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We had purchased tickets before leaving home for three San Francisco Giants games at AT & T Park this month. The first was against the American League East’s bottom side, the Toronto Blue Jays, whom they had beaten on the previous day, courtesy of a two-run homer from Andres Torres and a rare for this year, quality pitching display from Tim Lincecum that evoked memories of his Cy Young award winning years of 2008 and 2009.

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We arrived, courtesy of two MUNI routes, around an hour and a half before the scheduled first pitch to enable us to survey the wares in the Giants Dugout Store, perambulate around the park, take photographs and, of course, avail ourselves of the culinary delights on offer. Despite a hearty breakfast, the Polish kielbasa dog on the Say Hey Sausage concession stand proved too enticing to resist.

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Early morning fog had been burned away by the time the Canadian and American national anthems were sung beautifully, though I do not recall the name of the chanteuse  in question.

The starting pitchers, Barry Zito and R.A. Dickey, kept the offenses quiet during the first four innings, though Dickey took an immediate grip of the Giants batters, whereas Zito (pictured below), whilst maintaining a better, two to one strike to ball ratio, struggled to finish off his opponents.

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Dickey’s dominance with his knuckleball received its deserved support in the fifth inning when the Blue Jays bats scored the only four runs of the game. At the time we thought that Sandoval had made an out at third base that would have ended the innings at the cost of just two runs – and Pablo felt so too as he stood, arms in teapot position, for several seconds. Apparently, however, TV replays narrowly substantiated the umpire’s decision. It proved academic anyway as the Giants “failed to trouble the scorers” in cricketing parlance for the remainder of the game.

Last year’s National League MVP, Buster Posey had a frustrating afternoon, but his presence, at the plate and behind it, still evokes excitement, and not a little adoration, among the AT & T Park faithful. He will not have to wait long before again being a major influence on a game.

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Pablo Sandoval, like Posey, leading the race for a position in the starting lineup in the National League’s All-Star team, was one of the few Giants to come out of the game with some credit, making the team’s first, and until the last inning, only, hit, and performing some neat, efficient plays at third base. Although his “running” around the bases is more likely to elicit chuckles than cheers, he is surprisingly athletic in the field and has an accurate, venomous throw.

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Hunter Pence, like many of his team mates, flattered to deceive with several ferocious swings of the bat that, at the moment of impact like that pictured below, looked as if they might end up in Oakland rather than the hands of the Blue Jays’ outfielders.

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Giants’ mascot, Lou Seal, entertained the crowd, especially the younger fans, throughout the afternoon, though he was conspicuous by his absence at the end of the game. It was hard at times not to contemplate whether it might have been worth Bochy letting him loose as a pinch hitter late on in the game. Having said that, his speed around the field makes Sandoval look like Usain Bolt.

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Tradition dictates that, if the Giants’ are losing at the onset of their ninth innings,  the home crowd is encouraged to join in Journey’s great anthem Don’t Stop Believin’ . It has done the trick many times over the past three years but did nothing to inspire their innocuous bats on this occasion. There was to be no emotional walk-off win this afternoon, though they did manage to get two men on base in the ninth inning when Sandoval came to the plate for the last time with two outs.

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A limp display by the Giants but there were consolations – the weather was hot and sunny, the bay looked serene and we had great seats immediately behind the Blue Jays’ dugout, half way between home plate and first base. I had, however, committed the ultimate sin for anyone visiting San Francisco in believing the weather forecast. The early morning cloud was scheduled to linger by the bay for the afternoon, so we omitted to take either suncream and, in my case, Giants cap, to the park. The resulting sunburn was not what I had  anticipated having to contend with after barely 48 hours in the city!

I did, at least, remember to take my jacket!

After two World Series in three years, expectation is now high, perhaps unreasonably so, in the Giants Nation. And some comments on social media following the game exposed the irritating modern impatience for victory every time the team takes the field. The team has faltered before at various points in the season over recent seasons and, whilst there might be just cause (decline of the pitching rotation, lack of batting power, frailty on the road) to believe that they might not be playing in October, it is still far too early to be writing this proud, resilient team off. And the atmosphere as we walked back along the Embarcadero was resigned but relaxed rather than critical. You cannot get too depressed about the fortunes of your sporting heroes in this city. There is too much else to raise the spirit.

