Well faithful reader, if you are wondering why it has been so long since I posted an entry it is this: last Summer, long after the Diamondbacks were eliminated from any chance of post season play and well before the San Francisco Giants began their historic run to a World (translated U.S) championship, I picked up Willie Mays: The Life the Legend by James Hirsch. It is quite possibly one of the largest books I have ever read, and although I first intended to write this review during last years World Series (and then again during Spring Training) I was just too busy to finish the book.
I forget where I first heard about this biography of Willie Mays, or where I heard that it was perhaps the most insightful look into the reclusive superstar's life ever put to page, but as a lifelong fan of the San Francisco Giants I was immediately intrigued, eager to learn more about the man who introduced world class baseball to San Francisco more so than any other player; not only did Mays come to San Francisco when the franchise relocated from New York, he was responsible for making San Francisco baseball legitimate, taking the city to its first World Series. Though the stars of each major epoch of Giants history (Mays/McCovey, Clark/Mitchell, Bonds, and Posey/Lincecum) have made it to the World Series, Mays, with his storied chase of Babe Ruth's home-run record, likable fun loving demeanor, and amazing defensive plays paved the way for the success of future Giants teams and made him an innocent hero from the golden age of baseball.
Unfortunately, this image, and the desire that Mays and his biographer have to maintain it are the ultimate downfall of this book. In 600 pages we hear story after story of a man criticized for being too much of a cartoon character, never revealing too much about who he really was. As a player, that image makes a lot of sense. I do not agree with Charles Barkley's now cliche' claim that athletes are not role models, because like it or not, they are. Since it has been more than 30 years since Mays retired however, I suppose that I expected a little more insight into how things really were for players during the era that he played. Instead, although we hear about his troubles with women, his troubles with money, and his troubles in the press, ultimately the reader is led to believe that Willie was an overgrown boy who loved children and liked to have a good time. Why it took 600 pages to say that, or why this biography had to wait so long to be told is a complete mystery to me.
That said, I'm glad that I grew up when I did. The Giants I rooted for were named Will Clark, Kevin Mitchell, Bob Brenly, Bob Melvin, and Matt Williams. They were managed by a man named Roger Craig. Even though they never won a World Series as Giants, many of these players and their former manager were hired by the Arizona Diamondbacks around the time that I moved to Phoenix in 1997, and they made it very easy for me to redirect my allegiances. I couldn't have been more thrilled when Matt Williams won a ring as an Arizona Diamondback.
The 1994 strike and the Barry Bonds years made it difficult to like the Giants, and the steroid scandal has made it difficult to appreciate the slugging achievements of players like Bonds, McGuire, and Sosa. Perhaps the innocence of Mays and his era is appealing in a time like this, and is a reason why the accomplishments of the 2010 Giants are that much sweeter. History will remember their remarkable run much longer than it will Barry Bonds' steroid fueled* chase of Hank Aaron's home-run record.