Happy Birthday, TOB. Now stop dunking and help your dad wash the suburban.
No. 1, Willie Mays
It’s a name that really sings, doesn’t it? Willie Mays. Say it out loud, but say it quickly. Willie Mays. For 70 years, that name has echoed on streets and playgrounds, ball fields and school yards. Willie Mays. Imagine little kids across the country in 1951, when Willie debuted with the New York Giants, hearing that name dance out of their radio. Willie Mays. Imagine it rolling off their dad’s tongue in 1954, as he read aloud the story of The Catch from the morning sports page. Willie Mays.
That name continues to dazzle, though it’s been almost 50 years since Willie Mays last played in the major leagues. When my sons and I play baseball, they argue over who gets to “be” Willie Mays. And if you think I’m exaggerating, this was Tuesday:
He’s just three (and it’s fitting because I tried to name him Willie Mays, though my wife would not give in). He has never seen Willie Mays play, of course. He can tell you he was on the Giants. I think he could tell you his jersey number, but that’s about it. There’s something about that name that sparks the imagination, though.
Last Friday, shortly after we posted our weekly digest, Posnanski published the next in line in his Top 100 series: No. 2, Babe Ruth. I think I gasped. I had long assumed Ruth would be #1. I predicted Joe would have Willie Mays #3. But #1? I read through the Ruth story, and it was fine, but I waited all weekend to read his story on Mays, and it did not disappoint. Here’s how it begins:
Think for a moment about the first vivid baseball memory you have.
Perhaps you have a hollow plastic bat in your hands and a Wiffle Ball floats toward you. How old are you? 3? 5? Older? All you want to do is hit the ball. Where does that hunger come from? Who taught you that? Nobody. It is an instinct. You stand rigidly with your legs spread apart and the bat resting on your shoulder — maybe your parents set you up that way like an action figure. The ball dangles in midair like a disco ball. You swing the bat the way you imagine it should be swung, and you connect, perfect contact.
The ball takes off like a leaf caught in the wind, and you begin to run and stumble toward invisible bases that hide in the grass. You run a tight circle around the pitcher — is it your dad? Your mom? Your grandpa? Your best friend? — until you make it all the way around.
And when you get back where you started, you tumble over in the best version of a slide that you can muster. Who taught you how to slide? No one. You just knew.
That memory is Willie Mays.
Or maybe it is this: You and a friend throw a rubber ball (a tennis ball?) against the stairs that climb up to your front door. The sun is so big and warm that it seems to color the cloudless sky yellow. If you throw a ball against those stairs just right — so that the ball hits the upper corner flush — it will take off like a toy rocket. And that’s what your friend does. The ball erupts off the stair and goes soaring toward the street, and you turn your back and sprint after it. You can’t catch it, but you run just the same because … well, just because. And then to your surprise, you find that you start gaining on the ball. You can see it coming down, and you can see that if you reach out, stretch out, thrust out your arm as far as it can possibly go …
And maybe you catch it. How did you catch it? You don’t know but you feel electricity buzzing throughout your body and you shout out to your friend, “DID YOU SEE THAT?” And your friend jumps up and down excitedly — or, wait, maybe you are the friend — and the two of you spend the rest of the afternoon reliving the catch.
That memory is Willie Mays.
Maybe your memory is of buying a new pack of baseball cards. This might be in the days when baseball cards come with a rectangle of rock-hard chewing gum that tastes like cardboard and rubs your tongue raw like sandpapers … or maybe this is years later, when there was no gum, when instead there would be specialty cards inside, maybe an autographed card or one that has a little piece of fabric worn by a major leaguer.
Either way, you pull off the plastic wrapper slowly because you want to savor it all, make the experience last for as long you can. And you slide down the top card just a little so that it reveals only a tiny portion of what card is next. Hmm. Look here. The next player is on your favorite team. Could it be? You don’t dare to hope yet. You slide the card down a little more. Yes, it might be. A little more. Yes! The next card is your favorite player, you already know that this next card is now the most valuable thing you own, and you might sleep with it under your pillow or you might put it in one of those baseball card cases for protection. Whatever you do, your life is just a little bit different and better than it was before.
That memory is Willie Mays.
Perhaps you are at a ballpark. Everything looks so green. You’d seen games on television. You’ve looked at boxscores and imagined. But you never believed it could be so green.