Our first port of call (pun perhaps intended) was the Wine Merchant in the Ferry Building where we mulled over a bottle of Napa Valley “pink” before deciding where to eat. We succeeded in resisting the blandishments of Fisherman’s Wharf, preferring to walk up Market Street and cutting up along Sutter before reaching Union Square.

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The Daily Grill, next to Lefty O’Doul’s on Geary Street, was relatively quiet (though, purely coincidentally, full by the time we left), so we took refuge in its old-style San Francisco ambience, the sort of dining establishment that famed San Francisco Chronicle columnist, Herb Caen, would be found in late at night.

And what was the first thing our server wanted to talk about – yes, the Giants ailing fortunes! There is no escape from baseball talk in a city where every third person you see appears to be wearing a cap or Giants sweatshirt or cap.

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I have already referred in part to our first full day back in San Francisco (early rising and the trip to the Church and Market branch of Safeway) in the previous two blog articles. With a full month to play with, this was no time for dashing from one tourist attraction to another, but rather to acclimatise ourselves to the neighbourhood.

After breakfast in the apartment, inevitably of granola and sourdough toast, we ventured up the hill on Church Street to 24th Street, the principal retail and dining area of Noe Valley.

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What struck us immediately were the luxuriant flower displays, especially of bougainvillea, draped over shop fronts and garage forecourts alike. Accustomed to visiting in the spring, we had not witnessed their splendour before now.

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Our already full event calendar acquired another entry when we discovered that the Noe Valley Summer Fest was to be held on Saturday 15th of the month, the same day as the first day of the North Beach Festival taking place over that weekend. With the Stern Grove Festival in Golden Gate Park on Sunday, we were going to be busy! Thankfully, the Giants game against the San Diego Padres on the following day was an evening affair.   

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After coffee, served in large bowls, in La Boulange on the intersection of 24th and Sanchez, and a brief reconnaisance of those shops that held our interest, we embarked upon the steep climb up Noe Street to Dolores Park for one of the stellar views across the city.

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Aside from the obvious photo opportunities it affords, Dolores Park is a hugely popular venue for picnics, sunbathing and people watching. And what people watching! There has been a long running feud between members (literally!) of the gay community and city authorities about nude sunbathing, rendered sensitive by the presence of the fun and funky Helen Diller Children’s Playground in its centre.

But the still relatively cool morning meant that the occupants of the park comprised nothing more threatening than a couple of fully-clothed ageing hippies, impossibly cute Shih Poos and workmen (not so cute).

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We made our way courageously (adults are not permitted without being supervised by a child) over the spongy bridge in the middle of the playground towards the majestic Mission Dolores, oldest surviving structure in the city, before branching left to the J Church MUNI Metro tracks that wove alongside the western fringe of the park.

We had a lunch of peanut butter (Janet) and turkey, egg and cheese (me) bagels and iced lattés at the Church Street Café. I am under strict instructions not to post the photos of our respective half-eaten meals, so readers will have to make do with one of your author instead (which some might say was more likely to frighten those of a sensitive disposition).

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Observations and photographs from the afternoon stroll down Castro Street to follow.

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Oddly, it is only relatively recently that I became hooked on baseball.  Perhaps it was the flying rounders (the tame “British” version of the sport) bat that put me as a seven year old in the local hospital, for which I still have the bump on my forehead, which had, subconsciously, spooked me from engaging with the game earlier.

Or maybe it was the ambivalent relationship with American culture that I “enjoyed” until the mid nineties when I took that fateful first trip across the Atlantic.  Baseball epitomised the inferiority of American sport compared to games invented by the English such as association football (soccer) and, especially, cricket with which baseball has much in common.

