"Naw," said Mays. "I cut it."
In a similar vein last year, when asked whether he liked fastball pitchers, Mays put a counter-question: "Who do?" But the matter is more involved than that. Anyone who waits so long to commit himself on breaking pitches has to make some provision, especially as he gets up in years, for getting around on tight fast-balls. Mays, never one to stop at un-orthodoxy, has managed to get the meat of his bat in front of inside hummers by "bailing out," or pulling his body laterally away from the pitch. In other hitters this is counted a fault. Willie, though, when he is going good, can bail back in if the pitch breaks away from him, and he is strong enough to hit a ball for distance while leaning away from it.
TEAMMATE: Mays, affectionately called Willie Howard by President Horace Stoneham, enjoys a special status. He decides when he will play, and last year when he had a shoving match with Manager Clyde King in full view of the stands, King's demise was predictable. King's replacement, Charlie Fox, has been friendly with Mays ever since Willie joined the Giants organization.
Mays is team captain, and the Giants call him "Will" or "Buck" or "Cap." "He's a beautiful person," says Johnson. "I don't think anybody on the club dislikes him. If they do they're crazy." Bonds adds, "He's the most nonchalant superstar you'll ever see. He acts just like he draws the minimum."
Mays has taught the young outfielders how to play the hitters and to some extent how to play the ball. He also goes over the hitters with the day's starting pitcher, and when utility Infielder Tito Fuentes was asked how he knew when to call time and go talk with a shaky pitcher he said, "I look to Mays. He gives the sign."
Mays' relations with Willie McCovey are very good, but he and Juan Marichal have never been buddies. Last winter Marichal told a Dominican newspaperman that Mays was not what he used to be and ought to consider quitting, and the story got back to this country. Marichal claimed he was misinterpreted and Mays says he has forgotten the whole thing, but students of the Giants keep looking for signs to the contrary. Last month in Cincinnati when Mays suffered an apparent simple lack of concentration and let a long fly off Marichal fall in for a triple, the radio announcers immediately termed the incident "strange" and "weird."
PUBLIC RELATIONS: Mays would rather not have his significance probed and belabored in interviews with the press, with whom he is wary. The San Francisco writers give him his due as "incomparable," but many avoid him personally because "he never says anything." He is defensive toward writers he hasn't known for a long time. He can also be curt, and what American boy—or sports-writer—wants Willie Mays to have been curt with him?
In Houston a long-faced fan kept yelling "Hey, Willie" at Mays from the stands, following him around, tonelessly demanding an autograph while Mays was conferring with his peers during batting practice. Finally the man threw his program and a pen onto the field at Mays' feet, without a word. Mays tossed them back at him without a word.
When Mays got close to his 3,000th hit the Giants announced that everyone attending the game in which he reached the milestone would win a free ticket to a future game. Last Friday night the weather in Candlestick was frigid and the wind was blowing great billows of fog briskly across the field, but Mays played, with a head cold, perhaps because he felt he owed it to the fans who had come out and perhaps because he wanted to get the 3,000th hit, an ordeal which was making him more and more nervous. After he hit a three-run homer in the eighth, his 2,999th, the crowd chanted "we want Willie," but what they wanted, said the press-box consensus, was free tickets.
EMINENCE: Ironically, Henry Aaron, overshadowed by Mays for most of his career, made Mays' 3,000th hit something of an anticlimax early this season by beating him to the mark. The low-keyed Aaron has blossomed in the last two years as a national figure, whereas Mays has had to live up to an image of ebullient heroism incurred when he was 20. By the time both have retired, Aaron will probably have exceeded most of Mays' lifetime batting statistics, but Aaron himself has said that it is much easier to hit in Atlanta Stadium than in Candlestick Park, where the fierce winds blow in against a right-handed hitter, and that Mays could have been well past 3,000 hits by now and possibly threatening Ruth's 714-homer record (Mays has 620) if he had not spent the last 11 years in Candlestick.