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The Kids

Willie Mays turned 79-years-old today.

It’s easy to look at Mays and the (few) players of his ilk and start waxing poetically. Getting entrenched in Mays’ greatness is nearly unavoidable. Read an article about Mays or look at his player page and the enchantment will suck you up like quicksand. There’s a lot to be written and a lot to be read about Mays. About his being the prince of the sepia-toned utopia. About his pain. About his fights with villains just to take the field as a black. About his ability to make basket catches easier than N.B.A. rims. Even about his supposed tarnish legacy by spending some time with the New York Mets.

There’s a legitimate case to be made that Mays is the best baseball player ever. Rally’s WAR has him amassing about 155 wins over his career, which puts him fourth all-time behind names like Cobb, Bonds, and Ruth; and just ahead of names like Aaron, Wagner, Speaker, and Musial. Presumably most of the reading audience did not get to enjoy Mays with the baseball knowledge they’ve since acquired. But if a poll were to be taken on which recent player people thought most emulated Mays’ style of play, doesn’t Ken Griffey Jr. glide by with victory?

Everyone knows the tale of Griffey’s body deserting him and depriving the world of the opportunity to say they just saw the best ballplayer to ever live – although, Bonds … — and everyone knows that Griffey made highlight reel grabs, hit towering home runs, and did it all while rocking his cap backwards. Even his nickname, The Kid, is a play on Mays’ Say Hey Kid moniker. And, like it or not, the twilight of Griffey’s playing days are taking a certain resemblance to Mays’.

Griffey has a .237 wOBA this year and an aggregate batting line of .214/.316/.386 since rejoining the Mariners prior to the 2009 season. 26.4% of Griffey’s balls in play have turned into hits this season – a stark increase from 22% last season – and Griffey is even striking out less than in 2009, yet his batting average is worse, his walks have dropped, and his power is non-existent. Griffey Jr. is a designated hitter and yet his upside might be a .305 wOBA.

Even the ticket office and merchandise boosts Griffey supposedly gave the Mariners have disappeared. Seattle has already set a record low in Safeco Field attendance this season, and their series against the Tampa Bay Rays has about as many plastic chairs present as fans. The venom for Griffey might be at an all-time high as well. There’s no upside here.

For all intent and purposes, it’s time. And Griffey probably knows it. The amazing thing about the end of Mays’ career is how much play it gets. You know, that 1973 season saw Mays appear in 66 games and post a .302 wOBA. In 1972 he appeared in 88 games and hit for a .365 wOBA. In the years before that, Mays had consecutive .400 wOBA seasons. What Mays did in 1973 did not tarnish his legacy. What Griffey Jr. is doing now should not tarnish his legacy. Griffey Jr. is a ballplayer hanging around for one more curtain call, one more big hit, and one more doubleheader. This is hardly an unusual end to the career of a superstar.

What Mays did though, by walking away at the first sign that it was time … that’s something I don’t think Griffey or most players would ever be able to emulate. And I think that speaks to just how special Willie Mays is and will forever be.