Tim and Willie
The greatest Giant of all time, and the greatest Giant of this time, held court in separate rooms in the bowels of AT&T Park this afternoon.
Willie Mays, in his ever-present Giants’ cap and jacket, fielded questions from wide-eyed Giants’ rookies about the toughest pitchers he ever faced (Koufax, Gibson, Drysdale and Rush) and his greatest influence (his father) during his reign as the best player in baseball.
Down the hall, in the Giants press conference room, newly crowned two-time Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum fielded questions from reporters about his hopes for the future (World Series ring) and his greatest influence (yes, his father) during his two-year reign as the best pitcher in baseball.
The concrete corridor connecting the two rooms felt like a wormhole in an orange-and-black universe, a shortcut through time and space.
“I couldn’t have ever seen this happening growing up,” Lincecum was saying.
He was flanked by Bruce Bochy, Dave Righetti and Brian Sabean, who struggled to put into words just how remarkable Lincecum’s performance has been, winning back-to-back Cy Youngs in his first two full seasons in the majors.
“It’s almost overwhelming,” Righetti said. “Where do you go from here?”
You go where Mays went.
Into the history books.
Because you can read and hear everything from Lincecum’s press conference elsewhere, I’ll bring you the highlights of Mays’ lively chat with the Giants’ draftees on the second-to-last day of their winter conditioning camp.
(I’ll try to bring you a postmortem from Lincecum sometime in the next week.)
The 25 or so young players sat in chairs encircling Mays, who sat behind a small table.
“All right, guys, c’mon, what else?” Mays said, prompting the next question.
Ever get timed in the 60?
“No, no! I didn’t run! I told them, ‘I can’t run the ball over the fence.’ When they were out running, I was asleep in the clubhouse. They got you just running here? You doing some hitting?”
No, the players said. Just conditioning work.
“That’s not fun! Maybe I should say something. You want to hit a little bit and then go run. You got to enjoy yourself.”
He told them about his struggles against Drysdale, Gibson, Koufax and Bob Rush then added: “I made up for it on all the other guys, the scrubs. I destroyed them.”
Best players you ever saw?
Robert Clemente, Mays said. Barry Bonds – “If I don’t say Barry, he’ll start a fight.” Bobby Bonds (Now, he could run!” ) , Maury Wills (“Played a good shortstop.”) and Frank Robinson (“Triple Crown winner”).
What did you do in the off-season?
“Work, man, work! That’s a very good question. I played basketball, football – touch football – they didn’t know I played football! I had a 32 waistline. I worked out and played all the time. No time to lay around. Had to keep myself in shape. Played winter ball two times.”
We’ve heard from other major-league players about what makes a good teammate. What’s your definition?
“In 1962, they made me captain. I positioned the outfielders, the infielders, I’d call pitches from centerfield – he didn’t have to take them but I wanted him throw a pitch I thought I could catch. You had to get 25 guys playing together even though nine or ten don’t play much at all and it feels bad. I’d go to the manager and say, ‘I want this guy to play because he needs to feel part of the team.’ The guy would go 9 for 10 and he’d go sit down and feel like a part of the team. When guys had problems at home, they’d come to me and I’d call their wives. I knew the wives better than I knew the players!”
Your greatest baseball achievement?
“Man, I had so many! I think my greatest achievement was when I signed my major-league contract.”
“Hitting four home runs in Milwaukee [with 8 RBI] was the greatest thing I ever did.”
Best park to hit in?
“Wrigley. To me the ball went out of there pretty good.”
Worst park to hit in?
“Candlestick. The wind’s always blowing in. We put a glove to a fence to see if it would fall and it didn’t fall. We could even hit it out in batting practice.
“I know you guys are saying, ‘Oh, hell, he didn’t do all this stuff. Oh yes I did.”
What was your farthest home run?
“I never worried about that! You just get it over the fence! You don’t care how far it went.”
What effect did race have back when you played?
“We went to some towns and I couldn’t stay in the same hotel. I remember once in Hagerstown, they dropped me off on the other side of the tracks. You guys from the South, you know what the other side of the track is. So they drop me off and I’m in a hotel, and at 2 o’clock in the morning two or three guys come through the window and sleep the rest of the night on my floor, and then at 6 a.m. they get up and go back out the window. They did the same thing the next night, watching out for me. Nothing was ever said.
“My father told me no matter what anybody said, never to fight. Turn the other cheek. I’d call him up and he’d ask, “Did you fight today?’ Back then, you had to make sure you were bigger than those people who called you names. They called you all kinds of names. But I knew for me to get ahead, I had to take all that kind of stuff. Every time somebody called me a name, I hit the ball.”
What did you do in a slump?
“A slump is going to happen to everybody in some way. For me, a slump was 0-for-10. Everyone has a different way of getting out of a slump. I’d get out by swinging inside-out and getting a hit that way.”
Throughout Mays’ talk, the young guys snapped photos with their cell phone, leaning close, recording forever their moment with the greatest player who ever stepped on a baseball field.
When Mays left, he rode a golf cart down the concrete corridor to Mike Murphy’s office inside the clubhouse. Then Lincecum, finally finished with his round of interviews, stopped by. Mays rose from his chair.
“Don’t get up!” Lincecum said. “You’re getting up for me?”
“Congratulations!” Mays said. He shook Lincecum’s hand.
They exchanged pleasantries as cameras snapped.
“Enjoy this,” Mays told him.
Lincecum said he would, thanked him and left, smiling and shaking his head at the whirlwind day. He still had more interviews to do – still more questions about how he does what he does. But Lincecum doesn’t have a clear answer to the question any more than Mays ever did.
Sometimes there are none.