EVERY YEAR as February turns to March, he settles back into familiar rhythms. He packs his bags and leaves for spring training, because that is what a ballplayer does. At the parks he visits, people ask him what he misses most about the game, but before long they are telling him what they miss most about him—the basket catches in centerfield, at once nonchalant and daring, or the sight of his cap flying off, as it always seemed to when he sped around second base, or the whiplash swing full of power and precision. He remembers all that, of course, but miss it? Not so much. As the years go by and the difference grows between his body then and his body now, it becomes easier to accept those images as scenes from an earlier life.
The memories from those days that he cannot let go of so easily are ones that the fans never shared—the clubhouse banter, the card games with teammates, the cycles of travel. For 60 years, since he was a teenager playing in the Negro leagues, he has been packing for road trips. After he retired from the majors in 1973, he couldn't spend more than a couple of weeks without feeling the need to pull out his suitcase and go, his internal clock telling him the home stand was over. He would kiss his understanding wife, Mae, goodbye and drive from his home in Atherton, Calif., to, say, Reno, and then, after a few days, he would drive home again. "In his heart," says his friend and fellow San Francisco Giants legend Willie McCovey, "he never stopped being a ballplayer."
That is why he is in Arizona by early March, going to Scottsdale Stadium, where the Giants train. He gets there early most days, in time to trade playful insults and share some of his baseball knowledge, should the younger players ask. In the clubhouse, he is not an icon but a regular, a part of the daily hustle and flow—even though to rookies and newcomers his presence can be jarring. You can see it on their faces when they first walk into the clubhouse and find the World's Greatest Living Ballplayer suddenly before them, close enough to touch. Isn't that ...? Yes, it is. That's Willie Mays.
TODAY'S PLAYERS tend to be intimidated at first, even if they don't fully comprehend how Mays dominated the game in the 1950s and '60s. They probably can't recite most of the remarkable achievements that put him in the Hall of Fame on the first ballot—Rookie of the Year in 1951, MVP awards in '54 and '65, 12 Gold Gloves, 660 home runs, 3,283 hits, just for starters—but they do know that Mays was the Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods of his era: His name was synonymous with the complete mastery of his field. "I would love," says comedian and Giants fan Rob Schneider, "to be the Willie Mays of anything."
Mays gets enough of that idolatry out in the real world. At the ballpark he just wants to be Willie, so he happily accepts ribbing from journeyman catchers, backup infielders, anyone who's a part of the game. Before he was released during the spring, lefty reliever Steve Kline was one of Mays's favorite verbal sparring partners. " Vlad Guerrero is the best player I've ever seen," Kline would say teasingly. "You telling me you were as good as Vlad Guerrero?" Mays would pretend to be offended, his surprisingly high-pitched voice rising another octave. "You think he's better than I was?" he'd say. "You're crazy if you think he's better than I was."
It all sends a message—that although he is 77, although there is usually someone at his elbow should he need help negotiating the dugout steps, Willie Mays is not a museum piece. Not in here. Once the players understand that, they come to him for advice, for stories, for the chance to be near him. In recent years he has come to be known as much for being Barry Bonds's godfather as for the brilliance of his 22-year career. But in a way Mays is the godfather to all of these players, young and old—a figure respected, admired and a little feared. Centerfielder Aaron Rowand is a seven-year veteran who won a World Series with the Chicago White Sox in 2005, but it wasn't until a week after Mays's arrival at camp that the Giants newcomer gathered the nerve to introduce himself. "I didn't want to bother him, you know?" Rowand says. "I mean, you don't just walk up to Willie Mays."
And what does Mays tell players who seek the benefit of his wisdom? "Lots of things," he says. "Depends what they ask about. But one thing I tell them is to play this game for as long as they can, because the opportunity doesn't last forever. No, it does not."
Rarely do the players ask him about his life as it is now. What would he say? Probably that there are some wonderful aspects to this stage of his life, such as the opportunity to focus on charitable work with his nonprofit organization, the Say Hey Foundation, and the chance to spend more time with Mae and with his only child, Michael, a television producer.
But he might also tell them that outside the clubhouse he finds retirement a tricky thing. That sometimes being so adored gets complicated, that even after all these years, meaning so much to people that they stammer or babble or tear up when they meet you is an unwieldy power. "Somewhere around the middle of his career, after he became a star, Willie finally realized how much he was worth [to fans]," says Mays's friend Lon Simmons, the Giants' Hall of Fame broadcaster. Since his retirement 35 years ago, Mays has been trying to come to grips with that worth, with being so treasured by the public. It's not always an easy thing to live with. No, it is not.
ON A cloudless morning before the team's workout in Scottsdale, Mays is standing in the Giants' dugout with McCovey, the Hall of Famer whom he played alongside for 13 seasons in
. Manager Bruce Bochy approaches. "Willie, I'd like you to meet my buddy Kevin," Bochy says. "He came all the way from San Diego to meet you." Kevin McNamara is 58, but at this moment he is 12 again. He shakes Mays's hand, tells him he grew up in San Francisco and that he remembers buying 90-cent bleacher tickets to watch Mays in the outfield at Candlestick Park.