Mets Card of the Week: 1973 Willie Mays


I’m glad I got to see Willie Mays play for the Mets.

Yeah, yeah I know – he looks to be a senior citizen in this card and all anyone talks about in regards to his career with the Mets is that he fell down in the World Series. But in his first 53 games with the Mets, Mays went .283/.432/.467 for an .899 OPS. He finished the1972 season with an .848 OPS with New York, which was good for a 145 OPS+. Let that number sink in for a second.

Everyone marvels about Marlon Byrd putting up a 132 OPS+ this year. If in 2018 Byrd can add 13 points to his OPS+, he’ll match what Mays did with the Mets in ‘72. Mays was still great – he just needed more days off at age 41 then Yogi Berra and the Mets were willing to give him.

Baseball is a grind and one of the ways that players have dealt with that historically was to use amphetamines. This drug, often referred to by various nicknames – most notably “Greenies,” was not banned by MLB during the time Mays was active, but required a prescription to be legally used. Most players dabbled in Greenies at one point or another. The number that had a prescription to do so was considerably fewer.

Among crimes, Greenies ranked low on the list, most likely down there with jaywalking in the public’s mind. There are probably many reasons for this, although one of them is that the writers of the time had no interest in making a big deal out of them. It’s fair to speculate that one reason that writers didn’t crusade against Greenies is that they themselves had probably used some form or another of amphetamines. It’s hard to rally against a player for popping a pep pill when you yourself used one the night before.

But it was a different scenario when baseball’s cocaine scandals came to light and writers were not so quick to look the other way and ignore behavior that was against the law. During one of the trials, former Met John Milner testified that he got amps – a liquid version known as “Red Juice” – from Mays.

”Management wasn’t giving me greenies or red juice or speed–Willie had the red juice,” Milner said.

It was pretty big news back in the day but it didn’t take on a life of its own. Reporters went and talked to Mays about it and – if memory serves – he essentially denied it without really denying it. But the reporters did not harp on it and certainly the commissioner did not use it as a soap box to promote an agenda. Who wants to be known as the guy who shamed Mays? If nothing else Peter Ueberroth had no interest in the bad publicity that Bowie Kuhn got from barring Mays from baseball for his involvement with a casino.

Regardless, one takeaway should be that those who are concerned now about how the use of illegal substances threaten the purity of the record book should consider that the post World War II players who are so often held up as athletic marvels were no angels, either. It’s hard to think of two more revered players than Mays and Mickey Mantle, both of whom were outed as amphetamine users by teammates.

Of course, Mays and Mantle were hardly alone among star athletes for putting things in their body in an attempt to improve performance. In “Welcome to Terrordome” author Dave Zirin wrote:

Babe Ruth, injected himself with extract from a sheep’s testicles, hoping for increased power at the plate.”

The last thing the world needs is another PED debate or flame war. What we could use is everyone taking a more complete look at the subject at hand and not simply digging in their heels over lines drawn in the sand.

We all want a level playing field, one where no athlete has to put his long-term health at risk or break any of society’s laws, regardless of how enforced those laws are in practice. We want the head-to-head combat, my best versus your best and may the best man win.

In the early part of the 21st Century, there was an All-Star game where Curt Schilling walked off the mound and spoke to the opposing batter, an AL star named Alex Rodriguez. Schilling told the batter that he was going after him with his fastball because he wanted to know who was better. Schilling struck out Rodriguez on three pitches that all reached the upper 90s.

It was a great moment, one that I get chills remembering even now that I know that Schilling bilked Rhodes Islanders out of millions of dollars and that Rodriguez has two pictures of himself as a centaur hanging above his bed – and on top of that he is a liar and a cheat.

None of us knew about Mays’ flaws back in ’73. Back then his biggest crime seemed to be that he didn’t play every day. All we wanted was a glimpse of the star that was taken away. Maybe if the Giants had stayed in New York, Mays would have come to Staten Island and played stickball with us like he did with the kids in Harlem in that old black and white clip.

Of course, we were led to believe that was a regular occurrence for Mays. That he walked to the park and played with the kids before or after the game each day. The post-1951 reality was something else. The 2013 reality is if Rodriguez announced he was going to play stickball with kids from the Bronx, he would be accused of using them for a cheap PR shot.

Rodriguez can’t win and the end is going to be ugly. Mays didn’t win in the end, either. His trip home to New York did not result in a championship win to cap his career and the prevailing thought is that he was such an invalid that he needed a Life Alert to get through the 1973 World Series. Viewed in that lens, there’s little wonder he was looking for an extra boost with amps.

Regardless, everything ends badly, otherwise it wouldn’t end.

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