Willie Mays is not a terrorist. There are certain constants in life such as gravity, taxes, mortality and somebody like Juan Williams screwing up their career on the O’Reilly Factor. These things are recurring, stable and form the very foundation of our human experience…and Willie Mays not being a national security risk is one of them.
Mays is in a class beyond living legend, larger than the “greatest living player” moniker he carries, and it is simply impossible to be effusive when describing the man. Looking at Mays and the reaction of the faces in the crowd when he takes the field, it’s as if the Lincoln Memorial had animated itself, and a 19-foot tall, marble Honest Abe walked in on a Nats game just to wave to the crowd.
In baseball terms, I suppose the closest parallel I’ve witnessed to the affection that San Francisco fans have for Willie Mays was when Ted Williams rolled out in the golf cart in front of an emotional Fenway Park crowd during the 1999 All Star Game. That was a moment, and one in no way exclusively reserved for just Boston Red Sox fans or even baseball fans alone.
Rather, it was a moment where everyone in attendance or watching on television at home knew they were witnessing something special…but it was Ted Williams and Ted Williams belonged to Boston long before he belonged to the rest of us.
Similarly, as a San Francisco resident, Willie Mays belongs to and defines San Francisco as much as cable cars, Golden Gate Bridge or Lombard Street. Say, “Say Hey,” and there isn’t a baseball fan in the City that won’t crack a smile.
When the Giants built AT&T Park a few years back, they picked “24 Willie Mays Plaza” as their new street address, and put up a spectacular bronze statue of Willie Mays in perfect swing repose directly in front of the main entrance. He is a large part of San Francisco history, and arguably, is the history of the San Francisco Giants franchise.
Mays stirs emotions even for a fan like myself who never even had the chance to see him play. I think it's the pride of knowing that, in a way, the very history that serves as this man’s aura is especially reserved only for you as a Giants fan.
Yeah, baseball fans in general get to enjoy and marvel, but he's yours. It’s also difficult to accurately convey the wave of emotion that overtakes Giants fans when Mays makes an earthly appearance and lends a little of his historic legend to different proceedings, some commemorative like an Opening Day, and others, not so much...like when you see him in the airport security line, and he’s being frisked.
Recently, I was visiting my Mom in Palm Springs. Mom had moved down there a couple of years back to fully embrace the bejeweled golf and tennis desert lifestyle, and it had taken in the form of frosted hair, two poodles and new convertible.
I overdosed on Mexican food, she took me to a cougar bar called “The Nest” (a blast, highly recommended) and we just had a great visit. Equally memorable as seeing my Mom happy, well and thriving in a new town was when I was coming home and waiting in the airport security line.
I had assumed my position in the single-file pedestrian bumper to bumper that is the metal detector line and was hoping that it wouldn't take forever so I'd have time to hit the bookstore pre-flight. An offhanded glance around the room saw everyone in line with that same melancholy expression as me that day, just average Joes trying to get through security, and closer to home.
Right as I was removing my shoes and wishing hateful things on shoe bomber Richard Reid, I noticed a familiar face in line not six people ahead of me. It was Willie Mays.
My first emotion was actually confusion versus excitement. Is he supposed to be in this line? Should I call someone? I mean, if Katy Perry and Russell Brand can get a special check in at some super secret celebrity-only airport room, surely we can make the same accommodation for Willie Mays, right?.
Those secret rooms exist by the way. Before Mom retired, picked up and moved to Palm Springs, she ran one for United Airlines at San Francisco International. Beyonce, Paul Newman, Will Smith, Ashton Kutcher, Tyra Banks, Julia Roberts, Clarence Thomas, Alan Greenspan and so many more high-profile folks came through Mom’s secret check in counter.
Let’s just say, that unobtrusive looking janitor closet off in the corner by Gate 80 isn’t just a janitor closet if you catch my drift.
Back to Willie Mays and the odd confluence of emotions I was experiencing. On one hand, I was thrilled to see the legend so up close and in the flesh, and on the other, was taken aback by witnessing such a part of Americana being subjected to a mundane, everyday and slightly embarrassing (you again, Richard Reid) exercise.
It was like seeing your second grade teacher at the grocery store for the first time, something that, in a small way, puts your whole sense of reality on its heels.
A whole new wave of emotions hit, ones piercing and far easier to discern when Willie Mays, now not three people in front of me, passed through the metal detector and set it off.
He smiled sheepishly, passed back through to retry and did the same metal purge into the plastic bucket that we all do in these situations: pocket change, watch, random paper clip, pen, belt…ok squared away.
Having completed this exercise, Mays passed through the detector again, and again set it off. He was then selected and pulled aside for additional screening by TSA airport security...because you just never know.
I watched this surreal scene take place as a nameless, 20-something security agent with clearly zero idea of who she was standing in front of, ask to see Willie Mays’ identification.
He should have given her a baseball card, though she didn’t exactly impress as a baseball historian so that might have proved fruitless. Her lack of reaction at glancing at his identification really said it all, and she then proceeded to instruct Willie Mays to move his arms straight out on each side, so she could scan his body with the handheld metal detector.
The arms that hit those bombs, the one that made that ridiculous throw in the 1954 World Series after the same arms had made the ridiculous over the shoulder catch. She was wanding the HOF and it was kind of pissing me off.
Willie, true to his limitless class, said nothing, and did his duty as just another American traveling in the post 9/11 world. There was no drama as he was scanned ostensibly for weapons, and no prima donna comments from a man deserving every privilege over this inconvenience.
When our TSA avenger was satisfied that Willie Mays wasn’t actually heading up a new Cooperstown Al-Qaeda cell or trying to smuggle a bowie knife on board, she took one last glance at his California license and let him pass through. Moments later, he was lost in a crowd and out of sight.
I was a pretty upset at this point, but the last thing you want to do in 2010 is call attention to yourself in an airport security line. At best, you get flagged for extra security and at worst, you wind up trying to explain yourself in some airport back room, missing your flight and making the papers...and remember I wanted to hit the bookstore, so I held my tongue.
Just as I was putting my shoes on the conveyor belt, I caught eyes with an elderly man waiting for his carry on to come through the scanner, who just nodded and smiled at me. He knew.
The whole display had just seemed wrong and off-putting, and to this day I struggle to truly dissect why this made me so emotional at the time. I suppose it was because Willie Mays is not just a man or a celebrity or the guy that invented the iPhone, he is America.
He embodies a whole era of our national pastime, has started countless conversations between fathers and sons with his athletic exploits and has brought innumerous people together.
Also, in his life, he has given an entire segment of our society a champion who boldly faced racism without fear as one of the first, courageous group of African-American men to break baseball’s color barrier.
He witnessed the slow maturity of America into its modern representation and has been a massive part of that very transformation in how all Americans look at each other.
He has seen and made all kinds of history, but on this particular hot day at the Palm Springs airport, Willie Mays was just a 79-year-old man trying to get home. Incidentally, when I passed by that old traveler on the way to my plane, the one who had offered me that knowing, quiet look of acknowledgment in the security line, I muttered a soft “Willie Mays."
He smiled back and responded, “Yeah, The Say Hey Kid…how about that?”
I guess that was all I needed, because I smiled the entire walk to my gate that day. Any feelings of sadness I had felt had now been replaced with just one palpable feeling of sheer anticipation.
I just couldn’t wait to get home and tell my dad who I had seen.