The Best I Ever Saw is Gone

AP Photo/Harry Harris, File

I was scoring the Orioles/Yankees game last night at Yankee Stadium when word came down that the great Willie Mays had passed away.

Suffice to say I was crushed but I had to keep it together because I had to do my job but, for a few moments, I couldn’t stop thinking about the best player that I ever saw.

I am old enough to have seen Mays at the end of his prime and then when he was traded to the Mets in 1972.

I was a Mickey Mantle guy and when I was younger, I couldn’t accept that Mays was a better player than my favorite Yankee of all time. There were the good-natured arguments with my friends who were Mays fans, but I always stuck up for Mickey.

It was not until later in my life that I came to the realization that yes, Mays was the better player, but it didn’t take away from my love for the Mick and how great Mantle was. They were only on the same field, (barring the All-Star appearances) at the same time twice.

The first time was 1951 when I wasn’t around to see it. The Giants had come off their great comeback to stun the Dodgers on Bobby Thomson’s home run. In the top of the fifth, Mays led off and hit a ball to right center field. Mantle, who was playing right field, stepped in an exposed drain-pipe and severely injured his right knee. The great switch-hitter was carted off the field on a stretcher and baseball fans were robbed of seeing the two greats compete against each other.

The second time I do remember because it was the 1962 World Series. I was eight years old and I was thrilled when the Yankees beat the Giants in seven games.

I can vividly recall game seven when Mays had two at bats that nearly derailed the Yankees.

The first was the bottom of the seventh. The Yankees were leading 1-0 when Mays came up as the tying run with one out and nobody on. Mays lined a ball down the left field line but left fielder Tom Tresh made a sensational back hand catch as he was running towards the line that would’ve went for extra bases.

In the ninth, Mays came to bat with two out and the tying run on first. To put it mildly, I was “shittin’ bricks.”

When Mays lined a shot down the right field line, I thought the Giants would tie the game but Roger Maris made a terrific play to cut the ball off and keep Matty Alou from scoring. Willie McCovey lined out to Bobby Richardson and the rest is history.

One of my other memories was when Mays was traded to the Mets on May 11, 1972. I was not a Met fan but I was thrilled to see Mays in a Mets uniform.

His first game with the Mets was May 14th and ironically, it was against the Giants who had traded him three days earlier. I chronicled that game in my book, “162-0, Imagine a Mets Perfect Season.”

Mays led off and was playing first base. The start of the game was delayed by rain so his first at bat did not occur until about 2:40 pm that afternoon. Mays received a raucous standing ovations and Giants starter Sam McDowell walked Mays on five pitches in his first at bat.

It was his third at bat where he gave the fans at Shea a taste of his magic. The Mets had a 4-0 lead but the Giants scored four runs in the top of the fifth to tie the game.

Here is what I wrote: “Don Carrithers replaced McDowell to start the fifth and Mays was the first batter that the right hander would face. The 41-year old living legend was two weeks shy of the 22nd anniversary of his first Major League home run when he connected on a 3-2 pitch from Carrithers and drove it over the wall in left field for his 647th career round-tripper.”

After the game, Mays was quoted as saying, “That was my first hit as Met and my first hit as a Giant was a home run too.”

I did not get to see “the Catch” in the 1954 World Series but I cannot count how many times I’ve seen it on film. 

FILE – New York Giants’ Willie Mays makes a catch of a ball hit by Cleveland Indians’ Vic Wertz in Game 1 of the 1954 baseball World Series in New York’s Polo Grounds on Sept. 29, 1954. Mays, the electrifying “Say Hey Kid” whose singular combination of talent, drive and exuberance made him one of baseball’s greatest and most beloved players, has died. He was 93. Mays’ family and the San Francisco Giants jointly announced Tuesday night, June 18, 2024, he had “passed away peacefully” Tuesday afternoon surrounded by loved ones. (AP Photo, File)

My greatest memory is a personal one when I actually got to meet the “Say Hey Kid.” It was the last game ever played at Shea Stadium in 2008 and I was the official scorer for that game.

At the end of the final game of each season, I always went down to the clubhouse to say goodbye to some of the players that I had relationships with. This trip downstairs turned out to be a little more special.

When Tom Seaver passed in 2020, I wrote about the time I met him after the last game at Shea. It was downstairs in the corridor leading to the clubhouse.

That same time, I also got to meet Willie Mays.

He was being transported on a golf cart that had stopped right near me. I did not want to pass up the opportunity of meeting Willie Mays, so I walked over and introduced myself. I told him that I was an Official Scorer and that I had just worked the final game at Shea.

I also said to him, “I don’t think I would ever have to call an error on you.” He laughed and I said, “Nice to meet you.” He said, “Nice to meet you,” and the cart pulled away.

As that happened, I thought to myself, I just got to meet the best I ever saw. It took mere seconds to experience one of the thrills of my life and my career.

I started to write this tribute at Yankee Stadium after the game. When I got home, I finished it and was able to shed some tears.

RIP #24, the best I ever saw.

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