Cote: Willie Mays, 1931-2024. A fond & very personal tribute to a top-tier baseball legend | Opinion

My first love and I have long since parted, become estranged. But baseball was my childhood portal and magical looking-glass into what would be a lifelong relationship with sports, and a career of it.

Snapshots of me throughout the 1960s would have found me in a baggy uniform playing Little League ball (not much of a hitter but a vacuum at first base). Or collecting baseball cards, year after year, an obsession that would fill countless shoe boxes. I was a Strat-O-Matic nut, dice rolling across that cardboard diamond, stats kept meticulously on every game.

My hero back then was Willie Mays, who died on Tuesday at age 93. He was the game’s oldest living Hall of Famer.

For me he was the first player who sparked the imagination. Part of the bittersweet privilege of growing old is seeing pieces of your past peel away, fade to memories. Some of the names are indelible, with you always.

The Say Hey Kid is one of my once-upon-a-time guys. Cannot use the past tense yet. Likely never will.

Born in Massachusetts, I was a Red Sox fan by birth back then. All of my relatives were. And that 1967 Impossible Dream season made me a fan of Carl Yastrzemski, who won the Triple Crown that year. Yaz was stoic, though.

Mays I adopted because he was the opposite. He had charisma and flair and that great nickname and that smile. In a compact body he was power and speed all at once. And that golden glove as a bonus. As I recall my family still had a black-and-white TV set in the mid-’60s, but Willie Mays played in Technicolor.

This was years after his New York Giants had moved west to San Francisco. Years after signature moment in center field -- the over-the-shoulder basket catch in the 1954 World Series at New York’s Polo Grounds that robbed Cleveland’s Vic Wertz -- that Mays’ greatness dawned on me like sunshine.

Retired since 1973, he still is sixth all-time with 660 home runs. Won 12 Gold Gloves in turning center into a glamour position. He was the first player ever to surpass 300 homers and 300 stolen bases.

Mays played one year in the Negro Leagues at age 17 for the Birmingham Black Barons in 1948. His 10 hits that season became a part of his official record when MLB just this year incorporated Negro Leagues statistics into its record book, a reparation long overdue.

Coincidentally, on Thursday, the Giants and Cardinals will play a game at Rickwood Field in Birmingham, Ala. It was long-scheduled as a celebration of the Negro Leagues but now takes on a currency and surely and rightly will be played in Mays’ honor.

Also seems fitting to remember Mays on Juneteenth, the federal holiday marking the end of slavery. Mays is a vital part of Black history as well as baseball history. He is a part of America’s history.

Mays hit 50 home runs 10 years apart, in 1955 and 1965. Hit four home runs in a game at Milwaukee in 1961.

“Hitting four home runs in one game,” Willie McCovey once said, “probably was the least of the spectacular things he did.”

Ted Williams once said, “They invented the All-Star Game for Willie Mays.”

He’d greet visitors with a high-pitched “Hey!” so often a New York writer dubbed him “The Say Hey Kid.” Generations wore his number 24.

Mays was past his best years by the time I adopted him, circa mid-’60s, but I didn’t know it then. Love is blind.

I knew it by 1973, though, as Mays ended his career with the New York Mets. He was 42. He batted .211 that last season. I winced to watch a ball hit hard to center he was not the same player. Time had taken its toll as time always does.

More than quarter century later, I watched Dan Marino walk off a football field in Jacksonville after a 62-7 loss in the 1999 playoffs in what be his final NFL game ever. He wore bulky knees braces, limped badly. What a way to go out, I thought.

And remembered Willie Mays in ’73.

The wonder of memories, though, is that we get to remember them as we wish.

So in my mind, and eternally in baseball history, Willie Mays -- the most Giant of them all -- is still hitting home runs, and stealing bases, and gliding deep in center field, his back to home plate and his glove outstretched.