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Tributes to Willie Mays pour in as mural is unveiled in Alabama

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — Willie Mays gave a message to his longtime friend Dusty Baker just a day before he died.

Mays, who died Tuesday afternoon at 93 years old, knew that he wouldn't be able to make the trip to Birmingham, Alabama, for a week of festivities honoring the contributions that he and other Negro Leaguers have made to baseball. But he wanted Baker to share a message to the city he long called home.

“Birmingham, I wish I could be with you all today,” said Mays' good friend and adviser Jeff Bleich, reading the statement at a ceremony Wednesday honoring Mays' life and career. “This is where I'm from. I had my first pro hit here at Rickwood as a Black Baron. And now this year, some 76 years later, that hit finally got counted in the record books. I guess some things take time. But I always think better late than never.”

Mays also sent an antique clock with his picture on it to the city of Birmingham. Baker was not feeling well, Bleich said, so he was not at the ceremony.

“Time changes things,” Mays continued in his note. "Time heals wounds. And that's a good thing. I had some of the best times of my life in Birmingham. So I want you to have this clock to remember those times with me, and to remember all the other players who were lucky enough to play here together."

The ceremony took place in downtown Birmingham just miles from Rickwood Field, where Mays' unforgettable career began. Bleich joined Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin and San Francisco Giants CEO Larry Baer in giving speeches in Mays' honor, standing in front of a grand mural display of the former Giants center fielder.

It's an enchanting depiction of the electrifying “Say Hey Kid,” showing Mays beaming with his hands resting on his knees, his bevy of athletic accomplishments painted around him.

The artwork was created by artist Chuck Styles, who said he wanted to capture Mays' humanity.

“I knew I wanted to showcase him in a way that everybody knew him for," Styles said, "and that was his smile.”

Other tributes to Mays, born in Westfield, Alabama, near Birmingham, poured in all over the country on Wednesday, including from President Joe Biden.

“Like so many others in my neighborhood and around the country, when I played Little League, I wanted to play center field because of Willie Mays,” Biden said in a statement. “It was a rite of passage to practice his basket catches, daring steals, and command at the plate — only to be told by coaches to cut it out because no one can do what Willie Mays could do.”

Mays, who began his professional career with the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro Leagues in 1948, had been baseball’s oldest living Hall of Famer and was considered the sport's greatest living player.

He died two days before a game between the Giants and St. Louis Cardinals to honor the Negro Leagues at Rickwood Field in Birmingham.

“It’s actually even heavier today,” said Giants manager Bob Melvin, wearing a Mays T-shirt. “When you read all the articles and you read what everybody has to say about him, it kind of comes full circle in what he’s meant to our country. Even if you don’t know baseball, you know who Willie Mays is.”

The Giants wore patches with Mays' No. 24 on their chest for Wednesday's game against the Chicago Cubs.

When the team travels to Birmingham for the commemorative game at Rickwood Field on Thursday, the Giants will open Oracle Park for fans to watch the game on the scoreboard, the team announced.

Images of Mays will appear on the scoreboard before and after the event, and a sculpture of his jersey number will be placed in center field to honor him.

Cardinals assistant coach Willie McGee said he had several conversations with Mays when he played for the Giants from 1991-94.

“Willie was the best, man, the greatest I have ever seen,” McGee said. “He had all six tools. His aggressiveness, his baserunning. That is what separated him, for me, his aggressiveness and his instincts from other five-tool guys.”

When asked if Mays ever gave him any advice, McGee chuckled.

“All the time — but I don’t remember none of it,” he said.

Some of the most sincere words Wednesday came from those who grew up in Alabama.

Jameis Winston, a backup quarterback with the Cleveland Browns who was born in Bessemer, Alabama, smiled graciously as he looked out at Rickwood Field. Winston was in town along with many other notable figures to celebrate Mays and the Negro Leagues in a celebrity softball game at the ballpark.

“He was an amazing man," Winston said. "He had a tremendous legacy, a tremendous career playing baseball. I’m so happy that I’m allowed to be on the diamond, united with all my brothers.”

Next to Winston, comedian and actor Roy Wood Jr. spoke thoughtfully and earnestly. Wood, who grew up playing high school baseball at Rickwood Field, was doing a broadcast at the ballpark Tuesday night when news of Mays' death was announced.

Wood took brief pauses between his sentences Wednesday, as if carefully choosing the words that would best describe that moment.

“The dichotomy of live television is trying to remain human but also being a professional,” Wood said. “And it was saddening. ... There was a 90-second round of applause for Willie Mays, and you looked up in the crowd and you saw people crying but you saw them hugging and smiling.”

Kelly McFarland had taken a brief break from her job directing buses into the ballpark when she heard the news Tuesday evening. She was taking pictures next to one of the tributes of Mays at the ballpark when someone tapped her on the shoulder.

“They said, ‘You know he’s passed?’” said McFarland, a Birmingham native. "And so I look over at the field and that’s when you could just feel an eerie feeling. And you just saw tears from grown adult people, men, just crying.

“I'm glad I got a chance to experience what he put out into the community, and to see the emotions from people age 93 to 3.”

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AP Sports Writer Andrew Seligman in Chicago and Associated Press writer Terry Spencer in Miami contributed to this report.

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AP MLB: https://apnews.com/hub/mlb

Alanis Thames, The Associated Press