Mays honored by All-Star tribute
Hall of Famer recognized in special celebration at AT&T Park
SAN FRANCISCO -- Ted Williams first said it quite some time ago, and it's been oft-repeated.
The All-Star Game was invented for Willie Mays.
The Splendid Splinter was speaking in general terms, of course. In addition to being considered by many the most complete baseball player of all-time, Mays has been called the quintessential All-Star.
He appeared in 24 Midsummer Classics -- a record he shares with fellow Hall of Famers Stan Musial and Hank Aaron -- and he either owns or shares the All-Star records for most career at-bats (75), runs (20), triples (three), total bases (40), extra-base hits (eight) and stolen bases (six).
He also played for the winning team 17 times -- another record he shares with Aaron
So on Tuesday night at AT&T Park, Williams' wise words felt particularly poignant -- and pointed. Because while the 78th Major League All-Star Game wasn't invented for Mays, that's how it felt during a moving on-field ceremony reminiscent of the tribute Boston paid Williams in 1999.
"Oh, my goodness," said 77-year-old Josephine Leonard, a self-proclaimed lifelong Giants fan who was still wiping away tears well after Mays was driven off the field in a gleaming pink 1958 Cadillac El Dorado. "That was the most beautiful thing I've ever seen at a baseball game. I am so glad I lived to see this. I can't tell you what this means to me.
"I can't imagine what it meant to Willie. I hope it made him realize how much we love him, and how thankful we are to have watched the 'Say Hey Kid' play baseball."
To Willie, it felt pretty darned good.
"I think it's a great honor because of so many great All-Stars in our game," Mays said. "And I think the Giants really went all out."
The tribute started after the American and National League All-Stars were introduced, but the introductions themselves alerted the crowd that something magical was in the making.
Rather than lining up in traditional fashion along the first- and third-base lines, the players lined up on the infield dirt, the AL between first and second base, the NL between second and third.
Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter obviously knew something was in the works. He and Ken Griffey Jr. interviewed Mays for a segment aired during FOX's pregame show, and before the game, he spoke of the spine-tingler on tap.
"I'm sure it's a special feeling," Jeter said. "He's one of the greatest players who ever played the game, and to be here in San Francisco and be honored like that, I'm sure it's going to be special."
After the final introductions were made, the players funneled, single-file, toward center field, eventually forming an All-Star boulevard of dreams.
And after the center-field wall opened and a massive mural depicting The Catch -- Mays' epic back-to-the-infield grab of a Vic Wertz drive in the 1954 World Series -- was unfurled above him, Mays made his way down that boulevard while wearing a gold Giants jacket with No. 24 and "Say Hey" on the back.
In the role of escort, as the rest of the players fell in behind Mays after he passed them, was Mays' godson, Barry Bonds.
"It was fabulous, it was great. A dream come true," Bonds said. "To have the opportunity to walk with my godfather was phenomenal."
"We didn't talk at all," Bonds continued. "It was Willie's stage, and it was just mine and Jeter's position to make sure he got to the right place he was supposed to go."
Two more murals were then unveiled; one on the left-field grass depicting Mays playing for the New York Giants, and one in left featuring Mays with the San Francisco Giants.
"That was amazing," said 55-year-old Carl Howard, a native New Yorker. "To tie it all together, with New York and San Francisco and Barry, that was pure genius. And when the players all started following Willie, like the great baseball messiah that he was, I lost it."
After stripping off his jacket to reveal a Giants jersey, Mays gave the jacket to Griffey as a souvenir.
"Awesome," Griffey said. "I've been fortunate to be there when a city celebrated two of the greatest players [Bonds and Mays] who ever played the game. To be on the field with them was like Kevin Costner in, what, 'Field of Dreams'?
"'If you build it, they will come.' It was a scene like that."
Mays also shed the jersey while walking in and eventually stopped at a makeshift pitching rubber in the middle of center field, from which he threw the ceremonial first pitch to New York Mets shortstop Jose Reyes.
Before throwing the pitch, though, Mays told Reyes, squatting behind a makeshift home plate, to back up.
"It was like, 'Hey, I can throw it there; get back!" Mays said. "That makes it fun. Loosen up the guys a little bit."
After getting the ball back from Reyes, Mays signed it and gave it to Reyes, drawing a massive grin from the obviously awed recipient.
"It's the most exciting thing that happened to me here, to catch a ball from one of the greatest to ever play this game," Reyes said. "And to get a ball signed by him, it's pretty exciting, something I'll never forget. He kept telling me, 'Back up, back up, I still have a great arm.' It was kind of funny.
"Then he said, 'I'll sign that ball for you, young man.' I'll save that ball all my life, put it in a safe place in my house where everyone can look at it. It's the most famous autograph I've got. I also have Barry Bonds."
After helping Mays into the pink Caddy, Bonds offered Mays, still wearing just the black undersleeves that Giants typically wear on cold nights, an orange National League jacket.
Mays turned it down and instructed Bonds to give it to Jeter.
"You know, when he gave his jacket to Ken Griffey Jr., and then he gave the other jacket to Derek Jeter, you know, it was ... emotional for us," Bonds said. "Because for someone of his stature to do something like that is just overwhelming, his showing his appreciation to us as ballplayers. [It] makes us really feel happy and proud, and the fans' reception toward him was just great."
Several players echoed Bonds, including Mariners outfielder Ichiro Suzuki, the game's MVP.
"To be able to be on the same field that he was, at that moment, is something I'll never forget for the rest of my life," Ichiro said. "I know this is something that's impossible, but I wish I was able to watch Mr. Willie Mays play once."
NL manager Tony LaRussa let his players know about the tribute during a pregame meeting in the clubhouse, telling them it'd be something everyone in the room would remember forever.
"I got so excited, just looking forward to being a part of that," said Mets third baseman David Wright. "I'll be the first to contact Major League Baseball and get a copy of the festivities and just put it away. It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to shake Willie Mays' hand and thank him for everything he did. It's a dream come true."
Secured in the Caddy, Mays was driven around the field, from in front of the AL dugout, past the fans behind home plate, past the NL dugout, past NL starter Jake Peavy warming up in the bullpen, and eventually out a gate down the left-field line.
He tossed baseballs into the stands throughout the short trip.
"It was perfect, just perfect," Leonard said. "Only thing better, for me, would have been to get one of those balls.
"But I've already got my little piece of Willie, right up here," she continued, tapping her head. "We all did."
Mychael Urban is a national writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.