Despite trips to San Francisco in October 1995 and then the springs of 1999, 2002 (a season which culminated in an unsuccessful World Series appearance for my now adopted San Francisco Giants), 2004 and 2006 a trip to, respectively Candlestick, SBC, Pacific Bell and now AT & T Park never occurred to me. The prodigious exploits of Barry Bonds, both on and off the diamond, relayed on KRON 4 and other Bay Area TV stations were as close as I got, and their features focused as much on his controversial lifestyle as his sporting prowess.

Perhaps the fact that we were never in the city during the regular season, and , therefore, TV coverage was limited to cursory references to spring training, may also have accounted for my indifference.  Put simply, the opportunity to attend a game just wasn’t there.

To be fair, the little I had watched on television at home had intrigued me.  The reason I hadn’t given it a chance was due in no small part to the fact that games lasted up to three hours and were relayed live in the middle of the night.  Even in the comfort of my own home I was denied reasonable access to the sport.

Our first trip to AT & T Park was in March 2008, less than a week away before Opening Day, when we saw an understandably below strength Giants team beaten 7-1 by their neighbours across the bay, the Oakland Athletics (“A’s”).  They greeted our arrival with a mediocre performance in a half empty stadium lacking in any real atmosphere, and played in a bitterly cold wind that we could not escape, wherever we moved.  But we were hooked!

Firstly, the design and setting of the stadium were, of course, beautiful and the facilities outstanding.   Having been brought up to think that the catering, if such a word dignified it, in American sports arenas did not extend beyond hot dogs, popcorn and soda / beer, we were amazed by its range and quality.  There were at least two more converts to Gilroy’s garlic fries in the Bay Area that day!  The celebrated American customer service was prevalent everywhere, and we were struck by how fan friendly the whole experience was.

And then there was the crowd,  Ok, it was only a “pre-season friendly” in soccer parlance, albeit between two bitter local rivals, but there was no segregation, in fact Giants and A’s fans sat together in our section and maintained a barrage of feisty but light hearted banter throughout the afternoon.

But why should I fall for baseball and not american football or basketball?  The affinity with the traditional long form (i.e. 3, 4 or 5 day) of cricket is the best answer I can offer – a game that unfolds slowly but subtly with periodic bursts of excrutiating excitement, a rich literature (no other games have offered more to the English language), a noble history graced with remarkable characters and an obsession with statistics and records (one of the reasons both games captivate and capture for a lifetime the male of the species).   And not forgetting the attractive spectacle of field and “flannelled fools” where pitcher (bowler) and hitter (batsman) test their skills and character on an epic scale.

So I kept a close eye on the Giants’ exploits over the next two seasons, which were modest but promising of future success.  By the time we made our next visit in March 2010 I considered myself a long distance Giants fan.  We took the ballpark tour which was fascinating, and were given the opportunity to sit in the home team’s dugout.  We bought several items of merchandise to take home, including a Tim Lincecum bobblehead that we then contrived to leave in our apartment!

The general consensus seemed to be that the Giants, with their pitching strength in particular, could be more competitive that year.  But few dared to dream then, or even through most of the regular season, of division, league or World Series championships.

Or that, throughout October and the beginning of November, I would be going to bed at home at 8pm in order to rise again at half past midnight, or, on other occasions staying awake until 5am, living every strike, hit, walk and stolen base against the San Diego Padres (in the last regular season games), Atlanta Braves, Philadelphia Phillies and Texas Rangers.  How I enjoyed the rare daytime starts which meant that they were over by midnight UK time!

And I went through the same exhausting ordeal all over again last autumn. But it was worth it!

Sporting a Tim Lincecum t-shirt, kept company by a Pablo Sandoval soft toy and with a bottle of Jack Daniel’s by my side, I too endured the “torture” and ultimate glory of those Giants’ play off campaigns.

We finally made our first MLB games last year with the early season visits of the Pittsburgh Pirates and Phillies, with Barry Zito and Tim Lincecum pitching. The outcomes mirrored the fortunes of the two pitchers over the past twelve months, with Zito spearheading a walk-off 1-0 victory whilst the ailing Lincecum pitched erratically in a narrow defeat. I have written about the experience in another blog post: http://www.tonyquarrington.wordpress.com/2012/05/09/in-the-land-of-the-giants-and-garlic-fries/

Next month I will be back at AT & T Park for games against the Toronto Blue Jays, San Diego Padres and Miami Marlins and I can’t wait!

