The baseball offseason is a great time to chat about the hot stove and look back at some of the more historical moments in the rich history of baseball. With this in mind, 2023 is the 50th anniversary of the 1973 Mets team that won the NL East with an 82-79 record, then captured the pennant and took the dynastic Oakland Athletics to seven games in the World Series.
Though he was hardly the most notable thing about that ’73 Mets team, eventually any thoughts of that squad turn to thoughts of an aging Willie Mays. Though he hit just .211/.303/.344 in 66 games in 1973, Willie is inextricably linked to that club as much as the phrase “You Gotta Believe”.
Sadly, the truly enduring image of Mays in a Mets uniform is him struggling with fly balls in Game 2 in Oakland. For the last 50 years, that has served as the enduring image of a former superstar trying to cling on for the final breath of his career. A heartbreaking reminder that Father Time comes for all of us, even the Say Hey Kid.
But what if it wasn’t that at all?
For those who don’t know, I fill my baseball offseason with broadcasting college basketball, and on Saturday I was driving home to New York from Baltimore after broadcasting Monmouth University’s game at Towson. Long car rides generally mean a lot of podcast listening for me, and Saturday I was listening to Penn Jillette (of Penn & Teller fame) talking about show business when he said something that really resonated.
He was talking about how after having a Broadway show and being on Saturday Night Live and their own theater in Las Vegas for over 20 years, that he and Teller are okay with the idea that one day they will fade and probably end up playing small clubs and bad rooms again. Penn said we don’t do this to play the best venues or to get famous, we do it because this is what we do. He said he still wanted to perform, even if he had nothing left to give and was bad.
As that sunk in, I started thinking about Mays and his last year-and-a-half with the Mets in a new light.
He was still the aging superstar who had nothing left in the tank, but maybe that isn’t sad or heartbreaking at all. For us as fans, it is sad to see Mays be a shell of the dynamic player he was in is prime – the guy who is arguably the best to ever play the game. Maybe it makes us feel sad that a symbol of our youth is fading, and therefore our youth is fading. But that doesn’t make it sad for Mays or any aging athlete past their prime.
Mays is often thought of as this one-dimensional figure because he publicly stuck to sports. He was criticized by his peers for not speaking out in favor of Civil Rights at a time when many prominent athletes of color did so.
He experienced prejudice throughout his career from fans and community. The story of his struggles to buy a house in San Francisco owing to neighborhoods not wanting a black family moving in – even if it was the Mayses – is well-documented.
But Mays suffered in relative silence. He absorbed the hatred and went to work playing baseball better than just about anyone else ever has. That is not to glorify silent suffering – his critics had a good point that he probably could have made a difference by speaking out. It just wasn’t his style.
Instead, his daily fight for dignity and respect came from putting on a uniform and playing baseball every day. That meant even in 1972 and 1973 when he was a shell of the player he once was, he went out there and gave it his best and played baseball. Maybe that’s not heartbreaking or sad, maybe it’s actually beautiful.
He wasn’t doing it to chase a ring, or to win another MVP. He was doing it to play baseball. Because that’s what Mays did.