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Thoughts on Willie Mays stumbling around the outfield

Sep 10, 2013, 4:32 PM EDT

Willie Mays

Mike Vaccaro has a column up today talking about Derek Jeter in twilight and he notes that the touchstone reference for an aging athlete is “Willie Mays falling down in the outfield” or “Willie Mays stumbling in the outfield” (as I’ve often heard it) during his final season with the New York Mets.

If you hear some people talk about it, you’d think he spent the entire 1973 season constantly stumbling out there, in need of help from paramedics and stuck in a half-dumbfounded state for months. As Vaccaro notes, however, this was actually a one-time deal. The meme springs from one play in the 1973 World Series. On a day when everyone was having trouble in the outfield due to the hazy sky.

History is tough like that, though. And, obviously, when you have a stumble like that during the World Series — back when everyone watched the World Series — it’s going to hold a little stronger.  Still: kinda nuts that Mays has that hung on him so much. Surprising how strongly a single play resonates. And it says something — something not altogether flattering — about the person relating the story. About how it’s hard for them to watch athletes get old and how that discomfort is what should decide whether or not they hang it up.

I wonder what Willie Mays thought about the night after the game he stumbled. I wonder if he felt good and vital and dandy. Or if he thought “well, that sucked, but tomorrow is another day.” Or if he carried with him all the  psychic weight that those who tell the tale seem to want him and other aging athletes to carry.

  1. pjmitch - Sep 10, 2013 at 4:41 PM

    Amen Craig. Some like to dwell on the negative even though those incidents might be tiny compared to a career. I would take Willie on his worst day over some of the players today on their best.

    Same with Jeter

    • 18thstreet - Sep 10, 2013 at 4:57 PM

      I remember the first time Jeter was unable to field a routine grounder to his left. I believe it was his entire career.

      I kid, I kid.

    • bolweevils2 - Sep 11, 2013 at 8:47 AM

      Well, I guess you’re right Willie at his worst was probably better than “some of the players today”. But at his worst he wasn’t better than many of today’s starters. Remember, he hit .211 with a .647 OPS in 1973.

      I’m not knocking Willie at all, he was arguably the best ever. I’m just saying he probably hung on a year too long. Though it’s hard to blame him, considering he put up a solid .802 OPS in ’72 at age 41. It sure looked like he had another year in him.

    • skids003 - Sep 11, 2013 at 1:02 PM

      Willie certainly earned the right o go out on his own terms.

  2. woodenulykteneau - Sep 10, 2013 at 4:44 PM

    Conversely, Willis Reed scored four points and had three rebounds in Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals but was hailed for “inspiring” the Knicks to victory. Can’t be merely coincidence that both patently unfair fairy tales came from the New York media, could it? (That’s a rhetorical question, folks)

  3. giant4life - Sep 10, 2013 at 5:14 PM

    Just plain sacrilegious!…No one has a right to criticize Willie…..especially a hack beat writer!!!… play(or stumble) never qualified a season or a career….just blasphemy!…All the the greatest of the greatest slipped ,stumbled throughout their entire careers….and they recall one by Willie?….

    • pipkin42 - Sep 10, 2013 at 5:27 PM

      Parody account? Who has a guess?

  4. mikedi33 - Sep 10, 2013 at 5:34 PM

    the fact that he was playing in another World Series probably made it worth staying around.

  5. sillec28 - Sep 10, 2013 at 5:39 PM

    “Stumbling around in the outfield” shouldn’t be taken quite so literally. Yes, he did stumble once. But the phrase really is more metaphoric than literal. It summarizes the way Willie played in the final two seasons of his career after his remarkable skills had succumbed to age. As such it’s a metaphor for the final seasons of all aging athletes who hang around a little too long.

    • jrobitaille23 - Sep 10, 2013 at 5:54 PM

      yeah, Craig and his followers don’t get it. Mays wasn’t able to field his position at even a passable level. He got bad breaks on balls, couldn’t cut off the alleys and looked lost at the plate. I know that doesn’t jive with the intent of the article so let’s pretend Mays only had one bad play and that saying sprang up only because of that. smh

      • mpzz - Sep 10, 2013 at 6:07 PM

        I think you mean “jibe”, or are you doing some kind of hand jive the rest of us can’t see?
        As for Willie, he played very little his last season and it was by far his worst season, but he batted .267 the year before after being traded to the Mets with an .847 OPS., so he wasn’t as pathetic in his declining years as you make out.

      • jrobitaille23 - Sep 10, 2013 at 7:40 PM

        sorry, typo, thanks for taking the time to point that out, was it worth it? Mays was just an average player for the last 6 or 7 years of his career, especially his last two. Nice try though

      • zzalapski - Sep 10, 2013 at 11:35 PM

        Willie’s OPS+ in the last seven years of his career: 124, 156, 124, 140, 158, 131, 81
        Willie’s dWAR (B-Ref) in the last seven years of his career: 0.3, 0.4, -0.3, -0.2, -0.2, -0.5, -0.0

        His value as a Met was limited in correlation with his playing time, but in his last five full seasons as a Giant he still hit pretty well even as he became a defensive liability. Keep in mind that this was during the second deadball era in MLB, he played his home games in Candlestick Park, and twice during that span he was still considered among the 20 most valuable players in the NL (13th in 1968, 19th in 1971).

        In other words, if that’s how you define average, you have ridiculously high standards.

      • mkd - Sep 11, 2013 at 3:29 PM

        He may have looked lost at the plate to you but the stats zzalapski posted don’t lie. Mays was a legitimate All Star right up to the end. Yeah they should’ve moved him out of center, but other than that the numbers he was putting up as a 40/41 year old would have been Career Years for a lot of guys. He lead the league in OBP in 1971 for cryin out loud!

