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One of Greatest Has a Special Bond With Barry

October 21, 2002|J.A. Adande

Maybe it was easy to recognize Willie Mays from behind because he has the most famous back in sports history.

How many times have we seen that back, with the number 24 stitched across it, running toward the center-field wall to haul in Vic Wertz's drive in the 1954 World Series? You can't miss it these days with that ad to choose the greatest World Series moment running between innings.

This wasn't a bad World Series moment itself: rounding a corner in the tunnel by the Giants' clubhouse and running smack into an impromptu news conference with Mays, who was surrounded by a cluster of reporters.

Mays was there to talk to his godson -- kid by the name of Barry Bonds -- but he wound up spending more time with reporters. Bonds popped out of the clubhouse midway through and playfully tried to pull Mays away from the throng.

"You show up and cause havoc around here," Bonds said.

Actually, Mays brought a sense of order and perspective. Who better to talk about the greatness of Bonds than one of the greatest to play the game -- and one of only three men to hit more home runs than Bonds?

If there was a theme, it was the overwhelming importance of the World Series. It shifts perceptions and forges reputations.

To Mays, Bonds' entry in the 2002 World Series caps his career.

"Now he did everything he possibly could do in baseball," Mays said. "If he wins, that's a little more icing on the cake for him. Now he can say to me, 'I won, you won.'

Lately Mays has worn his '54 World Series ring on his left pinky finger. It's a simple little gold thing, very understated by today's standards.

"I started wearing it this year, to remind him," Mays said. "He wants one. He wants this."

If Bonds can't get one of his own, he should just be patient.

"I'll probably will it to him some kind of way," Mays said.

But if Bonds wins this thing: "That would put him right up there with me," Mays said.

He didn't come right out and say it, but it was pretty clear that Mays considers himself the standard for baseball greatness. ("I think I did everything," he said. "What didn't I do?")

He sounded willing to step off the podium for Bonds.

"If they say he's No. 1, that's fine," Mays said. "Maybe I'll still be two. It was Babe Ruth before. Who cares? As long as he enjoys himself."

With 613 home runs, Bonds could pass Mays' mark of 660 and move into third place on the all-time list as soon as next season.

"He felt like he didn't want to do it," Mays said. "I said, 'Hey, you've got to do what you've got to do. I'm sure he'll pass me. No big deal. It doesn't change nothing."

Watching Bonds be happy makes Mays happy.

"To have him start smiling again and enjoying baseball I think that's what I'm all about," Mays said. "He's just beginning to realize that it's a game. But you can get a lot out of the game. He's beginning to understand that a lot more than say, five or 10 years ago."

Mays doesn't think it's necessary to show your teeth to demonstrate that the game is enjoyable.

"I never smiled when I played ball," he said. "I wasn't out there to smile. When you smile, you don't have time to worry about your opponents."

He was all smiles Sunday however, because he's enjoying his godson's first trip to the World Series.

"I think I'm more excited for him, because now, what else are they going to say about him?" Mays said. "He's a great ballplayer."

Greatness is usually defined in October.

That was the one deficiency in Bonds' career (a .196 postseason batting average and one home run before this year). But this year he has six home runs, including one in his first World Series at-bat.

Mays said the play he made on Wertz's drive wasn't his best catch. He knows why it's his most famous.

"It's in the World Series," he said. "What did he do in the World Series?"

Mays said his most memorable World Series moment was Mookie Wilson's ground ball that went between Bill Buckner's legs in 1986. It stuck with him because he knew that just as the World Series creates heroes it is especially cruel to those who falter.

"I said, 'Oh my God, they're going to kill him,' " Mays said. "I knew right away he was never going to live it down."

It's the World Series. Everything's bigger. Willie Mays at the ballpark? Cool, but it's nothing that doesn't happen 25 times or so a year at Pacific Bell Park. Willie Mays at the World Series? News, even if he watched the game in the Giants' clubhouse.

He wasn't there for face time, he was just a guy who wanted to pass along some advice to his godson.

"It's important to me to let him know that I'm here, to know that whatever he does I'm watching," Mays said. "Whatever he does wrong, we talk."

To the Giants it might not be too big a deal to have this legend walk through their clubhouse. As Kenny Lofton said, they quickly get used to it.

But even Bonds, who can be blase about so many things, recognizes how special it is to have greatness in his inner circle. For years he has talked about getting a painting made showing him in left field, Mays in center and Barry's father, Bobby, in right field.

"Who would run that outfield?" former Angel great Don Baylor said when the idea was presented to him? "Mays."


J.A. Adande can be reached at:

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