"What? Joe rarely watches sports. Joe never writes about sports. Willie Mays? Really?"
Yes, him. I'll explain.
Most folks who know me know I'm not much of a sports fan. But I was born in San Francisco, and have an affinity for that city's teams. I've seen a couple of Major League Baseball and NFL games, all with my dad in Candlestick Park in the late 60s or early 70s. As I said, I don't follow sports much, but I sure remember the Giants, because I've seen them play. And I can't tell you how many times I heard a game on KSFO in San Francisco called by Lon Simmons and Russ Hodges. I remember over and over hearing Hodges say "Bye, bye, baby!" I remember the sadness when Hodges died. I remember the Hamm's Beer commercials, and Jim Lange; I still remember my excitement when I realized that the Jim Lange on KSFO was the same Jim Lange I saw on The Dating Game. That was a Big Deal.
But back to baseball: The three players I remember the best from the Giants were the two Willies -- Mays and McCovey -- and Bobby Bonds, who's Barry's dad. I'm pretty sure I've seen Mays, McCovey, or both hit home runs out of Candlestick, and maybe Bobby too. I feel like I know those guys. Several years ago, when I ran into Don DeLillo's novel Underworld, I first was worried because I was told the book started with a baseball game, and I thought I wouldn't get into it. But when I started reading the book, I found out I knew some of the characters: Mays, and even Russ Hodges, who came with the Giants when they moved from New York to San Francisco in 1958. I was excited; I was absolutely hypnotized.
So, when I first started hearing about Barry Bonds, I'd often get him confused with his dad, Bobby, and say the wrong name. Hell, they're both named B. Bonds, and both played for the Giants.... Willie Mays is even Barry's godfather. It's a family affair. And, like his godson, Mays hit a hell of a lot of home runs for the Giants, and 660 overall, which is still 4th in MLB. I remember my disappointment upon hearing and understanding that Mays was probably not going to catch up to Babe Ruth. I still feel sad about it.
Lately, with all the Barry Bonds news, I got curious about Willie Mays again. At age 76, he's still around, and has his own Wikipedia entry, thankfully. I was pleased to read that he's considered by some "the greatest all-around player of all time." That eased a bit the sting of not catching Ruth. And I started looking at Mays's record. Apparently Mays started playing professional baseball in 1947, and played for several different teams (including some "black" teams, as segregated sports were still hanging on at the time). He didn't play for MLB until partway through the season in 1951. Then he missed part of 1952 and all of 1953 after being drafted into the military.
Well hell. That's not fair.
So... do those other runs count? Those runs he hit playing for minor league teams? And how can you adjust for those years lost to the draft? Well, you can't. But what if -- what if Willie had started playing MLB much earlier, or even right away? What if he hadn't been drafted? How many home runs would he have then? Would Barry Bonds, instead of chasing Hank Aaron, been trying to catch up with his godfather?
I wonder how they both would have felt about it.
I wonder how they feel about it now.
Hey, Willie! I'm thinkin' about you, man! You're great, you hear me? You're the Michael Jordan of Baseball! No, wait -- Jordan is the Willie Mays of basketball! You hear me, Willie? You're The Man!
Edit: Oh what the hell -- I ran into this, so I might as well post it.