Another chance to see Mays in center

Originally Published: July 10, 2007
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

SAN FRANCISCO -- The pregame tribute to Willie Mays may have lacked the full emotional resonance of the 1999 All-Star Game in Fenway Park when Ted Williams received the most talent-laden group hug in baseball history and made the ensuing game seem superfluous. That's partly because Mays is in better health than was Williams, partly because the player involvement was more spontaneous in 1999, partly because Willie is a frequent visitor to games here and partly because Tuesday was a tad too reminiscent of the 1999 ceremony.

But given all that Mays meant to the Giants, to San Francisco, to the All-Star Game and to baseball in general, it most definitely was an appropriate ceremony. Consider this a good general rule of thumb: It's never a bad thing to have Willie Mays on a baseball field.

"To be able to be on the same field as Willie Mays at that moment is something I will never forget the rest of my life," said Ichiro, the game's MVP. "I know this is impossible, but I wish I was able to watch Mr. Willie Mays play once."

Willie Mays
Justin Sullivan/Getty ImagesRiding in his '58 Caddie, Willie Mays tosses balls to fans.
As should everyone else who is too young to have seen the game's greatest living player. Or anyone old enough to remember what it was like. But when the outfield sign opened and the "Say-Hey Kid" once again walked onto the green grass of center field, many thousands of Giants fans instantly felt years younger while the players fortunate to be in the outfield with him suddenly grew goose bumps the size of baseballs.

"It looked like he had tears in his eyes," Minnesota Twins center fielder Torii Hunter said. "He was just happy to be in center field, happy to be walking in center field. I wish I had been able to shake his hand. I started to hug him. That was awesome. I'm like, 'That's Willie Mays. That's amazing.'"

After both the American League and National League teams had been introduced, the players walked out to center field in two parallel rows. While the iconic image of Mays' back-to-the-plate catch off Vic Wertz in the 1954 World Series filled the video board, he walked onto the field to fans and All-Stars alike clapping in appreciation. Mays, who is tied for the record for most All-Star Games, threw out the ceremonial first pitch from shallow center field, but only after instructing Mets shortstop Jose Reyes to take a few steps back closer to second base.

"I thought it was going to hurt but it didn't," said Mays, 76. "I was having fun so I didn't have time for pain. Probably going to hurt tomorrow, I don't know."

Mays gave his jacket to Ken Griffey Jr. (who wore his No. 24 in Seattle) and another jacket to Derek Jeter. His godson, Barry Bonds, helped him into a 1958 Cadillac convertible (corresponding with the year the Giants moved to San Francisco) and Mays was driven around the field, tossing baseballs to fans.

"It was icing on the cake," Bonds said of the Mays tribute. "Actually being able to walk Willie in was probably the biggest emotional thing … it could be the last time you see us walk in [together] … That was outstanding to be able to do that and to have the fans cheer; I can't thank them enough."

The Giants paint a lot of great baseball sayings on their ballpark walls, including this one from Williams: "The All-Star Game was made for Willie Mays."

Thirty-four years have passed since Mays last played in an All-Star Game, but for one evening that quote once again seemed as true and accurate as Willie's arm.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com