Willie Mays Carries the Torch for His Generation

Along the way, he won his second M.V.P. Award at 34, and was still one of the game’s best players at 40 — his .907 O.P.S. was 225 points above the league average. The following year, in 1972, he led the Mets in on-base percentage and was third on the team in batting average. It was the Say Hey Kid’s triumphant return to New York, and had he retired then, after years of slamming into catchers and crashing into walls, he would have been remembered for his rugged invincibility.

But Mays played one more year, 1973, and injured throughout the season, he appeared in only 66 games. The Mets reached the World Series, and though Mays had barely played in six weeks, in Game 2 in Oakland, he pinch-ran in the ninth inning and was then sent into center field. It was a brutal sunny day, with players staggering under pop-ups all day (six errors were committed). In both the ninth and 12th innings, Mays lost fly balls in the sun and looked terrible doing so. He was scorned for his pratfalls.

Never mind that many great athletes — Babe Ruth and Aaron in baseball, Johnny Unitas, Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan in other sports — play too long. Mays became the cautionary tale for all athletes — and, for that matter, entertainers and politicians — who don’t know when to quit.

Mays is too proud to acknowledge that this hurts him, but I’m certain it does. He makes no claims about being the greatest player of all time and isn’t interested in the discussion. He dismisses comparisons to other players. He jokes that if he had known stats were important, he would have paid attention to them. He is too stubborn to be an egotist.

What was important to him was that he helped his team win, he entertained the fans and he honored the game — which, in his mind, he did by playing every game he could, as hard as he could, as long as he could.

Willie Mays at 90? Of course. It befits a man whose durability, on and off the field, is his legacy — and whose endurance is a poignant reminder of a certain era in American sports, glorious but vanishing.

James S. Hirsch is the author of “Willie Mays: The Life, the Legend.”


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