Willie Mays

How Mays left lasting, impactful mark on three Giants managers

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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- On the first day of his first spring as manager of the Giants, Bruce Bochy looked up and saw Willie Mays walking into his office. Mays handed Bochy a box with a dozen autographed baseballs inside.

"You're probably going to need these," Bochy remembers Mays telling him. "That was such a great gesture, because the last thing you want to do is go ask him for baseballs."

As it turned out, it wouldn't have been hard for Bochy to find Mays if he needed the occasional souvenir for a family member or friend. Clubhouse manager Mike Murphy's office was right across from Bochy's throughout his time in San Francisco, and that became Mays' unofficial office, too. Whenever Mays was at the ballpark, he would sit in Murphy's office and spend hours telling stories. 

Nobody ever has played the game of baseball better than Mays, who passed away on Tuesday at the age of 93. Few have ever told better stories, too, and his constant presence had an impact on three former big leaguers who went on to manage the Giants. 

The current manager, Bob Melvin, grew up in the Bay Area and credits Mays with helping him fall in love with the game. Melvin called Mays after getting the Giants job, and last week he smiled as he recalled the first time he met the legendary center fielder. Melvin walked into the clubhouse at Candlestick Park in 1986 and found that his locker was right between a pair held for Mays and Willie McCovey, who would stop by occasionally to dispense wisdom and help out with hitting. Melvin remembers that moment as being "surreal."

"To be able to talk to them just about the game and the history and my history watching those guys, it was like an out-of-body experience," he said.

Nearly four decades later, Melvin still vividly recalls Mays telling hitters about the key to succeeding at Candlestick Park. Most found it unforgiving, but Mays hit .298 in his home park with 203 home runs. 

"I asked him, 'How did you hit all of those home runs when the wind was blowing in from left?'" Melvin said. "He said, 'When the wind blew in from left, I hit it out to right.' He literally showed me a perfect mechanical swing to hit the ball out to right field. When you played at Candlestick you needed to hit the ball to right field, and hearing that from him certainly incentivized you to do it."

That brilliance was first on display at Rickwood Field, where a 17-year-old Mays played for the Birmingham Black Barons. The Giants and St. Louis Cardinals will play in the country's oldest professional ballpark on Thursday to pay tribute to Mays and also the legacy of the Negro Leagues. 

Mays had known for a while that he wouldn't be able to attend, but one of the men representing him is another former Giants manager who knows him well. Dusty Baker was introduced to Mays by Bobby Bonds, and he laughed last week as he recalled that first meeting. Baker told Mays that he liked his kangaroo glove, so Mays gave it to him. 

"Willie would give you the shirt off his back," Baker said.

That was one reason Baker gave Mays carte blanche to say and do whatever he wanted when he would visit Giants camp. For years, Baker, Felipe Alou and Bochy would bring Mays and the organization's other Hall-of-Famers to spring training to give talks to big leaguers and minor leaguers. 

"Willie, he dominated the conversation," Bochy said. "He was great, too. He would get on these guys about not playing enough in spring training."

The energy and enthusiasm for the game was infectious, and even into his eighties, Mays would visit Scottsdale and hold court in the clubhouse. The Giants hope to honor those traits the rest of the year, and on Thursday they'll join Major League Baseball in remembering the man widely considered to be the best player the game has ever seen. 

"For us to be able to go to Rickwood and celebrate that game where he played and all that's involved now with the Negro Leagues and the stats being incorporated, I think we're the perfect team to go there," Melvin said. "We'll all be thinking about him and when [we step on the field], saying, 'Willie Mays played here.' "

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