At Rickwood Classic, Willie Mays' spirit radiates but Giants' lose to Cardinals

Evan Webeck, Bay Area News Group on

Published in Baseball

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Flanked by Barry Bonds on one side and Ken Griffey Jr. on the other, Willie Mays’ son, Michael Mays, delivered a message for the masses gathered Thursday evening at historic Rickwood Field, here to celebrate his late, great father.

“I knew if my father could come down here, he would,” he said. “But he’s found another way.”

Two days after his death at the age of 93, Mays’ presence permeated the 114-year-old single-story jewel box where he got his start in professional baseball. Long planned to honor Mays, who was born up in nearby Westfield, his Negro League companions who also called the ballpark home and the 180 other future Hall of Famers who passed through these hallowed grounds, the event took on added significance when the Giants learned Tuesday that the all-time great had died.

Before the game, which featured a three-run home run from Heliot Ramos but ultimately ended in a 6-5 loss to the Cardinals, manager Bob Melvin determined it was finally the right time to address his team in the wake of Mays’ passing.

“We had a team meeting with BoMel, and he went over some of the stories,” right-hander Jordan Hicks said. “He said he knows that he’s here right now. I felt it, just in his words.”

It was the first time Melvin shared a moment with his team since the death of his childhood neighbor who would wave to him from his pink Cadillac, who had a locker next to his when he was traded as a rookie to his hometown club and who personally congratulated him on Hall of Fame letterhead upon being hired to manage the Giants this winter. He said the lone World Series ring he owns is the only possession from four decades in the game that he cherishes as much.

Only learning of Mays’ passing shortly before the start of their game Tuesday at Wrigley Field, Melvin initially mourned and memorialized Mays by himself, allowing his players to do the same.

Two days later, in the makeshift clubhouse erected outside the stadium Mays made his professional debut in 1947 and a short drive from his childhood home, the manager morphed into a raconteur, recounting his most memorable moments with the all-time great and providing a platform for others to do the same.

“I just wanted to share a couple stories and open the floor if anybody else had anything, and how special it is to be here playing on the field that he started his career,” Melvin said. “Just how special he was. Not only just in baseball but in life in general. And what he meant to me. And what he meant to the team. What he meant to the Bay Area. What he meant to baseball. He’s a true icon in the world.”

Message received, as if it was required to understand the significance of Thursday’s game, the first between major league teams at the oldest ballpark in the country, Rickwood Field, which opened in 1910 and hosted a teenaged Mays’ first professional games three and a half decades later.

From the moment the Giants’ team bus pulled in to stadium, they took every opportunity to honor the late legend.

Players, coaches, staff members — everybody — walked off the bus wearing replica gray jerseys, with “Birmingham” on the front and the No. 8 on the back, the same uniform Mays wore when he debuted at 17 years old for the Birmingham Black Barons.

Both teams adorned the “Mays 24” patch that the Giants debuted Wednesday, and Cardinals shortstop Masyn Winn, who is half-Black, said, “I hope we wear it every day.”

Serving as a backdrop to Melvin’s pregame meeting was Mays’ Hall of Fame plaque, which was flown in from Cooperstown and on display, adorned with flowers, inside the carpeted, air-conditioned tent that acted as the Giants’ temporary home quarters.

When Michael Mays finished speaking, the sold-out crowd of 8,332 began to break out in chants of “Willie!” and “Say Hey!”

“He’s fresh on everybody’s minds,” said LaMonte Wade Jr., who wasn’t able to play despite his and the Giants’ best efforts to bend the injury list rules. “The game was magnified to begin with because of Willie, and for this to happen right now, his presence is definitely here.”

The hamstring Wade strained last month prevented him from being active for the game, but he played a prominent role in the pregame festivities. One of three Black players on the Giants — along with Hicks and Spencer Bivens — Wade participated in the first-ever all-Black lineup card exchange at home plate.

The only five Black umpires in MLB — Alan Porter, Adrian Johnson, CB Bucknor, Malachi Moore and Jeremie Rehak — served as the crew for the game.


The historic moment occurred shortly after a pregame ceremony that featured a video narrated by Jon Miller commemorating Mays, a parade of former Negro Leaguers escorted by current Giants and Cardinals players, a live band led by Jon Baptiste and a crew of Lindy Hop dancers moving to the music.

Mays’ former Black Barons teammate, 99-year-old pastor Bill Greason, threw out the first pitch, and was accompanied to the mound by Wade, Reggie Jackson, Derek Jeter and Willie McGee.

If only Mays could have been there.

Oh, but he was.

“I’ve kind of been thinking about this since hearing the news of him passing,” outfielder Mike Yastrzemski said. “I’ve kind of come to terms that I believe it was for a reason, so that he could be here spiritually. He could be here with us. He wasn’t going to be able to make it otherwise. So as much as it hurts to lose a legend like that, we gained an angel and a saint above us to be here for this series. It is very, very special and I think everybody here feels that.”

The game was meaningful to Yastrzemski for other reasons, namely becoming the third generation of his family to play in the ballpark.

Joining his Hall of Fame grandfather, Carl, and his father, Michael, who played here for the Double-A Barons, Yastrzemski said, “the memories feel like they’re coming to life.

“But I think there’s bigger things that are going on here,” he continued. “There’s a bigger message that needs to be portrayed. There’s a little piece of me that is enjoying that. But there is also the bigger piece of me that’s understanding the historic monument of this ballpark. …

“There were things that happened in this ballpark that people need to know about. They need to know about where Willie came from. Because he left a legacy in the game that is also so far beyond the game.

“You have a guy who was a no-doubt, easiest Hall of Fame ballot of all time, (and) you go and talk to him in the clubhouse and he would never mention a single thing about his career,” Yastrzemski continued. “He would never talk about how many home runs he hit (660), how many diving catches he made (too many to count), how many games he saved (at least one in the World Series). Unless you provoked him to do it, he’d be talking about your career. How you can get better. What you can do to impact your community. That’s the message that needs to be portrayed here, that this is the stadium that that legend came from.”


Yastrzemski left the game in the fourth inning after one at-bat — he singled to right and scored on Ramos’ three-run, opposite-field home run in the third — with tightness in his left side, the Giants announced.

Facing his former team for the first time, Brandon Crawford did something he had never done in 1,631 previous major-league games. The 37-year-old, 14-year veteran was penciled into the Cardinals’ starting lineup by manager Oli Marmol — at third base, the first time Crawford played a defensive position other than shortstop (besides, of course, his cameo on the mound to end last season).

Crawford went 0 for 1 and reached base on a walk but was picked off second base by Randy Rodríguez before being subbed out for a pinch-hitter in the sixth inning.

Up next

The Giants fly to St. Louis, where they will have a day off before concluding their series against the Cardinals with two games at Busch Stadium.

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