A Blue Turncoat
Remembering back to 2003:
Even though I rooted for the Dodgers during high school in LA, it is my San Francisco
Giants who clinched the NL West an hour ago. Happily, they are the first team to qualify
for the playoffs that will culminate in the World Series. The Giants last reached
The Fall Classic in 1989, infamous both because it was interrupted by the Loma Prieta
earthquake -- and equally sadly, my home team was swept four straight games in the
Freeway Series by their cross-Bay rival Oakland Athletics.
The international media hovers only over Barry Bonds, for whom every moment is bittersweet. On the one hand, his father Bobby, a Giant legend in his own right, is dying of lung cancer, a common cause of death for his era's ballplayers. On the other hand, his heavy-hearted son is closing to within four home runs of his god (now-surrogate) father Willie Mays for number three on the all-time career list. Before fully grasping the impact of Barry's BALCO/steroids notoriety, I daydreamed and speculated with buddies huddled together to blunt Candlestick Park's bone chilling wind, "Has any other team -- even the Yankees -- ever had two such outstanding players?”
Baseball being a sport of tradition and statistics (and asterisks -- remember Roger Maris'
hair falling out when he challenged and broke the single season homer record in 162
instead of Ruth's 154 games?), who do you vote for as the greatest player ever?
Here's one short list:
1. Hank Aaron
2. Barry Bonds
3. Joe Dimaggio
4. Sandy Koufax
5. Willie Mays
6. Jimmy Palmer*
7. Babe Ruth
8. Ted William
9. Ty Cobb
10. Write-in of your choice
*We played Little League together. I was a left-handed catcher distinguished only for hitting our coach in the head throwing a very hard ball back to the mound during infield practice.
Me, I vote for The Say-Hey Kid. Although his numbers are in the first tier, they don't tell the whole story, what with current hitters rewriting the record books thanks to expansion's diluted pitching, smaller ballparks, lively balls, weight training, players juiced on 'roids, etc. Also, Willie lost major league time when he played in the Negro Leagues as well as losing two seasons to the Korean War. (In all fairness, my eighth entry, the Splendid Splinter, spent several years in World War II.)
Five Mays Raves to support my case:
1. His former Giants manager, Leo Durocher: "If he could cook, I'd marry him." (Leo the Lip coined the phrase "a five-tool player" because The Kid could hit for average (.302), hit for power (660 home runs), run (338 stolen bases), field and throw (12 Gold Gloves). The Catch of Vic Wertz's fly ball in the '54 World Series -- back to home plate, cap flying off -- followed by the more brilliant, less famous peg to second base, made Mays a legend.
2. Former rival, Dodger Sandy Koufax (my sentimental choice, having been a kid in Los Angeles when he was baseball's dominant pitcher): "I can't believe that Babe Ruth was a better player than Willie Mays. Ruth is to baseball what Arnold Palmer is to golf. He got the game moving. But I can't believe he could run as well as Mays, and I can't believe he was any better an outfielder."
3. The late great LA Times sportswriter Jim Murray: "Willie Mays' glove is where triples go to die."
4. New York sportswriter Red Smith: "Snider, Mantle, and Mays. You could get a fat lip in any saloon by starting an argument as to which was the best. One point was beyond argument, though. Willie was by all odds the most exciting."
5. Former A's/Yankees outfielder, Mr. October, Reggie Jackson, the Straw That Stirred the Drink: "You used to think if the score was 5-0, he'd hit a five-run homer."
So, as Bo Diddley crooned, who who do you love?
©2008 by Gerard Sarnat