09/28/08 9:23 PM ET
Mays' presence inspires awe at Shea
New York baseball legend, former Met attends stadium's finale
By Joe Frisaro / MLB.com
The mere mention of his name creates a roar from the crowd, as generations recognize him as synonymous with greatness.
Willie Mays, 77, received among the loudest cheers when introduced as part of the closing ceremonies at Shea Stadium late Sunday afternoon.
In 1973, the "Say Hey Kid" retired with the Mets, after a year in which New York reached the World Series before falling in seven games to Oakland.
Mays avoided much of the fanfare surrounding the cast of former Mets who made Sunday so memorable. From 11 a.m. to 12:10 p.m. ET, New York icons Ron Swoboda, Jerry Koosman, Bud Harrelson, Darryl Strawberry, Ed Kranepool, Yogi Berra, Dwight Gooden and Tom Seaver -- "The Franchise" -- walked across a soggy red carpet into Shea Stadium. Despite a steady drizzle, hundreds of fans pressed against railings to cheer on their favorite Mets.
Sporadically, they'd begin chanting "Let's Go Mets!"
At the time, many players were under umbrellas. With inclement conditions, Mays wasn't part of the red-carpet parade.
But his presence was felt after. In a touching postgame ceremony, Mays was among the last names introduced. He entered from right field and made his way to the infield, giving high fives to fans who extended their hands to connect with the legend.
"Willie always said that you were going to have to rip that jersey off him," said Harrelson, Mays' teammate in 1973. "Willie loved to play. I think he's the greatest player ever to play this game."
Wearing his hat high on his head and a white No. 24 Mets jersey, Mays stood near first base. A few minutes later, Seaver was standing next to him, two Hall of Famers of tremendous acclaim talked briefly.
Mays played with the Giants -- first in New York and then San Francisco -- from 1951-72 before he was dealt to the Mets.
On Sunday, he crossed home plate one final time at Shea Stadium.
As players lined up down the first- and third-base lines, Mays led the way. Walking from first to home, the legend paused at the plate, reached down and, with his right hand, swiped home.
The crowd erupted once more.
A few seconds later, Mays headed behind home plate and exited out of sight, his left hand raised high, waving goodbye.
To those who played with or against him or saw him play, Mays is in a class by himself.
"I was in awe of him, because he was my idol, my hero," Koosman said.
Koosman, one of the all-time best Mets, insists Mays retired too soon.
"He's a very good friend of mine. On the road, I would be with him every day and talk baseball," Koosman said. "I begged him not to quit, because he was still our best player when he quit. Why would you want your best player to quit?"
Mays' body was saying otherwise.
"He said, 'I'm tired, Koos,'" Koosman recalled. "Willie Mays had the best instincts of any player I've ever seen. He taught me how to steal second base. I stole 10 times one year, but I never got credit for it, because it was either a wild pitch or a passed ball. But 10 times, [I advanced] because he taught me how."
Harrelson grew up in the San Francisco area revering Mays. When Mays joined the Mets in the twilight of his career, Harrelson was upset if players would have the audacity to even slap the "Say Hey Kid" on the back.
"For me, I grew up in the San Francisco Bay area. He was a God to me," Harrelson said. "I got mad at guys who were touching him. That's just the way I was. You don't deserve to touch him like that.
"He called me Pee Wee. Yogi called me Pee Wee. So he called me Pee Wee or Shorty."
Hall of Famer Tony Perez, a special assistant for the Marlins, was at the park on Sunday.
"I used to be a fan playing against [Mays]," Perez said. "The way he played and he hit, played the outfield, ran the bases ... he was amazing.
"When I played against Willie Mays in San Francisco, I couldn't believe it. I heard so much about him and I watched him on TV when I was in the Minor Leagues. That is something you cannot describe. I was a fan watching him play."
Among Hall of Famers, Perez says other players wanted to perform the way Mays did.
"I used to watch him hit and try to pick up something," said Perez, an integral member of the Cincinnati Reds' dynasty in the '70s. "I saw an interview of him, and they asked him why he hit .340 or .350 every year. He said, 'When I faced the great pitchers, if I got one hit, it was a great day for me. But the other pitchers, I'd get three or four hits off.' I remembered that was the truth, because the good pitchers are going to get you out. You cannot let the mediocre pitchers get you out."
Joe Frisaro is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.