SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — The eyes aren’t what they used to be, which is understandable, and to Willie Mays understandably frustrating. “I can’t see the ball,” he said when watching baseball. Then as if to remind us of skills once magical, he adds, “but I know where it’s going.”
Where Mays, 85 goes down here late mornings is to a table near a doorway in the San Francisco Giants spring training clubhouse. He can be found, bundled in a warm-up jacket, sitting, signing and ruminating.
Management prizes the presence of the man whose statue is at the main entrance of the team’s AT&T Park in San Francisco, and who gives advice to any ballplayer wise enough to seek it.
Mays, forever known as the “Say Hey Kid,” is a 24-time All-Star, a Hall of Famer, an icon whose over-the-shoulder catch at the Polo Grounds in the 1954 World Series is as near as YouTube.
Michael Morse, back on the team, handed Mays a bat, which after a few half-swings in those enormous hands Willie said was lighter than the ones he used.
A manufacturer’s rep handed him a batting glove and Mays — for what, the millionth time? — scribbled an autograph. He knows the drill. And gets as often as he gives.
That table has a laminate surface. Mays signed his name, but it easily was wiped off. Unlike the card tables of years past brought in by retired equipment manager Mike Murphy. Those autographs and table were auctioned for charity.
When Jim Harbaugh was the San Francisco 49ers coach, he would ask writers, “Who was better, [Babe] Ruth or Mays?” It was the Bay Area, so invariably the answer would be Mays, to which Harbaugh said, “Ruth pitched,” and someone would respond, “Willie could have.”
Mays agreed. “I played every position,” he said. “Didn’t like pitching. Too close to the batter. And I hit a guy in the head one day.”
Last year, Mays, tossing balls around, tried to throw a curve. “I hurt my arm. Had to have one of those MRIs. No more curves.”
He played football and basketball in high school in a segregated Alabama in the 1940s. But African-American and white kids would, illegally, play pickup games. “I was the quarterback for both sides,” Mays said. “The cops would watch. They’d stop us, tell us it was against the law, and then go back to watching.”
In 1947, a teenage Mays doubled off Satchel Paige in a Negro League game, Mays said. “I hear him yelling at me, ‘Little boy come here.’ I go up there again and he throws three pitches by me, strikeout.”
Mays has a box at Giants home games in San Francisco, and of course, his table at spring training games. “They’re a great organization; been very good to me” he said, having been with the team as player, in New York and San Francisco, from 1951 to 1972, when he was traded to the Mets.
“The Mets are right there with the Giants. When I went to New York, Mrs. Payson [the late co-owner Joan Payson] gave me a contract that I could do what I wanted when I wanted.”
What he wants now is to take each day as it comes.
“I just keep pushing forward,” he said. “I don’t think about age.”
He does think about men now gone.
“Mickey Mantle could hit it long,” said Mays, remembering when three great centerfielders, Mantle of the Yankees, Duke Snider of the Brooklyn Dodgers and Mays played in New York. “Mickey would hit balls longer than I could. But mine went far enough. They got over the fence.”