    • hojo20 - Sep 10, 2013 at 6:50 PM

      Yeah I believe in Oakland, Mays was thrown out at the plate and was on his knees afterward in disbelief, as if knowing he would’ve been safe if he was younger and quicker.

      • larrytsg - Sep 10, 2013 at 7:02 PM

        The play, if I recall correctly (I was 9 years old and a rabid Mets and Mays fan at the time), was close at the plate, but Mays was on deck, and was pleading with the umpire about what he saw from the on deck circle.

        OK, found a reference, Bud Harrelson was called out at the plate, Mays was arguing (pleading?) with the ump.

      • hojo20 - Sep 10, 2013 at 8:10 PM

        Thanks for the clarification Larry – I was just born that year, so I’ve only seen the highlights. My bad.

      • pjmitch - Sep 10, 2013 at 7:36 PM

        Larry thank you for clarifying hojo’s comment. Youa re exactly right. Perfect example of how things get skewed

    • nothanksimdriving123 - Sep 11, 2013 at 3:50 AM

      I remember that WS, and I don’t recall him stumbling about. What I do recall is seeing him catch a fly ball in deep left center and tossing it to the left fielder a few feet away to make the throw back to the infield to try to get the runners. I recall feeling sad that this once great player could no longer get it done.

  6. mpzz - Sep 10, 2013 at 6:01 PM

    Well, I started following Willie and the Giants and baseball in general in 1962, and I never heard of any stumbling problem, so I don’t think it has hurt his reputation any.

  7. stlouis1baseball - Sep 10, 2013 at 6:24 PM

    I am with you mpzz. The first thing I thought was…”first I heard of a stumbling issue.”
    I am aware of people lamenting him playing too long. But I don’t ever recall anyone claiming he was stumbling around sorta’ drunken stupor like.

  8. irishdodger - Sep 10, 2013 at 7:08 PM

    It’s similar to seeing or reading about Joe Namath as an LA Ram in 1977 with wrapped up knees or Johnny U as a San Diego Charger at the end of his career. No fan wants to see a HoFer go out like that.

  9. jimatkins - Sep 10, 2013 at 7:13 PM

    I remember reading what Roger Angell had to say about Willie’s last season as a Met. “Hang them up, Willie. Please.” Willie just went downhill those last couple of years. He wasn’t falling down every other play, but he sure wasn’t Willie Mays. Jeter needs to pay attention to what his body is telling him, as do we all.

  10. djjeffhall - Sep 10, 2013 at 9:15 PM

    Not to get all Sabermetrics, but Mays Defensive WAR was 0 in 1973. (According to Baseball Reference.) Average, far from falling down incompetent.

    • Cris E - Sep 10, 2013 at 11:15 PM

      Jeff Francouer can have a 0 WAR and feel like tomorrow is another day. First ballot HoF players are not held to that standard and are much further from home when they fall to that level. It’s not universal of course, as Rickey Henderson always found a reason to go to the park until nobody would return his calls. But guys like Mays and Jeter may not be the same. DiMaggio quit rather than fade away, for example. Accepting average isn’t for everyone.

  11. raysfan1 - Sep 10, 2013 at 9:41 PM

    Lets not forget that, until his injury in the playoffs, Jeter was still very handy with a bat. When the injury occurred, I commented that this year would be a waste as the leg would not be truly fully healed until 2014. Due to natural decline, he will still be diminished from 2012, but he’s still my way-too-early pick for come back player of the year next year.

    • bolweevils2 - Sep 11, 2013 at 8:54 AM

      Well, he was handy with a bat against lefties. More than handy. He killed lefties. 3 year splits, 2010-2012, he had a .917 OPS vs. LHP.

      But against RHP over that time frame, he had a pedestrian .675 OPS. Which is no crime, particularly for a shortstop. But a shortstop who is below average defensively has to do more than be average offensively to be an asset. He definitely met that benchmark vs. LHP, but vs. righties, not so much.

  12. dcarroll73 - Sep 10, 2013 at 11:19 PM

    raysfan1, it has been mentioned before (and I think anyone who watched Yanks games at the end of last season can confirm) it seemed that Jeter was playing hurt before the injury in the playoffs. I would not be surprised if he had a little hairline fracturing before the ankle gave way in the playoffs. He was just toughing it out because he was having a very good year at the plate and the team still had a chance. I wish Jeter himself and the Yankee organization had not pushed his return this year, and I really hope that the recurring injuries are not the end. The man deserves better after the career he’s had and the character he’s shown.

  13. largebill - Sep 11, 2013 at 2:51 PM

    Players can fool themselves into thinking they should hang around another season. No one wants to admit they have to say so long to their youth. Your heart can tell your brain you have another year in ya, but the heart can always convince your legs. Mays batting .211 and not reaching balls in the field he’d have easily caught a couple years earlier can be attributed to his wheel going south. Triples are gone, doubles are long singles and singles are now just out by a step.

  14. mkd - Sep 11, 2013 at 3:40 PM

    I think there is a sort of Peter Principle at work with aging ballplayers and they should just keep playing until they hit their level of incompetence. I never begrudge a guy that one last crappy year, because I don’t see any reason why they should stop playing if they played pretty decently the year before. Mays is a classic example of that. He was still good-to-great until ’73 when he fell off a cliff. It’s when a player drifts around for two or three more seasons after they’re cooked that it starts to get embarrassing. Griffey for example hit the final-final wall in 2009. He was atrocious but it was a nice final voyage with the Mariners. But then, inexplicably, he decided to come back the next year and truly embarrass himself. THAT was hard to watch…

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