From SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, July 14, 2008
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 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 '51, 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 pitcher Steve Kline was released during the spring, the lefty reliever 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 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 his wisdom? "Depends what they ask about," he says. "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 Say Hey Foundation, and the chance to spend more time with Mae and his only child, Michael, a television producer.