(June 18-19, written the night of Mays’ death, published around midnight central time)

Even in the final years of Willie Mays’s baseball career, the great man slowed by nagging injuries, he was still magical for a 6- or 7- or 9-year-old to watch, a kinetic bundle of athletic prowess and joy, wrapped in a package of goodwill and human decency.

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Mays, who died Tuesday at age 93, was to baseball what Louis Armstrong was to music: a groundbreaking, utterly original virtuoso who elevated and changed his craft forever.

See him just shy of age 39 rise well into the air and crash into the fence and teammate Bobby Bonds at the same time, then crumple motionless to the ground — but with the ball firmly, astonishingly ensconced in glove.

See him battling injuries after turning 40, leading the entire league in on-base percentage, and seemingly carrying his entire Giants team on his back to win its division. See him, finally a gimp-kneed 42 with the New York Mets, walking out to the outfield stands in old Shea Stadium to implore the New York fans to stop throwing things from the stands at opponent Pete Rose, fresh off a fight with one of Mays’s Mets teammates. See him make his last-ever hit a game-winner in the World Series, helping his Mets push the favored Oakland Athletics all the way to a seven-game battle.

See his baseball card with his big, broad smile and the mind-boggling, never-to-be-equaled statistics on the back. See, in the tributes upon his retirement in 1973, all the old videos of him playing stickball with neighborhood children or of him in the midst of a bench-clearing brawl, running to the opposing team’s catcher and cradle the catcher’s head, bloodied by a bat wielded by Mays’s own teammate. See the videos of him running like a wildebeest on the basepaths, hat flying off his head like roof shingles lifted by a cyclone.

All the familiar quotes come rushing back: “Willie Mays’s glove is where triples go to die.” And: “There have only been two authentic geniuses in the world: Willie Shakespeare and Willie Mays.” And: “If he could cook,” his manager Leo Durocher said, “I’d marry him.”…. [The full column, in tribute, is at this link.]



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