Go Giants!

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“I’m coming home again…..never to roam again” the song continues. Well, sadly, I will be roaming back to the UK in no time, but not until I have spent the next fortnight back in the “one in all the Golden West”.

Many of my previous posts attest to my love for The City, especially  http://www.tonyquarrington.wordpress.com/2011/10/29/my-san-francisco-top-ten/ .

Those of you who have stayed the course with me will be relieved to learn that I’m not going to dribble on about cable cars, bay views and hippie Haight in this post – well I might find myself unable to avoid rapping a little on the last one……..man.

No, as our upcoming ninth trip approaches, this post looks ahead to some of the less touristic experiences that await us. Some are perennial joys whilst others will be savoured for the first time.

In the best “traditions” of TV reality shows (so I am reliably informed), they are presented in no particular order:

1. Eating Sourdough bread

Taking that first bite from an authentic sourdough loaf will almost certainly be the first, and last, taste sensation of our visit. Whilst, allegedly, I can purchase sourdough bread from a farmer’s market or wholefoods supplier in the more enlightened towns and cities of the British Isles, it will not be made from the Boudin “mother dough” and, therefore, not carry the unmistakably tangy taste of the San Francisco original.

If you want to read more about the genesis of the Boudin sourdough, you can do worse (just) than read my article at:

http://www.tonyquarrington.wordpress.com/2011/07/22/great-san-franciscan-characters-13-isidore-boudin/

2. Riding on the MUNI

“I get sourdough bread but MUNI – are  you crazy?” I hear any resident or informed visitor exclaim. “The “service” is totally unreliable, the drivers insolent and a sizeable number of its customers are so weird that they’d fail the audition for any self-respecting freak show”.

Ah, but there be the rub, me hearties. It is the “all human life is there” quality that makes it so endearing – provided, of course, that you’re not planning to be any place soon or are of a squeamish disposition.

I wrote about one particularly entertaining and ingenious tableau in my diary from last year’s vacation:

http://www.tonyquarrington.wordpress.com/2011/04/03/western-diary-day-17-hittin-the-heights-and-muni-delights/ .

3. Watching the Giants play an MLB game at AT & T Park

Two actually – the (Pittsburgh) Pirates on Opening Night, complete with fireworks, on Saturday 14th April and the (Philadelphia) Phillies two nights later. An earlier post documented my initiation into baseball, and following the San Francisco Giants in particular:

http://www.tonyquarrington.wordpress.com/2011/05/12/bitten-by-the-giants-baseball-bug/

Visiting the City that little bit later this year has meant that we can finally graduate from attending desultory pre-season games featuring squad players to joining a full house crowd at a “real” game, or rather two, with heavy hitters, or rather pitchers, such as Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain.

Oh, and eating those fabulous garlic fries – and taking cover from the dive bombing seagulls towards the end of the game.

4. Getting to Know New Neighbourhoods

After successful stays in Hayes Valley and North of the Panhandle in the past couple of years, we are staying further south this year by renting an apartment for the first week in Noe Valley, or “Stroller Valley” as it is affectionately known for the preponderance of resident families with young children.

We aim to “stay local” as much as possible that week, exploring unfamiliar neighbourhoods such as Noe Valley itself and semi-mountainous Bernal Heights, Potrero Hill and Twin Peaks, as well as re-familiarising ourselves in particular with the Castro and Mission districts, much neglected on our previous trips. In fact, we are venturing further out of the City than we have ever done before, though public transport will whisk us briskly downtown should we, in the unlikely event, crave a fix of the wharf or corporate shopping at any time (that said, our two appointments with the Giants will steer us towards the bay on those days).

