It's Willie Mays's 82nd birthday today. I'm not sure how many of these we've covered around here, but if it wasn't every single year, that was a mistake. There is always room for more Willie Mays.
Here's the thing, though: We'll never understand Willie Mays. At least, most of us will never get the chance to understand Mays as he deserves to be understood. I wanted to link to a video that gave a sense of Mays -- the little things, like how he was better than everyone at everything -- but that video doesn't really exist. It's not that MLB.com doesn't have the right videos uploaded, it's that the right videos don't exist.
Take a look at a video of Mays from 1969. It looks like it was shot on a hacked Teddy Ruxpin. And that's from the later years. When it comes to early Mays -- the 23-year-old hitting .345 with 41 homers, or the 26-year-old with 20 triples, 35 homers, 38 stolen bases, and the best range anyone had ever seen -- all you have is The Catch. Which is a highlight that doesn't get old, don't get me wrong. But even that can't convey just how ethereal Mays was. If it happened today, there would be six camera angles. There would be an overhead shot that showed Mays's starting point, the speed of the ball, and just how far and fast Mays had to go. There would be GIFs, slow-motion shots, and Fox's crazy high-definition cameras.
Instead, you have that one clip that cuts away too soon to a dude taking off his hat in amazement. Part of me wonders if that was even in response to The Catch, or if it was a stock reaction that was edited in after the fact.
What that means is that you have to use your imagination. You have to rely on the testimony of others, and you have to assume they knew what they were talking about when they said Mays was the best they ever saw. Here's Leo Durocher on Mays:
If somebody came up and hit .450, stole 100 bases, and performed a miracle in the field every day, I'd still look you right in the eye and tell you that Willie was better. He could do the five things you have to do to be a superstar: hit, hit with power, run, throw and field. And he had the other magic ingredient that turns a superstar into a super Superstar. Charisma. He lit up a room when he came in. He was a joy to be around.
If you wanted 24-hour coverage of Mike Trout last year, you could have had it. There's the MLB Network, ESPN, and MLB.com. There are all sorts of Angels blogs and Tumblrs out there, and they were happy to oblige. If you wanted an example of Trout amazing people with his speed on an infield hit, you could find it after a five-second search. (And if Trout can do it for the next 20 years, maybe he'll be comparable to Willie Mays!)
We don't get that with Mays. We get teases. And we get comprehensive histories from the people at SABR and elsewhere. We'll just have to close our eyes and imagine the rest. Picture Buster Posey with top-shelf speed. Or Barry Bonds with the slickest glove in center you've ever seen and a 350-foot-long pneumatic tube for an arm. And Mays did all of that with the Giants. It's a shame that it took a couple of championships for us to become arrogant. We should have been there all along.
I can't fathom how amazing Mays must have been. He was the best baseball player of his time. He might have been the best baseball player of all-time. Part of me wishes that we had the video evidence to back that all up. Part of me is almost glad that we don't. Because as good as I'm imagining Mays was, it warms me to know that he was probably much better. Happy birthday, Willie.