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