SIMMONS: Willie Mays was 'baseball royalty'

“What he did for the game. How he impacted the game and brought style to the game. He was the first one to bring style to baseball and have people say he was that graceful.”

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DeMarlo Hale went home Tuesday night after the Blue Jays loss and started reading stories about Willie Mays.

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He read one, then another, and before long he looked at his watch and realized he’d been at it for hours. And yet he couldn’t stop himself. He read some more. Soaking it all in. Smiling. Laughing. Maybe crying just a little bit.

Celebrating the life and death and times of the greatest baseball player anyone has ever seen.

“One thing that was constant,” said the Blue Jays’ associate manager, “there was no one like him. I started hearing about him when I started playing ball as a kid. My uncles told me. My coaches told me. Pretty much everybody told me.

“What he did for the game. How he impacted the game and brought style to the game. He was the first one to bring style to baseball and have people say he was that graceful.”

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Today, they talk about Mays being that rare five-category player. But that’s not entirely accurate. He was more of an eight-category player — he played with speed, power, hitting to all fields, defence, and throwing, and all that distinguished him from those he played with and against: He also played with grace, humility and humanity.

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No one did that to his extent before him. No one may ever do it to that extent again.

Blue Jays bench coach Don Mattingly said Wednesday he didn’t really know the Say Hey Kid, even though they had met on several occasions.

“What was that like, meeting Willie Mays?” I wondered.

“It was like meeting your baseball card,” Mattingly said. If your card happened to smile at the time.

“It was a childhood kind of moment. You shook hands and you’re thinking: ‘I’m shaking hands with Willie Mays.’ I was a big-leaguer. He was Willie Mays. To be honest, I don’t remember seeing him play a lot. My memories come from seeing highlights, from hearing the name, from following the game.”

Buck Martinez played for Harvey Kuenn in Milwaukee, who used to play with Mays in San Francisco. Kuenn told a story once about Mays asking to borrow his car in spring training.

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“What do you want my car for, you’ve got a brand new Cadillac convertible?”

“I need your car,” insisted Mays.

That day, Mays took Kuenn’s car and when he returned it, there was a brand new state-of-the-art 8-track cassette tape deck installed in the vehicle. The reason: He just wanted to thank Kuenn for being the player rep on the San Francisco Giants.

That was Willie Mays off the field. On the field, all he had to be was his athletic self. He won two MVP awards, finished top-four in voting eight different times. Four other years he was top six in voting.

“If you did those votes today, with analytics and WAR and all that, how many more MVPs would he have won?” asked Hale. When he retired in 1973, Mays was second in home runs, behind only Babe Ruth. His career on-base percentage was .384. He won 12 Gold Gloves and four times led baseball in stolen bases, four times in home runs.

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A Willie Mays mural.

A Willie Mays mural is shown in downtown Birmingham, Ala., on Wednesday, June 19, 2024. The mural was created by artist Chuck Styles and celebrates Mays’ contributions to baseball, honouring the longtime Giants centre-fielder who died Tuesday at age 93.If power-hitting Albert Pujols ran like Rickey Henderson and played centre field like Devon White, then you would have something resembling Willie Mays, who wore his baseball cap one size too big so it would fly off whenever he ran the bases.

It was just a game to those who played with him and against him. For Willie Mays, every game was a show and he was the headliner.

“He meant everything to me,” said Martinez, the Blue Jays broadcaster and recent winner of the Jack Graney Award from the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.

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“He was the reason I fell in love with baseball. I saw him play when I was 10 years old.

“He played with so much joy and so much passion, how could you not fall in love with baseball when you watched Willie Mays?”

It’s a short list of athletes who take your breath away.

“Michael Jordan did it.” said Martinez. “Magic Johnson did it. (Wayne) Gretzky did it. (Mays) played with so much joy and emotion, even if he wasn’t naturally outgoing, you saw the excitement he created and the excitement he played with.”

New York Giants center fielder Willie Mays leaps high to snare a ball near the outfield fence at the Giants' Phoenix spring training base, Feb. 29, 1956. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS FILES
New York Giants center fielder Willie Mays leaps high to snare a ball near the outfield fence at the Giants’ Phoenix spring training base, Feb. 29, 1956. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS FILES

When Martinez managed Team USA at the World Baseball Classic, one of the benefits that came with the job were the frequent visits of Mays. He liked being around the American greats of the game long after he had retired.

“I’ve got pictures of him, pictures with him,” said Martinez. “Pictures that I cherish to this day.”

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“I’m just glad I got to meet him a few times,” said former Blue Jays president Paul Beeston, still on the board of the Baseball Hall of Fame.

“He was Willie Mays. There was this aura about him. A hundred years from now, we’ll still be talking about him. He was like baseball royalty — he was baseball royalty — he was the reason we loved the game.

Willie Mays passed away at the age of 93 on Tuesday. He will never be forgotten.

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