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05/06/11 12:00 AM ET

Happy 80th birthday, Willie; You're still a legend

SAN FRANCISCO -- Willie Mays, the "Say Hey Kid," turns 80 today. But his excellence remains timeless.

Mays established himself as baseball's consummate five-tool player during his 22-year Major League career, the bulk of which he spent with the San Francisco Giants.

Anybody who competed against Mays or regularly saw him play comprehended the breadth of his greatness long ago. Yet he remains relevant today as a paragon for present and future players to try to match. Not that this is sure to happen. Appreciation of Mays might have increased through the years, because nobody has come close to duplicating his multifaceted skills (12 consecutive Gold Glove Awards ... first to hit 30 homers and steal 30 bases in a season twice) or his flair (the basket catch ... running bases looking over his shoulder ... Say Hey!).

"If there ever were a baseball god, it would be him," said former National League president Bill White, a Major League first baseman for 13 seasons. "Nobody could play like he could. Nobody."

"I've answered the question a million times -- 'Who's the best player you ever saw?' Hands down, it's Willie," said venerable Los Angeles Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully.

"I thought Willie had more to do with the outcome of a game than any player I've ever seen," said Ron Fairly, a player and broadcaster in the Majors for more than 50 years. "It was tough to play a game against the Giants without mentioning Mays' name. If he went 0-for-4, that was a story. Or he did something in center field to save the game. If he got one hit, it probably had something to do with the result of the game. And if he got two or more hits, there's no telling what he did."

"He personified what a complete player was," said left-hander Jim O'Toole, whose 1958-66 stint with the Cincinnati Reds overlapped the era when the National League held a virtual monopoly on baseball's superstars, including Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, Frank Robinson and Roberto Clemente. "He was the most stylish. Just to watch him glide around the bases, running full blast and seeming to know where the ball was all the time. Everything they say about Willie is true. He's the best."

If anything, Mays transcended the aforementioned five tools: the abilitites to hit, hit for power, run, field and throw. His contemporaries insist that he possessed a sixth tool in uncommon abundance -- a combination of instinct and intelligence that nobody has rivaled before, during or since his days with the Giants and New York Mets from 1951-73.

Hall of Fame teammates such as Juan Marichal and Tom Seaver marvel at their one-on-one pregame meetings with Mays, who would discuss in considerable detail how they'd pitch each hitter so he could properly position himself in center field. Opponents dreaded when he'd reach second base, because he could quickly break the code for the catcher's signs to the pitcher.

"He tried to hide his intelligence on the field so he'd have that advantage," said St. Louis Cardinals broadcaster and former third baseman-outfielder Mike Shannon. "Some players might not think he was that smart. He was three times as smart. He knew what the opposition was going to do before they knew it."

"The fact that he knew the game so well gets by a lot of people. He was the best player and the smartest," White said. "He used to tell me how to play the hitters at first base from out in center field. He knew the hitters; he knew opposing pitchers; he knew his own players' weaknesses and strengths."

Anecdotes and memories of Mays' singular gifts abound.

Here's what White meant about Mays' awarness of his teammates' traits. The Giants were playing in St. Louis and their second baseman, who might have been Cap Peterson, was known to struggle with infield flies. Sure enough, Dick Groat hit a popup that befuddled the second baseman. In rushed Mays to snare the ball.

"Willie caught it right on the edge of the infield grass between first and second," White said. "I've never seen an outfielder catch the ball on the edge of the infield grass. Willie reached under the guy after he misjudged the ball and caught it."

Mays was full of such surprises. Retired manager Roger Craig, who pitched for five NL teams between 1955 and 1966, described Mays' knack for stealing bases thusly: "If you didn't pay attention to him, he could walk to third base."

Or he wouldn't touch third base at all.

Shannon related that during a Cardinals game in San Francisco, a Giant hit a drive that landed deep in the outfield with Mays on second base. Noticing that every umpire was following the ball, Mays skirted third base, shortening his trip home by about 20 feet, and scored with ridiculous ease. Ken Boyer, playing third for St. Louis, demanded an appeal, but of course the umpires ruled Mays safe.

"Willie was in the dugout, laughing his butt off," Shannon said.

Larry Dierker, the former pitcher, manager and broadcaster with the Houston Astros, reeled off a string of Maysian feats:

• Watching Mays score from second base on a bunt that was allowed to roll up the third-base line too long. Dierker explained that Houston's third baseman was too preoccupied with wondering whether the ball would roll foul. "He went back to track the ball up the line, and Willie just flew past him," Dierker said.

• Seeing Mays bunt for a double on a similar play. "The third baseman came in and waited for the ball to go foul, but Willie kept running," Dierker said. "Everybody started yelling, but by the time he threw to second base, Willie was safe."

• Witnessing Mays' mastery in the 1968 All-Star Game in Houston, when he scored the game's lone run. Mays, who frequently batted leadoff in All-Star Games, singled against Luis Tiant. Taking a daring lead from first base, Mays drew a wild pickoff attempt from Tiant. Continuing to unnerve Tiant, Mays advanced to third on a wild pitch. He came across on a double-play grounder. "Just by jumping and juking and being Willie Mays, he made that happen," an admiring Dierker said.

Mays retained his magic even toward the end of his career with the Mets, whom he joined after a May 1972 trade. Seaver recalled Mays being on second base when a single was hit to left- or right-center field.

"Willie rounds third and starts to pull up," Seaver recalled. "I thought, 'He's going to get thrown out!' But after he slowed down that two and a half, three steps, he turned it on."

Result: Mays timed his dash toward home plate so he and the throw home would arrive simultaneously. The ball flew past the catcher and went to the backstop, enabling the hitter to reach third base.

"It's the kind of thing you just don't believe when you see it," Seaver said.

As impressive as Mays' raw statistics were -- an array of numbers including a .302 career batting average, 660 home runs and 338 stolen bases -- they could have been gaudier, had he been a selfish player. Tommy Davis, the two-time NL batting champion who played 17 years in the Majors, was certain that Mays was capable of recording the only 50-homer, 50-steal season ever.

"Willie could have done it if he wanted to," Davis said.

But the only statistic that ever consumed Mays was his team's win total. The sincerity of his effort reflected this.

"He played the game for success," said Lon Simmons, the Giants' Hall of Fame broadcaster who witnessed Mays' entire San Francisco tenure (1958-72). "He didn't play the game to try to keep from making a mistake. He made a play to try to get the best result."

This is demonstrated by Mays' most famous catch, his grab of Vic Wertz's drive in deep center field at New York's Polo Grounds in Game 1 of the 1954 World Series against Cleveland. Newsreels show, and Mays has maintained, that his throw which prevented Al Rosen from advancing from first base into scoring position was at least as important as the catch.

"He was thinking a lot farther along than catching the ball," Simmons said of Mays. "He knew he had to get himself back into position to get that throw off."

"Mays played center field like a shortstop," Scully said. "In other words, on a base hit to left-center, right-center, straightaway -- Mays had not even the shadow of a doubt that the ball would get away from him. He would field it like a shortstop -- on the dead run, coming up throwing. I always marveled at that."

For these reasons, generations of young fans grew up believing that Mays could do no wrong. So did his peers.

"If you ask me who's the best ballplayer I've ever seen, I'd say it was Willie Mays, and I'll say that to my dying day," Davis said.

Chris Haft is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.