The New York Mets retired Willie Mays’s number 24 last Saturday. The decision was 50 years in the making: a promise initially made by Mets owner Joan Payson to entice Mays to come back to New York in the twilight of his career.
Willie Mays in a blue-and-orange is always a fun double-take. Like Hank Aaron in Brewers garb or Babe Ruth as a Boston Brave. Though his tenure with the Mets have been much maligned, his first 69 games with the ‘72 club were actually pretty serviceable for a 41 year old. He inflated his .618 OPS with the San Francisco Giants (over 19 games) to .848 with a .402 OBP that was one of his higher marks in the Majors.
But whatever was left in the tank seemed spent by 1973. Over 66 games, Mays batted .211 with .646 OPS. His OPS+ was below league average for the first time in his career.
That final year as a whole wasn’t much of a swan song and more of a pissy goose honk as the bird peppers your front lawn with turds. He disappeared for two days during Spring Training, earning a fine from manager Yogi Berra, he spent time on the disabled list, was left out of lineups, his range and arm strength declined in the outfield and he found himself practicing short-hops and holding runners at first base.
Mays finally announced his intent to retire at the end of the season in September and the Mets dedicated a night to him to say good-bye in the middle of the postseason push. A not-so-subtle ceremony to nudge the old man out the door.
For most, the ‘73 playoffs are bitterly remembered. Mays logged only 10 at-bats over 12 games. Infamous stumbles while losing fly balls in the sun (though the Oakland sunshine was just as troublesome for A’s outfielders) during Game 2 of the World Series poisoned the well and primed reporters and historians for belletristic writings on a painful denouement to a legendary career.
Mays’s last professional at-bat came in Game 3 as a pinch hitter for Tug McGraw in the 10th in a 2-2 tie. But there was no fairy-tale Ted Williams smash, no “bidding adieu” for Mays—he grounded into a fielder’s choice and New York lost 3-2 in the 11th.
Of course, the classic image is of him on his knees, arms spread wide, pleading with the umpire after an close play at the plate. The photograph became the poster image of his final year: a hero leveled, half-buried in the ruins of his career, helpless and begging.
But it’s a common misconception that Mays was thrown out at the plate on the play. It was actually Bud Harrelson who was nabbed trying to score on a fly out to left in the 10th. Mays was on deck, and rushed to the plate to guide Harrelson as the throw came in.
On the play, the umpire, crouched over the plate for the best angle, makes the out call and Mays rushes in, waving his arm in disagreement. He drops to his knees to get level with him and argue his case as the bats fall out of his hand and helmet from his head. The umpire won’t hear any of it, gathering himself onto his feet, large and crow-shouldered as Mays remains floored in the cloud of dust around home plate.
It’s an eerily parallel scene to the Bobby Thomson walk-off two decades previous. The 20 year old Mays next up when the Giants win the pennant. He welcomes Thomson home, elated, relieved, knowing that he’d get his turns at-bat with a promising future ahead of him. Compare this to the frazzled 42 year old left on deck, the bat and career out of his hands, the call already made.
I love this image though. I’ve never been 42—as a 30 year old, it doesn’t sound ideal—but if I get there, I won’t be mad if I love and want and feel something as deeply as Willie Mays does in that moment.
When I was a kid, going over Willie Mays’s career stats I was always disappointed that he went to the Mets. Three decades removed from the trade—Mays for Charlie Williams and cash—and it still pained me. I wished I could just strike that year-and-a-half from the back of his baseball card, wipe clean the final row of his stat sheet, as if such a small blemish could undermine the Say Hey Kid’s resplendent tapestry of a career. I wanted Willie Mays to be perfect, but he just wasn’t.
It’s a gut-punch watching someone great flail at breaking balls and lose routine fly balls in the sun. Why didn’t he call it quits at the height of his powers? Why couldn’t he have just recognized the signs of decline and bowed out gratefully? Why did he have to turn 40?
Now, steeped in maturity, I get how hard it is to say goodbye to something that was your whole life for your whole life as Mays did with baseball. It’s an admission. A surrender. The realization that your body is falling apart, that your shoulder aches when you lift your arm over your head or one of your knees gives out under too much weight, is terrifying. The tiny failures of the flesh, the prolonged but steady collapse: death’s dominoes. This sounds dramatic but I believe retiring is a death for most ballplayers, and it needs to be grieved. Denial comes before acceptance and the 1972/73 seasons in New York were necessary for Mays to come to terms with his age.
But looking back through these first two games of the ‘73 World Series (which might be the best thing on Youtube right now), you can see that Mays really wanted to be out there on that diamond. He just wanted, maybe needed, to be around the game. There was no disillusionment that he could still play like he did in ‘65 or ‘54—but he still looked trim in a uniform and could still pull a single through the 5.5 hole and rounding first still brought him joy.
Watch his first at-bat of the World Series (he comes up around minute 15).
Back in the Bay Area, a late addition after Rusty Staub was scratched, Mays gets the start in center, a short boat ride from his old stomping grounds at Candlestick. In the box, through the fuzz of blown out colors and poor quality retention, Mays looks like he did in his prime. Same stance, slightly cocked and slightly open, his fingers wringing the wooden handle of his bat.
In a 1-2 count, he takes a fastball from A’s starter Ken Holtzman that teases the outside of the plate. Catcher Ray Fosse flinches, about to send the pitch around the horn, but it’s called a ball. Mays steps out. The bill of his helmet obscures his face but you can make out his eyes glaring at Fosse, picking up on the catcher’s slight, as if Mays lucked out, that could’ve been strike three.
Next pitch, Mays offers at a sweeping slider that is somehow deemed a “no-swing” by first base umpire and Mays, half-turned towards the dugout, leans back on his bat, a bit chastised now, almost embarrassed that he got the call.
The next pitch comes quick and angry. Mays expects it and unravels, bringing the barrel of his bat around on an outside fastball that skips between 3rd base and short for a hit. Cut back to Mays standing on first with his helmet gone, somehow losing it on a guaranteed single to left. 1,967 singles across 23 seasons and on every one of them Mays burst from the box thinking he could maybe stretch it into a double. He greets Gene Tenace with a gentle touch on the hip, then takes his hat out of his back pocket and pulls it onto his head. The first baseman cracks a joke, Mays smiles and—amazingly—strokes the tip of Tenace’s mustache.
Then, as if he knows the inevitability of what’s coming next, he looks up into the sun.