5. The Flower Power Walking Tour

For all my reverence for the Dead, the Airplane and the late sixties San Francisco music scene, I have resisted, in the past, signing up for the flower power walking tour of Haight-Ashbury, expecting it to be too clichéd, preferring to truck around the area on my own. But the testimonials are so compelling, and the bona fides of the individuals conducting the tour so intriguing (they lived through the Summer of Love), that I now anticipate it with relish.

6. Exploring the Old and Public San Francisco

Aside from our initial, guided trip 17 years ago, we have never explored Nob Hill in any detail. We have clanked past it on the California and Powell/ Mason and Powell/Hyde cable cars (sorry, I know I promised I wouldn’t mention them) many times but given little heed to Grace Cathedral, Huntington Park or the grand hotels – until now.

We will aim to combine that with a morning skulking as much of the public buildings that comprise the Civic Center as we are permitted to enter. I am particularly keen to visit the public library.

7. Breakfast with KRON4

Preparing for the day ahead in San Francisco has never been complete without the accompaniment of local TV station, KRON4, informing me of the weather prospects, the state of the “Bay Bridge commute” or the latest Giants news. Whilst Darya Folsom is my favourite presenter, I’ll also confess to having followed Sal Castenada’s traffic reports on rival station KTVU too for many years.

8. Skiing the Sierras

The full story of our miscalculation over the short skiing leg of our trip in Lake Tahoe will have to wait for another day. Suffice to say that the outcome is that we will finally be forced out of our customary torpor and ski somewhere other than Heavenly this time. Sierra-at-Tahoe and Kirkwood beware.

We return to the City for the final three nights of the trip, staying in a hotel on Fisherman’s Wharf. Our sixth performance of Beach Blanket Babylon and meals at two of our favourite eating places, the North Beach Restaurant and Cliff House await. And much else besides.

So, San Francisco, “open your Golden Gate”, don’t let this supplicant !wait outside your door”.

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“There have been only two geniuses in the world”, actress Tallulah Bankhead said, “Willie Mays and Willie Shakespeare”. A trifle exaggerated perhaps (is Shakespeare THAT good?), but the former Giant was arguably the greatest baseball player of all time.

William Howard “Willie” Mays Jnr. was born on 6th May 1931 in Westfield, Alabama of talented sports playing parents. He came to prominence through playing for Birmingham Black Barons in the Negro American League and, having been declined by the Brooklyn Dodgers, was signed by the New York Giants on the day he graduated from high school in 1950.

After an impressive early season spell with the Minneapolis Millers of the American Association at the beginning of the following season he was called up for his Major League debut on 25th May 1951. Despite career lows in batting average, RBIs and HRs that year he was still voted Rookie of the Year.  His speed and agility in centre field were gaining notice, and in one game against Pittsburgh, he stopped a 475 foot drive with his bare hand.

Missing most of the 1952, and all of the 1953, seasons through Army service, he returned to the Giants in 1954, helping them to win their last World Series before 2010 and being voted National League MVP.  His phenomenal over the shoulder running catch in deep center field off Vic Wertz at the Polo Grounds, which is still regarded as one of the most spectacular pieces of fielding in baseball history, was instrumental in securing a first game win against the Cleveland Indians, leading to a four game sweep of the series.

In 1957, the last season of the Giants’ tenure in New York, he won the first of his 12 consecutive Golden Glove awards. There were few more exhilarating sights than Mays in full sail, chasing a long fly ball, oversize cap flying off his head as the ball sunk into his enormous, wide-palmen hands.  He perfected the “basket” catch in which the glove was held waist-high and face up like a basket.   Along with Joe diMaggio he is also reputed to have had the greatest throwing arm in the game.

His reception in San Francisco, following the Giants’ relocation in 1958, was not a particularly welcoming one – he was booed whilst the locals took rookies like Orlando Cepeda and Willie McCovey to their hearts and he and his wife experienced racial prejudice in their attempts to find a home in the city.   His wholehearted, stylish performances won over the fans and in 1961 he hit 4 home runs against the Milwaukee Braves in County Stadium and was on deck when the Giants’ final innings closed.  He is the only Major League player to have a 4 home runs and a 3 triple game.

