'The Catch' is still The Play
Willie Mays' spectacular run, grab and throw in the '54 Series remains the top defensive play of all time.
In the World Series room of the National Baseball Hall of Fame stands a lifesize, cardboard, black-and-white cutout of the most legendary defensive play ever made.
A few years back, I was walking through the Hall with my son Steven, then 9, when we almost crashed right into it.
There he was, all these decades later -- the great Willie Mays, back turned to us, his glove outstretched, his number 24 telling us instantly who this was and what this was.
Well, I should say, telling me instantly.
"What's this, dad?" my son asked.
"Steven," I replied, "this is the greatest catch in the history of baseball."
I then told him what I knew of the circumstances: Game 1 of the '54 World Series. Tie game. Eighth inning. Two on. No outs. Vic Wertz the hitter. And then ...
A baseball disappearing into the shadows. Mays turning and running how many feet? A hundred? Two hundred? The center-field fence, 461 feet from home plate, getting closer and closer. Mays' cap spinning off his head. And then ...
"Wow," said my son -- speaking about a play he had never seen. "I wish I could see it."
What words better sum up the storied plays of baseball better than those:
"I wish I could see it."
Now we have computers and VCRs. Now we have SportsCenter and Baseball Tonight. Now we can see it. We can see it all.
But certain plays rise above the heap, rise even above the nightly Web Gems. They become not just plays, not just moments. They become Myth. They become Legend.
Willie Mays' catch is the top defensive play of all-time. Why? Because it is more than just memorable. It is hallowed.
I found that out while covering the 1992 World Series in Toronto. In Game 3 of that World Series, Blue Jays center fielder Devon White made the most amazing play I have ever personally witnessed -- splattering himself off the center-field wall to rob David Justice of a two-run double and almost starting a triple play.
The next day, I ran into Vin Scully in the press room. Scully may have been the only person alive who had been present both for that play and the Mays catch.
"I saw Mays' catch," Scully said. "And this one, to me, was better.
"The big thing with Mays," Scully went on, "was that he had a wide-open area. He didn't have to be concerned with the wall. And that's a major concern. So I'm inclined to think that White's catch might have been better than Mays'."
Scully wasn't the only one, though, to suggest that this catch may have surpassed the greatest catch ever.
When a couple of us brought up Mays' catch to White the next day, he said we weren't the first to make the connection.
"Dave Winfield just made a comment," White said. "He said, 'We used to have to watch it in black and white. Now we can watch it in color.'"
But White also said he would "never think of comparing myself to Willie Mays. What I did, that's just part of my game. I made that play, but I just thought of it as another play. It saved the game. And of course, it was the World Series, so it was a very important play in the game. But I would never compare myself with Willie Mays."
He turned out to be a man who had a perfect read on what Mays and his moment represented in the pantheon of baseball. Only a few days later did I begin to grasp it fully myself.
When my mail arrived, I was deluged with dozens of letters from readers outraged that I would dare compare this play -- or any play -- with Mays' play. It didn't matter that one of the greatest broadcasters who ever lived had seen both plays and put Mays in second place. That wasn't the issue here. The issue, I later realized, was: You don't tarnish a legend.
Mays' catch is to defense in baseball what Babe Ruth's 60 homers were to the people who booed Roger Maris in 1961. I understand that now. It deserves to stand alone, no matter what else or who else comes along to challenge it.
So Willie, you're No. 1 on our list. You will be as long as anyone remembers the grainy black-and-white image of you retreating to the far reaches of the Polo Grounds.
When I told my son this week that I was doing this story, I said, "At least No. 1 is easy. What's the greatest catch in history?"
"Willie Mays," he said.
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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