Sunday, May 8, 2011

Willie Mays inspired a rookie teammate in his final campaign

George Theodore was a rookie left fielder for the New York Mets in 1973 when he found himself sharing the outfield with one of baseball's greatest legends, Willie Mays. Mays and Theodore were on the opposite ends of their respective careers; the veteran Mays playing in the last of his 22 Hall of Fame seasons, and the young Theodore working to gain a toehold in the Mets starting lineup. Returning to Flushing during the weekend of Mays' 80th birthday for a series of New York Mets Alumni Association events, Theodore reflected on Mays' ability to energize his teammates just by his presence on the field.

“Willie Mays had a magnetism that nobody had," Theodore said. "You could just feel it. He'd get up to hit and you kind of fed off the crowd. He was such a positive person; I was so happy to get to know him.”

George Theodore / N. Diunte
Ironically Theodore's greatest memory of playing alongside Mays was not the lessons he learned on how to patrol the outfield, or watching Mays rekindle the spirit of the Polo Grounds, but a time when he was given an error on a play Mays made that displayed Mays' “sixth sense” in the field. On June 11, 1973, they shared the outfield during a game against Mays' former team, the San Francisco Giants. In the fourth inning, a 400-foot smash was hit to left-center and both outfielders pursued it. Theodore described the events of the play as it unfolded.

Willie Mays / N. Diunte
“One game on national TV, I was in left field and he was in center," he said. "The ball was hit into left-center and I think I'll go get it because Willie couldn't throw too much at the time. He beats me there with his beautiful instincts [which were evident] even then, and he gets to the ball.

“He then tosses it to me for me to throw it, but I didn't know it was coming, so it dropped. I quickly picked up it and I threw it in. They gave me an error. I think they changed it subsequently, but that was the biggest honor I could have, taking that error from Willie Mays.”

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