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Gene Therapy: Mays made play an art; for Bonds it's cold science

Friday, August 22, 2003

Too much will be made over the next fortnight or so of the ostensibly relevant comparisons between Barry Bonds and Willie Mays.

The media cannot responsibly resist them because Bonds, the great Giants outfielder, will soon reach 660 career homers, the exact number carved into the monumental career of Mays, the great Giants outfielder of the previous generation.

The game's younger fans, what it has of them, cannot responsibly resist these comparisons either, as a thirst for the historical texture of the game remains a cultural prerequisite.

Thus every seriously interested party will inevitably absorb the viscous statistical oil spill that is their collected accomplishments and decide for themselves whether Bonds or Mays was the better ballplayer.

They needn't bother. There is no comparison.

I don't care if he hits 900 homers and bats .600 in a four-game sweep of the Yankees in the 2003 World Series, Bonds is not the player Mays was. Aesthetically -- baseball being the most aesthetic of sports -- Bonds is not even terribly close.

A decade before Bonds was even born, sentiment first arose in baseball that all but precluded comparisons to Mays, and it was not the kind of sticky sentiment gushed forth by a gaggle of mesmerized school boys. Leo Durocher, the manager of the Giants when Mays flashed into the nation's consciousness in the '50s, possessed all the sentimentality of a barbed-wire fence. Yet he said precisely this:

"If somebody came up and hit .450, stole 100 bases, and performed a miracle in the field every day, I'd still look you in the eye and say Willie was better. He could do the five things you have to do to be a superstar: hit, hit with power, run, throw and field. And he had that other magic ingredient that turns a superstar into a super superstar. He lit up the room when he came in. He was a joy to be around."

While writers older than I (yes, it's possible) sometimes dispute this, saying that Willie was actually a grouchy young man who'd eventually become a grouchy old man, of this there is no argument: Mays lit up a ballgame. Lit it up like few before him and no one since.

When you watched Willie Mays, you watched someone playing baseball. The wisest of the discipline's scholars knew this was the way it is designed to be played. "They don't yell, 'Work ball' " Willie Stargell used to say. "They yell, 'Play ball.' " When you watch Barry Bonds, by forced contrast, you see work ball. He brings to it all the joy you usually associate with the guy who has to spray the rental shoes at the bowling alley. Mays hit homers. Bonds does electro shock therapy on mumbling pitchers.

I have two indelible memories of Mays, both from the mid-60s at Philadelphia's old Connie Mack Stadium, both as clear as if I'd seen them last night.

In one, Mays is facing Ryne Duren, a right-handed fireballer who controlled his fastball only marginally better than his drinking. I am sitting in the upper deck near third base in a multigenerational party. A Saturday afternoon. The first pitch to Mays goes high to the backstop, the second within a whisper of his helmet, sending 24 into the dirt in a kind of reverse corkscrew, from which he springs to his knees like a cat. He finds his helmet, jumps to his feet and slaps at the dirt on his blouse so we can see SAN FRANCISCO again. The third pitch takes off toward the left field so fast we jerk our heads to the left to follow it. It was 334 feet down the line in Connie Mack Stadium's left field. The roof on the upper deck of outfield bleachers there had to be 50 feet above the warning track. The ball hit the roof, skipped once, and disappeared into the blue sky of North Philadelphia. Mays rounded second with a laughing smile.

In the other, Mays is on second base with the Giants throttling the Phillies 7-0 behind a Juan Marichal one-hitter. I am sitting upstairs near the left-field foul pole. A Thursday night. Jim Ray Hart lashes a single to center, but Johnny Briggs charges it hard and makes a laser throw to the plate. The collision there between Mays and Pat Corrales leaves both players flat on their backs. Corrales goes directly to the disabled list. Mays plays in the next series. And oh, Willie was out, trying to make it 8-0.

Hall of Fame broadcaster Harry Kalas likes to tell the story of how Mays once scored from first on a ground-ball single to left. "And he was not," Harry says, "running on the pitch!"

What I more closely associate with Bonds is Barry winding up on first base on a hit Mays would have made a triple out of; Barry loping after someone else's triple that would have gone harmlessly into Mays' glove, once eloquently called "where triples go to die"; or Barry commenting forcefully on why I should prepare to forget Babe Ruth.

Artists used brown oil to put Mays's glove on canvas time and time again. That's because Mays was art, and Bonds is a cold and joyless science too far from the essence of the game to withstand comparison.

Gene Collier can be reached at or 412-263-1283.

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