Willie Mays sat on a stool in the National League All-Star team's locker room in Yankee Stadium this week and listened to a question he has heard for 25 years.

"Who's better? You or Mickey Mantle?" demanded Pete Rose Jr., age 8, dressed in a duplicate of his father's Cincinnati uniform and pounding his fist in a big glove.

"I think Mantle's better," Mays said seriously, leaning forward, pounding his first in a big glove. "What do you think?"

"I think you," said Pete, with equal seriousness, certain in his child's way that his opinion was as valid as any.

Mays smiled with surprise, as though a generation of argument had finally been decided in his favor.

Rose continued to look at Mays.

"You're not in shape," said the boy, looking at the shirtless, 46-year-old Mays. "My daddy's in shape."

Mays' eyes popped with delight and he sucked in his stomach. "I used to be," he said, then adding in an aside to the convulsed All-Stars around him, "about 30 years ago."

"When's 30 years ago?" asked Petey, precocious on baseball but just getting around to numbers.

"About when you were born," answered Mays.

"1969?" said the boy skeptically. "Nearby," said Mays.

Pete Rose Sr. joined the group, pulling up a stool. In his hand was stack of baseball cards, in his mouth about six pieces of bubble gum.

"Say, hey, you're in better shape than the Hammer (Hank Aaron)," said Rose. "He's gone and gained about 30 pounds."

"Whatever makes sense," answered Mays in his favourite all-purpose expression.

Of all the game's great, indelible players - those dozen or so who signed their corner of the diamond as though it were their canvas - perhaps none did so much to ease the image of his brillance as Mays.

His bitter, drawn-out exodus - seven dwingling, unworthy seasons - was long and pathetic. In 1973, Mays even had the misfortune at 42 to have a World Series for his final stage.

He did not exit on a home run, although he had 660 of them, nor even on a humble basket catch. Instead, his last image is of an injured oldster falling on his face in center field and chasing his mistake toward the fence while millions ground their back teeth and turned their eyes away.

Don't say it wasn't so. It was. May's body said "Nay" the day he turned 35. But Mays sold his memories, the memories of an entire generation, for a few more seasons at $150,000 a year. He needed that cash - to keep ex-wives (two) at bay, to overcome bad business deals (more than two), to support a third bride, to gain retirement secutiry. And he paid for all of it. So did his fans, or rather his worshippers, for Mays was a demigod in spikes.

Now it almost seems that time has relented and reversed its normal processes.

This week, when Mays - honorary captain of the NL All-Star, part-time Mets batting instructor ($60,000) and comfortably retired businessman and golfer - walked down New York's 7th Avenue on a 100-degree afternoon, he caused as much celebration as a gushing fire hydrant.

"There's Willie Mays. There's Willie Mays," the words ran like a ripple among those walking past him. During a brisk three-block jaunt. Mays signed a score of autographs and would have been desieged for a thousand had he slowed to mere double time or ever broken a smile. Grown men spun in their tracks to follow him, frisking themselves for pen and paper.

A few minutes later, a dozen All-Stars walked the same route. Although they were as conspicuous as a troop of unicycling bears, they were not asked for a single autograph. Only Mays remained a one-man 7th Avenue cyclone.