The smells overwhelm you — what is that? Beer? Hot dogs? Funnel cakes? Sweat? Yes. All of it. Baseball smells like an amusement park and a backyard barbecue and an afternoon at a movie theater and recess at the playground all at once. Then you hear the sounds, cheers and chatter, boos and a vendor selling peanuts, claps and stomps and groans and hopeful screams that either rise into happy symphonies or trail off into disheartened sighs, all while an organist plays “Hava Nagila” and a Mexican Hat Dance and a cavalry charge and that nameless song that plays a duet with your rapid heartbeat.
Here we go (YOUR TEAM), here we go (CLAP CLAP).
Maybe you even keep score. You’d have to be a certain age for that to ring true, probably. To keep score, you mark (with your blunt pencil that barely leaves a mark) a 6-3 for a grounder to short or a 9 for a fly ball to right field or you trace that pencil all around the bases and draw a diamond for a home run.
And then a ball is hit deep and the center fielder chases after it, but there is no chance the ball can be caught, the geometry teacher in your head tells you so. Then you see the ball and the man converge, and at the last possible instant the center fielder takes flight and pulls it in, and all at once, all together, people lose their bleeping minds.
“Put a star next to that one,” someone tells you, and you do, you put a little star next to the “8.”
That memory, most of all, is Willie Mays.
Chills. Seriously, I’ve read that four times now, and it gives me chills every time. Posnanski absolutely nails it: Willie Mays deserves to be #1 because he was great, yes, but more than that he was and is everything great about baseball: he loved to play. Loved it. In all the clips I’ve ever seen, the joy he played with oozed from his pores. Look at the video of The Catch.
It’s INCREDIBLE on every level – the read, the speed, the athleticism, the determination, and the sheer difficulty – the impossible angle (straight back, which is just so hard to do), and then of course the way the ball sails right over his head and lands softly in his glove. Then there’s the awareness to immediately get the ball back into the infield, which saved the game, as the runner tagging from second had to stop at third (remember this is deep center at the Polo Grounds, so around 460 feet). But the thing that always tickles me about that catch is the panache – the way his hat flies off, the way he whirls around as he throws like he’s tossing a discus. He’s having an absolute ball, and it’s impossible not to love.
It doesn’t hurt, as a Giants fan, that he’s “ours.” Last season, we were driving on the freeway on the way to the ballpark when I came upon a license plate I had seen once before: 1SAYHEY. I said: “Oh my god. I think we’re about to drive past Willie Mays.” I sped up a little, then slowed down next to him. And sure enough, there he was, the Say Hey Kid, in the passenger seat. I waved. I don’t remember if he noticed. But I said to the kids, “Do you see that guy? That is Willie! Mays! FROM THE STATUE!” He was headed to the game, too.
It’s those days you show up to the ballpark and Willie shows up, too, that are really special. You feel like a little kid. And you get to point and say to your kids, “That, right there, is Willie Mays, the best baseball player there ever was.” No other fanbase gets that.
Willie turns 89 next month. And every time I see him I think, “Is this the last time?” But instead of getting sad, it makes me appreciate the experience more, and I cheer louder. Because I know he appreciates it. I hope someone read him Posnanski’s story – I know he’d appreciate that, too, because it’s great.
Posnanski sums up Willie Mays, and why he continues to resonate with so many, including two young boys in San Francisco, all these years later:
But even to the end, he sparked joy. What do you love most about baseball? Mays did that. To watch him play, to read the stories about how he played, to look at his glorious statistics, to hear what people say about him is to be reminded why we love this odd and ancient game in the first place.
Yes, Willie Mays has always made kids feel like grown-ups and grown-ups feel like kids.
In the end, isn’t that the whole point of baseball?
Consuming sports was different when Willie played. Not every game was on television. There was no national highlight show giving you the best plays of the night, every night. There are relatively few clips of Willie Mays actually playing baseball available even today. But my three-year old consumes sports the same way kids in the 1950s did: in brief clips that are fuzzy in their brains, in stories their parents tell them, and in the joy of saying a name like Willie Mays. -TOB
Source: “The Baseball 100: No. 1, Willie Mays,” Joe Posnanski, The Athletic (04/08/2020)
PAL: I am ashamed that I didn’t know Willie Mays played minor league ball in Minneapolis!
