Before he became commissioner, Bart Giamatti wrote an essay about baseball that examined the hold that the best game ever invented has on its followers. “It breaks your heart,’’ Giamatti’s ode began. “It is designed to break your heart.’’
Never was that more true than when your team, the team you love, the team you grew up with, picks up and leaves town. And the impact is even greater if that takes place when you are nine years old.
That’s what happened to Paul Kocak when the New York Giants packed up their bats and balls and headed for San Francisco in 1957, three time zones and a multitude of zip codes away.
And they had the nerve to take Willie Mays with them.
Mays was the best player on that team, maybe the best player in all of baseball. He played the game with a passion and talent rarely seen. And suddenly, he was gone, kidnapped by California. It just about broke Paul Kocak’s heart and he decided he would not let his team and its star leave without a battle.
He pursued Mays and the Giants any way he could. He would listen to Les Keiter’s recreation of Giants games, keep a scrapbook as his team and favorite player settled down in the City by the Bay, follow his old team religiously. They would not break his heart, not if he had anything to say about it.
Being a long distance fan is no simple matter. Ask the loyalists in Montreal, who lost the Expos to Washington, or fans in Boston, whose National League existence disappeared when the Braves’ greed took them first to Milwaukee and then to Atlanta.
Kocak, however, would not be denied. He would not give up the Giants and Mays without a fight.
Why the Giants? It was the result of a simple question young Paul asked his older brother, Richard, “Who do you go for?’’ he asked. The two word answer — “The Giants’’—was all it took for the youngster to create a lifelong obsession with a team and its star center fielder.
Young Kocak tried calling his idol long distance, not exactly sure of what he would say in the unlikely event that Mays should answer the phone or how he would explain the long distance charges on the phone bill to his parents. Mercifully, Mays’ number was unlisted but at least Kocak had tried.
There were encounters along the way, some planned, some accidental. Mays showed up at book signings, promotional appearances, etc. Kocak would be there, too. He traveled to San Francisco to watch the team play, drove to New York to gawk at the World Series trophy, which Mays obligingly accompanied for an appearance in the Giants’ original home.
Kocak was not alone. There is a hearty band of faithful fans who form the New York Giants Preservation Society. They are waiting patiently for this foolish odyssey to San Francisco to end and for the Giants to return to their ancestral home.
Kocak took his passion a step further and wrote a book. “Chasing Willie Mays,’’ is a passionate account of one man’s love of his team and its star, even if they insist on playing their games on the other side of the country.
When a sharpshooter reader complained about the cover of his book, observing that the image of a glove on the right hand of the center fielder with No. 24 on his uniform, was wrong because Willie Mays was not left-handed, Kocak agreed. What’s more, the author noted, unlike the cover image, Mays never wore his hat backwards and was black, not white. All of that, Kocak explained, is because the center fielder on the cover is not Willie Mays.
It is Paul Kocak.