Ratto: The best thing about Willie Mays

‘The Say Hey Kid’ never measured himself by a home run total

Ray Ratto
May 06, 2020 - 12:13 pm
The best thing about Willie Mays

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Willie Mays is not 89, no matter what you have been told. He's 28, because he's always been 28, just like he has always been either the best or second-best player in baseball history. And that only depends on how you view Babe Ruth as the beneficiary of the color line versus Babe Ruth's pitching career.

I'll leave that one to you to argue about with yourself while your family and pets move slowly away from you in trepidation.

But Mays has seemed to successfully combat one of the greatest ravages of age — complaining about things he didn't have or get rather than enjoying what he had. That's the best way to get to 89 — not bitching about what didn't happen at 29, or 39, or 49.

Most impressively, he has never given in to the tyranny of the home run as the pre-eminent measure of a player. He takes justifiable pride in being one of the smartest players in history, but there is no line in baseball.reference.com for BEQ — Brain Efficiency Quotient. All there is there is the memories of his smartest moments, like the way he used to call pitches from center field, or think a play ahead while making a great play (Vic Wertz) or not take second base on a sure double when it meant that a pitcher could then walk Willie McCovey.

But back to the point at hand. He has never complained about the home runs he allegedly lost by playing at Candlestick Park, because without us breaking down the flight of every home run he ever hit at home (sorry, I don't have that 1961 spray chart handy), we are left only with the fact that he hit more homers at home than on the road, which would suggest that he got just as screwed at Sportsman's Park, Forbes Field or The Astrodome as he ever did at Candlestick.

And why do we say that? because baseball parks are unfair. They are supposed to be unfair. Sports is supposed to be unfair. You play to the conditions you are given, not to an offensive template that doesn't exist, and if you are seeking some sort of universal constant, you don't get it, you never will and you should be forbidden to follow sports ever again.

Yeah, you. Get out. Don't want to hear it. You've shamed the nation and your relatives. Don't let the bouncer kick you in the ass on the way out. Just go. Now.

And now that the room's been cleared, let's say this. Mays always said his home run totals were always more affected by the pitcher than any other factor, which is eminently sensible. It is the dispassionate explanation of a logical man who measured his career as way more than a home run total. How does it get any better than that?

But more to the point, the anti-Candlestick argument fails on another level, and that is this: The Polo Grounds.

Mays was not a pull hitter in his career. He hit with equal facility to all fields because that's what the best players do. And the dimensions of the Polo Grounds were preposterous, as you can see. The foul lines were an embarrassing 279 and 258 feet away, and the upper deck overhang down the left field made that 279 seem more like 265. But the fence quickly took a turn toward infinity to the point where a home run hit in the left field gap had to travel over 447 feet, one in the right field gap 440, and to straightaway center 483. And that didn't include the stairs to the clubhouse.

Only four players ever hit a home run out of center field — Luke Easter as a player in the Negro League, Hank Aaron, Lou Brock and Joe Adcock. Mays? Not on the list. In other words, he almost surely lost more home runs in New York than he ever did in San Francisco because he didn't just muscle up and try hit every pitch down the line, but people who bring up his lost home runs never mention that. And why?

Recency bias gone weird.

They remember Candlestick, as it had the Giants through 1999, but they don't remember the Polo Grounds, which lost the Giants 42 years earlier. They remember the wind and the cold, but they don't remember the dimensions that made the Polo Grounds the least suitable baseball field for the kind of player Mays was.

And to his credit, neither does he. He made do with what he had, didn't sweat the small stuff like our obsession with home runs rather than with the fullness of the game, and because of that, he has never gotten old.

But if you must, if he were a Giant now, people would be complaining about PacSBCAT&Tacle Park as being unfair to him too.

And good. It's supposed to be unfair, if all you know is a home run. Willie Mays knew about all of it, which is why ballparks always welcomed his skill set.

Okay, you whiners can come back now, and I hope you all learned your lesson.

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