September 25, a New York legend says goodbye. His numbers are weak - .211 BA, .344 SLG, .647 OPS – but the crowd loved him so. Nearly 44,000 cheered him on as he stood forlornly behind a table of gifts, a line of VIPs behind him. It was the end of an era, the face of the game riding off into the sunset.
Choking back tears, dark dark bags under his glistening eyes, looking chilly and old in his heavy warmup jacket, his team hanging on to playoff hopes, all the former great could do was say so long.
“Willie, say good-bye to America.”
Mets fans went wild as Willie Mays wept.
He’d only announced his retirement six days earlier. There was no farewell tour, no tributes from friends and foes throughout the country. Mays wasn’t saying good-bye to baseball. He was saying good-bye to us all.
By the end of September 1973, Mays was 42 years old and far removed from the “Say Hey Kid.” He only played in 66 games that year, hadn’t played since September 9 and didn’t play on Willie Mays Night. The Mets entered the day ½ game ahead of the Pirates and there wasn’t a chance in hell manager Yogi Berra would allow sentiment to take over, that the image and pride of Willie Mays would be put ahead of his team’s chances. No one squawked.
An old Mays still had value. Jerry Koosman begged Willie to reconsider his decision. Tom Seaver saw what huge value the presence of Mays had to a team on the brink of a most surprising pennant run.
The crying, sad Mays, the stumbling and pleading Mays of the World Series, is what we remember. Sad, really, considering what else he did. Sure, he was a shell of himself, but his pinch-hit chopper off the Reds’ reliever Clay Carroll would be the decisive run in the Mets’ Game 5, pennant clinching playoff win over Cincinnati. And in Game 2 of the World Series against the more powerful Oakland A’s, Mays’ 12th inning single to center off Rollie Fingers put the Mets ahead for keeps.
What is it we wish to remember and what is it we wish to celebrate? When Willie Mays packed it in at the end of 1973, the reality of his play was depressing, but what he’d done and what he could still do, infrequent as it was, was enough for baseball fans. He’d limped through his final years, played though a cracked rib at the end of his final season, and had been eclipsed by Hank Aaron as the inevitable new home run king, but that was fine. No one had to, or felt the need to, put a halo on the man’s head, pretend he was still the player of our mind’s eye or either attack him for being past his prime or attack critics who dared say, “You know, Willie Mays is an average ( at best), part-time player. “ No more, no less.
Maybe a triumphal tour of every ballpark would have been more suitable, maybe it would have erased the last visuals of a falling, begging Willie Mays. Who knows and who cares? There was nothing Willie Mays needed to do, that baseball needed to merchandise, to show us how wonderful and how blessed we were to witness his presence on a baseball diamond. He didn’t need the fanfare; he’d done enough for us all.