Remembering Willie Mays: Mets’ number retirement helped mend fences

Willie Mays Mets
FILE – New York Mets’ Willie Mays poses on May 12, 1972 in New York. Mays, the electrifying “Say Hey Kid” whose singular combination of talent, drive and exuberance made him one of baseball’s greatest and most beloved players, has died. He was 93. Mays’ family and the San Francisco Giants jointly announced Tuesday night, June 18, 2024, he had “passed away peacefully” Tuesday afternoon surrounded by loved ones.(AP Photo/Harry Harris, File)

QUEENS, NY — Even with his reputation firmly cemented as one of the greatest the game has ever seen, Willie Mays, who passed away last week at the age of 93, was still susceptible to indignations.

And two just so happened to come from the New York Mets. 

The first came in Game 7 of the 1973 World Series, the final game of his illustrious playing career that would one day wind up in Cooperstown. 

Despite being 42 years old and batting just .211 across 66 games that season, Mays was considered an invaluable leader of a surprising Mets squad that surprisingly snatched the National League pennant. Yet after collecting a pair of hits and an RBI in seven at-bats in the World Series against the Oakland Athletics, he was relegated to the bench in Game 7 by manager Yogi Berra.

Down 5-2 with two outs in the top of the ninth and bringing the tying run to bat, Berra opted to stay with Wayne Garrett — a left-handed hitter who was 0-for-4 — rather than turn to the right-handed-hitting Mays after the Athletics lifted the great Rollie Fingers for a southpaw, Darold Knowles.

“If I was Yogi I would’ve had him swing,” Mays’ son, Michael Mays, said before throwing out the ceremonial first pitch at Citi Field ahead of the Subway Series finale between the Mets and Yankees. “At least walk out there, something. It’s Willie Mays. I can’t understand that part of history. I would say stranger things have happened but they haven’t.”

Jun 25, 2024; New York City, New York, USA; New York Mets and New York Yankees players stand along the baselines as Willie Mays is honored before their game at Citi Field. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Michael Mays was 14 years old at the time and serving as the Mets’ bat-boy and visibly recalled seeing his father sitting in the Mets’ dugout with a bat in his hand waiting for the call that never came from Berra. Garrett popped out and New York lost what could have been its second World Series championship in four years.

In his autobiography, Willie Mays alluded that he wanted to be polite — a concept his son still wrestles with to his day.

“More strangeness. Willie not telling Yogi what to do,” he joked. “That was a strange moment and there’s no way to define that moment. Just very bizarre.”

It was a moment that the Hall-of-Famer would avoid expanding on when asked about it.

“Oh no, no, no. You brought that up to my father he would say ‘I don’t know too much about that” Michael Mays said. “That’s not a real subject of interest.”

The man who built the foundation of a 3,000-plus-hit, 660-home-run career also was forced to wait for another call that took nearly five decades to be made.

When the Mets acquired Mays from the San Francisco Giants — the franchise he spent two decades with — owner Joan Payson promised the aging superstar that his No. 24 would be retired when he hung up his cleats.

“Full-circle moments,” Michael Mays said. “It was very tough to leave San Francisco. As a franchise player, it didn’t make sense to those guys… so to have Ms. Payson step in and make the promise and secure him, that was how it was understood: You’re coming home.”

FILE PHOTO: Hall of Famer and former New York Mets star Willie Mays touches home plate for the last time at the end of ceremonies after the final regular season MLB National League baseball game at Shea Stadium in New York, September 28, 2008. REUTERS/Ray Stubblebine/File Photo

Mays retired after the 1973 season but Payson passed away two years later; that promise seemingly lost for 50 years. It was not until Aug. 27, 2022, before Old Timers’ Day that owner Steve Cohen sparked the surprise that ultimately provided complete closure to Mays’ career with the Mets as they put No. 24 at the top of Citi Field in perpetuity.

“It was a long time coming but we were very grateful that it was done by the Cohens,” Michael Mays said. “He became a fast friend… But yeah, we were pleased. [Willie’s] tone changed quite a bit [about Payson’s promise].”

Aug 27, 2022; New York City, New York, USA; The New York Mets retired the number 24 for former Major League Baseball player Willie Mays at their Old Timers Day game at Citi Field. Mandatory Credit: Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

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