In a collection of stories that read like folk tales of athleticism, youthful exuberance, and “divine moments”, the parallels and juxtaposition between Mays and Mantle, and their respective fathers, really sticks out.
And this is a great point on May’s iconic, over-the-shoulder catch:
Nobody knows for sure where the throw went: The enduring film only shows him making the throw. But we know that it made Larry Doby stop at third. Doby would not score. The Giants would win the game in extra innings and then sweep the series.
But maybe my favorite line from the entire story comes from Giants manager Leo Durocher: “If he could cook I’d marry him.”
The entire series is one hell of a collection from Posnanski. Damn, man.
Shawn Kemp: Kentucky Wildcat (That’s Right)
How about this for teaser from Kyle Tucker:
“Does Christian Laettner get off that stunning buzzer-beater in overtime to deny Kentucky its triumphant return to the Final Four if Kemp is on the court?”
Say what now?
A little while back we did favorite athletes by decade. Since then, Bill Simmons has started reviewing previous drafts and re-drafting, which has been jogging my basketball memories. Everyone’s looking to the past for their sports fix, and in the process, I’m realizing how many athletes I overlooked in our little exercise. Basketball-wise: I had an affinity for Steve Blake from that Maryland team. I like Andre Miller and that Utah team a lot. Give me some Andrew DeClerq while we’re at it. There may have been a short Reggie Miller period as well.
So all of these NBA names are spinning around in my brain, especially as I listen to Simmon review these old drafts, when I see this Shawn Kemp story about his time at Kentucky being stopped before it began.
People over 35 know that Shawn Kemp was a very big deal for a few years. The dunks were ferocious. The Sonics were cool, and they made a Finals against Jordan.
But I had no idea about his journey to the Sonics. No idea that he was from Indiana, that he passed on Bobby Knight and the Hoosiers, and went to Kentucky. I had no idea he never played a game for the Wildcats, and I had no idea why. In my mind, Shawn Kemp’s existence began in those slick Sonic jerseys doing this:
I thoroughly enjoyed learning about his arrival at Kentucky and how stupidly it ended for pawning some stolen jewelry. And just like that, he was gone before playing a simple game for Kentucky.
Two details stick out to me from the story.
The jewelry was Sean Sutton’s. His dad, Eddie, was the coach. Sean filed a police report about the stolen jewelry, which led the local authorities to alert local pawn shops. Kemp was found selling the jewelry to one of those pawn shops for $700.
Over thirty years later, Sean Sutton had this to say (for the first time, at least to the press):
“I’ve never talked about this,” Sean Sutton told The Athletic recently. “In the past, I just said, ‘That’s not something I care to revisit.’ But I think everybody probably deserves to know the real truth. I want Kentucky fans to realize that Shawn Kemp was a good guy. It got so out of control, became such a big story, and it’s really, really unfortunate how it all played out. He was gone before any of us really understood what was happening. If I could go back 32 years, I’d probably do things differently.
“Because in my mind, and I would know as well as anybody, he didn’t take that stuff.”
Sean, dude, couldn’t you have maybe found the guts to say that before now? While – yes – the jewelry was stolen, and Kemp was selling it, that doesn’t necessarily mean he stole it (as Sutton now insists he thinks whoever took the jewelry lied to Kemp about where it came from and likely gave it to Kemp to pawn for some cash.) Someone could have just given the jewelry to Kemp and told him to pawn it in order to make some easy cash, no questions. For a super-duper star athlete in a big program, that seems completely understandable to me.
Also, if Sutton just doesn’t file the report, this all can take place without people knowing. Kemp stays and joins a stacked Kentucky roster, and maybe a few years later Kemp (completely normal for superstars to stay 3-4 years in college at that time) is playing with Mashburn against Duke, and the 6’11” Kemp (I had no idea he was that tall) swats Laettner. I know, I know; it’s not a fill in the blank, but isn’t it fun to imagine?
The other detail from this story that really stuck out was how much of a manchild Kemp was. So he gets to Lexington in the summer and is playing pickup games with current and former Kentucky players. We’re talking NBA guys and top college players. Kemp, a teenager, is dunking on all of them – including Kenny ‘Sky’ Walker.
