Major League Baseball
How Willie Mays is at Rickwood Field game '100 percent spiritually’
Major League Baseball

How Willie Mays is at Rickwood Field game '100 percent spiritually’

Updated Jun. 21, 2024 12:04 a.m. ET

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Even though it feels like a small part of us all knew Willie Mays — through his unmistakable talent, love for baseball, and trademark as the best player many people had ever seen — we still wanted more of him. Seeing a once-in-a-lifetime athlete can have that effect on us. It's part of why, more than 50 years after his retirement from Major League Baseball, Tuesday's announcement of his death hit the baseball community like a ton of bricks to the chest. 

San Francisco Giants right fielder Mike Yastrzemski was one of those individuals who wanted to be around Mays as much as possible — to know him, to learn from him, and ultimately, to be like him.

"I just wanted to be in his presence," Yastrzemski told FOX Sports ahead of Thursday's Giants-Cardinals game at Rickwood Field (7:15 p.m. ET on FOX and the FOX Sports app). "It was cool to see what would happen when I would try to hang around him. I was like a little puppy waiting for scraps at the table. I was just kind of sitting there hoping something would come out of him that would resonate for me, or that he'd say something nice to me. That was always the highlight of my day."

The sixth-year Giant interacted with Mays a handful of times. But the first time they met, Yastrzemski said Mays used some "strong adjectives" to describe his grandfather, Carl Yastrzemski, the Hall of Fame left fielder who spent his entire career with the Boston Red Sox from 1961-1983. Mays' Giants never played against Yastrzemski's Red Sox, but Mays still noticed and admired Yastrzemski's game.


Upon Mike Yastrzemski's initial interaction with Mays, the Hall of Famer made sure to tell him two things that Yastrzemski will never forget: that his grandfather played the game hard, which Mays dubbed "the right way," and that Yastrzemski himself should consider moving from right field to center field, because that's where Mays thought he belonged. 

Yastrzemski was floored that a "living legend" like Mays didn't make a single mention of his own illustrious career, but focused on how the young Giants right fielder could improve his game. Ever since then, Yastrzemski has tried to model his mentality after Mays' humble attitude and approach to life.

"It's more his attitude of playing I try to encompass, because his talent is not reachable for me," Yastrzemski said. "There might be some people who could reach one or two aspects of his game. But not all of them. So the mental side is the one that I felt like I could get closest to.

"What he did for the game was about as much as any one man can do. And it's incredible to be able to watch some of his old clips and recognize how much better he was than everyone else. It's really cool. And then meeting him, you'd never know that he was that good, which is even more impressive. He never talked about his own career unless he was asked about it, unless it was brought up by somebody else. He would always be talking about my game when I talked to him. 

"It's really cool to see somebody of that stature and that ability to do that and make someone feel special so easily." 

Thursday's Giants-Cardinals game is MLB's first at Rickwood Field (and in the state of Alabama), and Mays had informed the team prior to his passing that he would not be able to attend the game. At first, Yastrzemski was disappointed that Mays wouldn't be able to witness his day of recognition in person. Especially for a decorated athlete like Mays who, as Yastrzemski aptly put it, wouldn't talk about his own accomplishments unless he was directly asked, Yastrzemski was originally looking forward to MLB, Mays' Alabama community, and the industry at large celebrating the 24-time All-Star.

But, now that Mays is no longer with us, Yastrzemski has an optimistic, if emotional, perspective on his absence. 

"I look at it from a positive perspective," Yastrzemski said. "He wasn't going to be able to be here physically. Now, he can be here 100 percent spiritually. It's kind of a warming feeling. It's devastating, but it's also, he's still here. I can feel him." 

Deesha Thosar is an MLB reporter for FOX Sports. She previously covered the Mets as a beat reporter for the New York Daily News. The daughter of Indian immigrants, Deesha grew up on Long Island and now lives in Queens. Follow her on Twitter at @DeeshaThosar.

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