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Willie Mays turns 89, but he’ll always be the ‘Say Hey Kid’ for one lifelong fan | COMMENTARY

Former San Francisco Giants player Willie Mays waves during a ceremony honoring Giants manager Bruce Bochy after a baseball game between the Giants and the Los Angeles Dodgers in San Francisco, Sunday, Sept. 29, 2019. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, Pool)
Former San Francisco Giants player Willie Mays waves during a ceremony honoring Giants manager Bruce Bochy after a baseball game between the Giants and the Los Angeles Dodgers in San Francisco, Sunday, Sept. 29, 2019. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, Pool)(Jeff Chiu/AP)

It is hard for me to believe that Hall of Famer Willie Mays — considered by some to be the greatest all-around player in the history of Major League Baseball — turned 89 on Wednesday.

Time really does fly and it doesn’t seem all that long ago that he was the forever young “Say Hey Kid" who could leap tall outfield fences at a single bound and happened to be my idol when I was the worst player on my Little League team in the early 1960′s.

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Considering that I grew up just outside Los Angeles, it made him an odd choice. Everybody else in the neighborhood wanted to grow up to be Sandy Koufax, but for reasons I no longer remember, I adopted the San Francisco Giants as my favorite team early on and Willie was The Man.

His star power made the Giants a frequent presence on the Game of the Week and every road game between the Dodgers and Giants was televised throughout Southern California. When big league baseball arrived in San Diego in 1969, I would lie on my bed fiddling with the dial on my transistor radio trying to pick up static-laced snippets of the Padres broadcast if the Giants were in town.

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Guess I was just a 9-year-old contrarian, which makes me wonder if I would have picked Frank Howard over Brooks Robinson if I had grown up in Baltimore.

When Mays arrived in the big leagues in 1951, he was the ultimate five-tool guy whose talent was so obvious that even the bitter rivalry between the Dodgers and Giants couldn’t dissuade legendary Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully from calling him the best player he had ever seen in nearly seven decades at the microphone.

He was named National League Rookie of the Year after arriving in the Giants lineup in late May of 1951 and came back from military service to win NL Most Valuable Player in his next full season.

By the time he reached his prime years, and most of his 22 major league seasons could be described that way, he was one of those players who put people in the seats no matter where he played, says author John Shea, whose new Mays biography entitled “24 — Life Stories and Lessons From the Say Hey Kid” hits bookstore shelves and ebook sites May 12.

“Yeah, in fact, I went through every year road attendance and through the ’60s, the Giants — who went to one World Series — led the league in road attendance eight times and in 1971, Willie’s last full year when they won the division,’’ Shea said Wednesday. “That’s pretty good for a team that didn’t draw very well at Candlestick Park.”

Mays was five years retired when I covered my first major league game in 1978 and I never got to interview him, but that was probably a good thing. He could be prickly with reporters, but the bond he had forged from afar with young baseball fans all over America was very real. I learned that during those long-ago Saturday afternoons sitting cross-legged in front of a black-and-white TV watching him play and seeing him interviewed by Curt Gowdy and other great baseball broadcasters of the day.

“To this day, Halloween is his favorite holiday, which really isn’t a holiday,’’ Shea said. “He’s got a line several hundred people deep outside his house and he just loves it. He has lived in the same house since 1970, and parents bring their kids and wait in line early on Oct. 31 to meet the great Mays. And he meets everybody in line.

“The ‘Say Hey Kid’ nickname is perfect and it stands. I don’t think that was ever lost — his love for children.”

Sadly, childhood eventually is lost for all of us. The 1960′s were a very turbulent time for this country and, in particular, my fractured family, but I still get a warm feeling when I think back to those summer afternoons when the Giants were on TV and Willie Mays was patrolling center field and all seemed right with the world.

“24 — Life Stories and Lessons From the Say Hey Kid” by Willie Mays and John Shea is published by St. Martin’s Press

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