Recalling the Superhero That Is the "Say Hey Kid" Willie Mays

Kevin O'BrienCorrespondent IJuly 16, 2009

IN FLIGHT - JULY 14:  In this photo provided by The White House, President Barack Obama (L) talks with baseball great Willie Mays aboard Air Force One en route to the MLB All-Star Game in St. Louis on July 14, 2009.  (Photo by Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images)

"They invented the All-Star Game for Willie Mays." -Ted Williams

I was in awe as I watched the video on Sportscenter of Barack Obama talking to Hall of Famer, and former San Francisco Giant, Willie Mays on board Air Force One.

What Obama said didn't only resonate with Mays, but also with Giants fans all over the nation.

"Let me tell you, you helped us get there," President Obama said. "If it wasn't for folks like you and Jackie [Robinson], I'm not sure I would get elected to the White House."

In my mind it was not just a political figure talking to a Hall of Fame baseball player. It may look that way to most baseball fans, and people in general who look at things so concretely.

However, to me, as a lifelong Giants fan, it was more akin to something you would see in a comic book.

It was like seeing the mayor of New York thanking Spider Man for saving the city from Dr. Octopus.

It is strange to feel this way about a baseball player, let alone a human being.

We get chastised all the time for putting athletes on pedestals, and treating them more like Gods rather than human beings.

As a born and raised Roman Catholic, I won't ever treat an athlete like a celestial being.

Yet as a deep inner kid, I will treat some players like superheroes.

Willie Mays is one of those superheroes to me.

In some ways, I feel such a weird awe of Mays mainly because I had never seen him play.

Mays retired 14 years after I was born. Therefore, the only times I got to see him in the field were in old-time highlight reels, usually filmed in black and white.

Just because I didn't see him play, however, didn't affect my uncanny infatuation for Mays and the way he played.

Mays always intrigued me with his home runs, his speed, his defense and of course, "The Catch."

Mays, plain and simple, could do it all. As a baseball player, he always seemed to have  a step up on his peers, as evidenced by his lifetime .302 batting average, 660 home runs and 3,283 base hits.

Even his former manager, Leo Durocher, couldn't deny his incredible, God-given baseball skills.

"He could do the five things you have to do to be a superstar: hit, hit with power, run, throw, and field," Durocher said.

However, it wasn't just his baseball skills that made Mays such a larger-than-life figure in baseball.

Because, after all, being a good baseball player is only part of becoming a legend and a "superhero" figure.

Boston Red Sox outfielder Jim Rice was a great baseball player.

That being said, he never resonated much with fans outside of Boston because he didn't have that "something else" that separated the great players from the legendary ones.

Mays was a legendary player, and that "something else" was his charm.

"And he had that other ingredient that turns a superstar into a super superstar," Durocher said. "He lit up the room when he came in. He was a joy to be around."

If anything, his pleasantness only added to his iconic, superhero status.

Mays was to the baseball world what Superman was to the comic book world.

He was not a brooding presence like Batman, who only saved people because of an eternal chip on his shoulder that stemmed from his parents' death.

He was not like Wolverine of the X-Men, who fought evil while feeling conflicted to save the same people who rejected him from society.

He was not like Rorschach, who fought crime because of some sick, perverse, psychological tweak stemming from a past of abuse that haunted him.

Mays, like Superman, was genuine.

Much like Superman genuinely enjoyed being a superhero and thrived in it, pressures and all, Mays did the same with baseball. He enjoyed being in the spotlight. He enjoyed playing the game and making the fans cheer.

Everything about the way Mays approached baseball was wonderful to watch from a fan, baseball writer, and photographer's perspective.

It's no wonder they called him the "Say Hey Kid."

He approached the game with the kind of youthful energy that was similar to the energy Superman approached crime fighting: with optimism, strength, and endless enthusiasm.

I mean, when have you ever seen a photograph of Mays not smiling? It would be like seeing a comic book where Superman wasn't patting a kid on the head after saving the kid from getting squashed by a falling building.

Personally speaking though, what separates Mays from all the other legends in baseball is simply this:

He was a Giant.

The Giants are the team I grew up with since birth, since my Dad first put a Giants ballcap on my head two months after I was born.

To have such a legend wear the Giants uniform brings a kind of unbridled joy that is difficult to explain.

I find myself defending Mays to the death on everything. I defend him against the Dodgers' Robinson. I defend him against the Yankees' Ruth.

My support of Mays is the kind of passion you would see at a comic book convention where high school kids in Superman shirts would be defending their superhero against kids wearing Spider Man shirts.

It doesn't matter whether or not I have any personal connection with Mays or the fact that I have never seen him play in person.

Mays is a legend, and when it comes to legends, the rules are always bent a little differently.

I just cannot explain completely how great it was to see the footage of Mays in that plane with our President. In fact, I cannot explain how great it is to see Mays in general, whether it is on television or in person.

Like a hopelessly naive kid, when I see him I always imagine the highlights. I recall his younger days when he was dressed in his Giant uniform, and sporting the black and orange New York, then San Francisco hat.

I picture him standing in centerfield at Candlestick Park in San Francisco with his hands on his hips, standing tall, similar to the way Superman stood with rays of light flashing behind him in the old-time cartoon.

As I was watching the Ted Williams HBO special, my dad asked me who was the greatest player I ever saw in person.

I thought about it for a while, and as I pondered, I threw the question back at my dad.

"Willie Mays," he said. "No doubt about it."

I didn't even bother answering his question after his response.

It would be like comparing Superman with the Blue Beetle.