If the cap still flies off his head, now it's the doing of a Bay-Area gust. Admiring kids used to call him great, and now call out to him as Gramps. Still, the swagger remains in the walk and the style in the talk and, chances are, if Willie Mays passes in front of a mirror today, he'll whisper to the reflected image, "Say Hey, happy birthday!" Willie Mays, considered by some as the greatest ballplayer of the second half of the 20th Century, turns 78 today, helping an entire generation feel the sands of time seeping through their toes.
From stickball to walking-cane ball? Hardly. Mays remains a vibrant presence in San Francisco, where pigeons rest on his statue outside AT&T Park, and where he walks as royalty on an imaginary red carpet strewn with imaginary rose petals. He still dances under fly balls, runs with abandon on the bases, lashes out at pitches on the outside corner -- only now you have to close your eyes to see it. There has never been another baseball package like Mays, a bundle of speed, power and grace who entered his golden years by the Golden Gate Bridge with 660 home runs, 338 stolen bases, a dozen Gold Gloves and 75 All-Star Game at-bats. He was the real deal, on the field and on the spot. Asked at his 1979 Hall of Fame induction who had been the greatest player he'd come across during his playing career, Mays replied, "I don't mean to be bashful, but I was." Was he ever. So we serenade him, not with "Happy Birthday" but with "Our Song." Oh, you aren't familiar with the tune? It was written two years ago by Joe Henry, in the tradition of Paul Simon's "Mrs. Robinson" homage to Joe DiMaggio. Similarly, Henry's song uses Mays as a metaphor for a country's loss of grace. We may have lost some of our grace, but, Say Hey, we still have our Mays.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.