“Shawn dunked right over Kenny and looked right at him and said, ‘Take that shit!’ Or maybe something worse,” Sutton says. “Everybody was stunned. What did he just say to Kenny? I don’t think Shawn was doing it to be disrespectful. He just got caught up in a competitive moment. That’s just how he was wired, trying to destroy people.”
Lest anyone think Walker was offended, it was quite the opposite. Kemp was headhunting every player in the gym that day, including former UK stars Sam Bowie and Melvin Turpin, the No. 2 and 6 overall picks in 1984, and the alums loved it.
“He was a man-child,” Walker says. “Most guys playing a bunch of established NBA players would be trying to feel their way around, might be a little timid, but he was trying to dunk everything on everybody. I usually had the advantage over everybody, but here I am going against a guy two inches taller than I am, stronger than I am, just as aggressive as I am, and maybe a little meaner than I am. Until LeBron James came along, I couldn’t remember a guy right out of high school so physically put together and with so much spring.”
Perhaps many of you knew the Kemp Kentucky stuff, but I had no idea, which made this a solid read from Kyle Tucker. – PAL
Source: “‘It Got So Out of Control’: Shawn Kemp’s Kentucky Career Ended Before it Began”, Kyle Tucker, The Athletic (4/16/2020)
TOB: Interesting stuff. This week I stumbled on another good Kemp tidbit: In 1994, while Jordan was playing baseball, the Sonics almost traded Kemp to the Bulls for Scottie Pippen. The deal fell through when the story leaked and the Sonics’ owner grew concerned about fans being upset over losing the beloved Kemp. But the most fascinating part is that the Sonics’ coach, George Karl, called up Jordan (they are both Carolina guys), and Karl claims Jordan said: “Do it,” he said. “Scottie can make your other players better. Kemp can’t.”
Huh. Given Jordan’s comment: does he even come back in 1996 if Pippen is gone? That’s a crazy what-if.
Joey Votto Tries to Slow the Coming of the End
Joey Votto is an interesting guy, especially as baseball players go. I really enjoyed this article on the Reds’ star, as he tries to fight Father Time. Here’s the open:
Last April, on a gorgeously sunny, relatively cool afternoon at Dodger Stadium, in Los Angeles, the Cincinnati Reds’ Joey Votto popped out to first base. Ahead in the count, he’d lunged at the ball, sending it high into foul territory, before it landed in the mitt of the first baseman. Infield flies are the lamest thing a batter can do apart from striking out, but the crowd went wild—or rather, the baseball commentators and Twitter masses did. (“This has to be a sign of the zombie apocalypse.” “The world is ending.”) Because, over the course of his 13-year Major League career, in 6,827 trips to the plate, Votto had never popped out to first. Think of a veteran opera singer who never hit a wrong note onstage, or an actor who never flubbed a line. Equally astounding, Votto had flied out to the infield—right, left, or center—only seven times since 2010, while any other Major Leaguer with the same number of trips to the plate would have done so 137 times.
That’s an incredible stat, and the story just gets better from there.
Source: “The Brainiest Hitter: Can Joey Votto Outsmart Age?” Sridhar Paddu, The Atlantic (May 2020)
PAL: Loved this article. Definitely keeping an eye out for future stories from Sridhar Paddu. I knew nothing about Joey Votto, and so this was a real treat. I’ve read a few sports profiles, and his candor stands out. Fascinating approach to his game. The idea that, in his prime, he felt his skills slipping ever so slightly, and the idea that – before 30 – he chose to accept that and rebuild his swing…two years after winning the National League M.V.P.
My favorite part of the entire piece comes near the end, before the season was cancelled and Votto was about to lock in to his very regimented baseball schedule and mode:
The day before we met in person, Votto decided to have a coffee at Starbucks, his last one, he figured at the time, for months. Then, while at Whole Foods in the afternoon, he went even further. He stopped at the bar set amid overpriced produce and organic beauty supplies to have a beer. A single beer at a grocery store to revel in the task in front of him: the comeback season. “Let’s celebrate,” he recalled thinking. “Let’s get ready for a great year. Let’s go to Whole Foods and get a beer at 3 o’clock!”
Many of us have walked by that Whole Foods bar and thought about a quick beer. I love that he did it, and I love that he was celebrating getting ready for a great year.
Great find, TOB.
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