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He was the best.
The magic of the players whom you knew when you were young enough to feel unadulterated excitement about baseball is that they don't just remain great. They get greater. Still, he was the best.
Every time a pitcher knocked down Willie Mays, he got up and hit the next pitch out of the park. Every time he reached first, he stole second. Every time he ran after a fly ball, his hat flew off...then he caught the ball and nailed a runner so dumb he hadn't learned that nobody could run on Willie's arm.
The statistics suggest otherwise, of course. Willie Mays hit .302 lifetime, which supposedly means that almost seventy percent of the time he came to the plate, he made an out. Ridiculous.
Several players got more hits than Mays did, a few hit more homeruns, and a couple may have won as many gold gloves, which only goes to show that statistics have their limits. No player appeared in more All-Star games, which suggests that the people who chose the players for the twenty four all-star games in which Mays appeared had some sense. Willie Mays was elected to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility by ninety four point seven percent of the voters, which establishes that five point three percent of those voters were idiots.
But the greatest achievement of Willie Mays's career cannot be quantified. He brought joy to the people fortunate enough to see him play. Of course he could hit, hit with power, run, throw, and field. He could do those things as few have done them and as few will do them. But his achievement beyond excellence was that he seemed to perform with such joy that he conveyed the impression that he was meant to do what he was doing. When you were watching him, you were watching the confluence of talent, concentration, and enthusiasm that not only allowed the suspension of disbelief — because who could believe that anybody could do some of the things Willie Mays did? — but that also encouraged the mad notion that a world where such grace was possible must be a pretty terrific place.
I've come up short here, I know. It couldn't be otherwise. Only someone who could write as well as Willie Mays played ball could do his achievement justice, a writer whose body of work is as varied and brilliant in its right as Mays's own achievements. And Willie Shakespeare's not available.
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