But then the fans nearest the railings in the left field bleachers at Oracle Park began to get a glimpse of him down below, and a flowery introduction — “He’s the summer wind, the very essence of movement,” it said — started to play over the loudspeakers.
“Happy birthday, Willie!” one of the fans yelled. “We love you!” Mays, now comfortably seated in the car’s passenger seat, doffed his cap and smiled.
If time had slowed down earlier, now it surged forward in a great burst. The gates in the outfield fence parted, and the car eased onto the warning track, and the oldest living Hall of Famer — 90 years plus one day old — used his legs to push himself up against the seat until his head was above the windshield so everybody could have a better view of him.
The Giants blew out the celebration of the 90th birthday of the “Say Hey Kid” on Friday night the way any sane organization would have if the greatest living ballplayer and oldest living Hall of Famer was one of theirs. A parade around the track. A special logo — “Say Hey 90” — plastered everywhere. Video tributes between innings from the likes of George W. Bush, Derek Jeter, Snoop Dogg, Wayne Gretzky and Magic Johnson.
Mays can’t see much these days, owing to the glaucoma and macular degeneration, and he can’t hear so well either, but he could feel the love from the socially distanced crowd of 9,219. He beamed. He glowed. He radiated. And everyone in attendance was lifted by the mere sight of him, in the flesh and blood.
“When you think of the name Willie Mays, it’s almost like a mythological type of name. It has the same feeling as a Babe Ruth or a Lou Gehrig,” said Giants catcher Buster Posey, who led his teammates to the top step of their dugout to salute Mays as he rode by. The members of the San Diego Padres, in the visitors’ dugout, did the same.
Once a fixture at the stadium, holding court in the clubhouse before games, Mays hadn’t been to Oracle Park since the fall of 2019 and hadn’t been to a ballpark at all since spring training of 2020, just before the world shut down amid a global pandemic. During his time away, his circle closed considerably. He lost 10 fellow members of the brotherhood of Hall of Famers, including cherished friends Hank Aaron and Joe Morgan, between April 2020 and January 2021. The number of people permitted an audience with him at home dwindled to a precious few, owing to the coronavirus.
“Everyone’s been really careful with him, obviously,” Giants President Larry Baer said. Mays, he said, pleaded to be allowed to come to games in 2020, a season played entirely without fans, but the Giants had to explain that MLB protocols didn’t allow for nonessential personnel to visit. “And even if we could have gotten an exemption,” Baer added, “it just wasn’t worth the risk.”
The approach of Mays’s 90th birthday and the arrival of the coronavirus vaccine — which Mays received earlier this spring — provided the opening to get him back to the ballpark. Baer called him Thursday — Mays’s birthday, an off-day for the Giants — to make sure he was still up for a visit the next night.
“He had that old, spry, ‘Say Hey’ demeanor going,” Baer said. “He was like: ‘Hey, Larry, what’s going on, man? The team’s fallen down a bit the last couple of days. What’s going on with that?’ ”
The love for Mays among San Franciscans is boundless and timeless. He was born in the heart of the Jim Crow South, made a name for himself in Birmingham with the Black Barons of the Negro Leagues and first gained national stardom in Manhattan, with Leo Durocher’s New York Giants in 1951. More than two decades later, he would bookend his career in New York with a season and a half with the Mets.
But it was San Francisco that became his kingdom and San Francisco that became his forever-home. He moved here in 1958, when the team came west from New York, and still lives in the same house he bought in the suburb of Atherton in 1969 for $157,000. His wife of 41 years, Mae, passed away in 2013.
“Just a Bay Area legend,” Golden State Warriors Coach Steve Kerr said of Mays in a video session with reporters. “There was a palpable joy to Willie’s game playing for the Giants that affected so many people.”
Here, they take it as gospel that Mays was the best player in history — better even than Barry Bonds, his godson, who is one of the few other players in the discussion. By wins above replacement, Mays trails only Babe Ruth and Bonds among position players — but unlike them, Mays lost nearly two years of his prime to military service. Were it not for those lost years, plus the fact he played the bulk of his career in spacious Candlestick Park, it might have been Mays — and not Aaron — who broke Ruth’s all-time home run record.
No one with comparable speed has ever had as much power, and no one with comparable power has ever had as much speed. And no one with as much of each has ever played defense so well.
When Mays arrived at Oracle Park an hour before Friday night’s first pitch, trailed by an HBO documentary crew, he was ushered into a holding room under the left field stands, where a steady stream of friends, their masks unable to hide their wide smiles, ducked in. Actor Danny Glover was there. Bonds was there, sitting in a chair behind Mays, and whatever Mays was saying had him doubled over in laughter.
At one point, a Giants employee showed up with three black Sharpies and someone else with a box of official MLB baseballs. Someone else showed up with a pizza.
After the parade around the field, Mays and his entourage rode the elevators up to his suite down the left field line, with its sweeping views of San Francisco Bay. After the third inning, he appeared on the stadium’s large video board, sitting in front of a towering, white-and-gold birthday cake topped with a 9 and an 0. The entire crowd sang “Happy Birthday,” and Bonds helped him cut the cake.
By the end of the fifth inning, with darkness settling in and the chill off the bay sweeping through the city, he was gone, headed back to his home.
The video tributes, though, kept playing between each half-inning, and each message — and every feeling in every heart in every chest in every seat — could be boiled down to the same sentiment: May the “Say Hey Kid” live forever.