,” Mays conceded. “If Jim Ray hit a home run, they’re down three runs.”

As it turned out, Mays singled home the run … but that was beside the point. The most fearsome player in the league for 15 years no longer frightened teams. The end seemed in sight. From August 4 to August 27, Mays hit .148 with one extra base hit (a home run off Steve Carlton). He did not steal a base. His batting average plummmeted 25 points into the .260s. He went 0-for-6 against Atlanta’s Denny Lemaster and some relievers, only the second time in his career he’d had an 0-for-6 game. Earlier in the year, for only the second time in his career, he had struck out four times in a game (against 19-year-old Gary Nolan no less).

People started asking Mays about retirement.

“I know I can’t do all the things I once did,” Mays said. He was convinced, though, that his slump had more to do with the flu than with age. He believed he still had something left. Athletes always do.

On August 28 — two days after his 0-for-6 day — Mays was facing a 22-year-old Don Sutton, who would one day join Mays in the Hall of Fame.

And Sutton threw a pitch that hit Willie Mays in the shoulder. Mays was furious. While on the ground, he clearly said something to catcher John Roseboro; he never revealed what he said, but it’s not too hard to figure out. Mays may have been too old to do all the things he once did. But he was also old enough that he no longer wanted to deal with young kids trying to earn their spurs brushing him back. “I’ve got to protect myself from that knockdown stuff,” he said to a reporter afterward.

After Mays reached second base, he was still raging inside. Then it happened: Sutton threw a wild pitch. This was it. Mays sprinted for third and then, with the rage still boiling inside him, turned the corner and headed home.Sutton was covering the plate, just like Mays knew he would. He wanted make sure this young’n understood: You don’t throw high and tight against Willie Mays.

Mays came into home plate with his spikes high. As it turned out, it was just a message slide — Sutton was standing on the first-base side and well out of harm’s way. When Mays popped up after his slide, he stood face to face with the pitcher. There was no missing the point.

“You would have cut up that young fellow,” a columnist told Mays afterward.

“I don’t want to hurt anybody,” Mays said. “But I don’t want anybody hurting me either.”

So there it was: A 36-year-old Willie Mays had scored from second base on a wild pitch. Incredible. In the same game he stole a base and hit a two-run single.

The next day, the Giants were playing the Dodgers again. In the bottom of the fifth inning, Mays walked. Jack Hiatt came up next and cracked a single to right field. There was nothing special about the single, it was a run-of-the-mill base hit, on a line, but Mays read it well (he was, of course, one of the great base runners of all time) and rounded second, headed for third. Mays was running at full speed, and the Dodgers’ Ron Fairly realized he did not have a play. He tossed it back into the infield. Fairly did not realize: Mays was heading home.

The throw to the plate was too late. Willie Mays had just scored from first base on a single. “I haven’t done that in a while,” he said with some amazement in his voice. Next time up he homered. That meant in two days in 1967, when Willie Mays was 36 and showing it, he scored from second on a wild pitch, from first on a single, stole a base, hit a home run and let everyone know that he was still Willie Mays.

“I keep telling you,” Mays said, “I ain’t done just yet.” He was not. Mays played another five years and while he wasn’t the player he had been, he did win another Gold Glove, did lead the league in on-base percentage one year, did finish Top 10 in WAR twice.

In all, an older Willie Mays hit another 16 triples (more than Frank Thomas hit in his whole career), cracked another 96 homers (more than Rod Carew hit in his whole career) and stole another 50 bases (as many as Ernie Banks had in his whole career; more than DiMaggio and Stargell combined). He also gave a million kids a few more memories.

That’s the thing about time. You can’t beat it. The years are like a relentless boxer that never stops hammering away at the body. But, every now and again, the great ones will win one of those late rounds against time. And we all stand up and cheer.

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