His final World Series for the Giants was in 1962 when, having beaten the Dodgers in a three game play-off, they lost in seven to the Yankees.  He won his second league MVP with a career high 52 home runs.  He played in 150 games for 13 consecutive years between 1954 and 1966, another Major League record.  Despite hitting his 600th home run in 1969 he had an injury hit season, but returned to his best form and helped the Giants win the  National League West in the following year.  He was named “Player of the Decade” for the sixties by The Sporting News in 1970. 

In May 1972, unable to guarantee him a retirement income, the Giants  traded the 41 year old Mays to the New York Mets for pitcher Charlie Williams and $50 ,000.  He made his debut on the 14th against the Giants, hitting a home run.  His final home run, number 660, was made against the Reds on 17th August the following year.  He also made 3,283 hits and ran in 1,903 batters in his career.

For his two seasons in New York he was the oldest regular position player in baseball and the oldest to figure in a World Series Game during the series that the Mets lost to the A’s.  He stayed with the club until the end of the 1979 season as hitting instructor.

 

On 23rd January 1979 he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility, colecting 95% of the ballots.  But the period after his retirement was a difficult one, culminating in his being banned from baseball for working, along with Yankees legend Mickey Mantle, as a meeter and greeter for Bally’s Casinos in Atlantic City.  Although the ban was eventually rescinded, the decision affected Mays badly, inducing him to shun many public appearances, including All-Star games.  

In 1999 he was included in the Major League All-Century team in a popular vote by fans.

There is no doubting the affection in which he is held, not only by Giants’ fans but the citizens of San Francisco.  Since 1986 he has served as Special Assistant to the President of the San Francisco Giants, a lifetime appointment.  The address of AT & T Park is 24 Willie Mays Plaza and a larger than life statue of Mays in full slugging mode stands proudly in front of the main entrance. 

Although his #24 shirt had been formally retired, and even when Mays offered it to his godson Barry Bonds, who had visited him in his locker room in search of bubble gum when just five years old.  Such was the esteem in which he is held, however, that Bonds refused and opted to wear the #25 jersey instead.  

At former mayor Willie Brown’s instigation, and with the subsequent endorsement of mayor Gavin Newsom, he is now commemorated every 24th May in San Francisco which has been designated Willie Mays Day.  On his 79th birthday in 2010 the California Senate proclaimed Willie Mays Day in the state, and three years before, he had been inducted into the California Hall of Fame by Governor Arnold. Schwarzenegger.

For all the adulation and honours accorded him in California, it should not be forgotten that he is no less idolised on the East Coast for his services  to New York at the beginning and end of his career.  This was evident when he  joined the Giants organisation on 21st January 2011 in parading the newly won World Series trophy, visiting the grade school built on the site of the old Polo Grounds in Harlem, answering the students’ questions and distributing memorabilia.  

Willie Mays visits PS 46 in Harlem, next to the site of the former Polo Grounds, where the new York Giants played before moving to San Francisco in 1958, on Jan. 21, 2011 in New York City.  The Giants hadn't won the World Series since 1954.

I can’t finish this piece without reference to more of Mays’s remarkable playing achievements:

  • selected for the All-Star Game a (tied) record 24 times, including 20 consecutive years between 1954 and 1973;
  • MVP in the All-Star Game twice (1963, 1968);
  • the only player to have hit a home run in every innings from 1 to 16;
  • a record 22 extra innings home runs;
  • only one of five National League players to have hit at least 100 RBIs in eight successive seasons;
  • stole 338 bases; and
  • 7,095 outfield fielding putouts – Major League record

But the statistics and records do scant justice to his genius – constantly on the move, athletically and mentally, whether at the plate, on base or in the outfield, he was a menace to the opposition from start to finish.

I started with a quotation and I shall end with one.  Mays, who, in all modesty, believed himself to be the best baseball player ever, summed it up in these simple words: “If you can do that – if you run, hit, run the bases, hit with power, field, throw and do all other things that are part of the game – then you’re a good ballplayer”.  Well, he could do all of those things with a level of skill, style and, above all joy, unparalleled in the game’s history.

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