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Willie Mays saved my life.

This is not actually true, but it’s truer than you might think. Back in high school, I had recovered from my suicidal tendencies enough to function, attend school and, y’know, not kill myself, but I was still wallowing in misery and woe. This was probably simple teenage angst to some extent, of course, which doesn’t mean it didn’t suck. But some of it was that I was still walking around suicidal, indifferent to my failure to either die or live. You know. Depressed.

And my Dad took me out of school one February day to go to an Old Timer’s Game.

Now, I grew up in the desert; we didn’t have Major League Baseball back then. We had a Pacific Coast League, the triple-A farm team of our beloved San Francisco Giants, the Phoenix Giants they were called in those days. The town had only a tenuous connection to the big-league club, with not enough fans to make it worthwhile for a local station to broadcast the games (I grew up listening to Vin Scully and the Hated Team, because that’s what was on the radio, although we could sometimes, at night, in the right weather, catch Lon Simmons or Al Michaels for a few innings. It wasn’t a Giants town, though—it was that other team’s town, as much as it was anything, but baseball ran a distant third to basketball and football (tho’ again no team locally in those days; locals seemed to mostly root for Dallas). Spring Training was in town, of course (as were the Cubs and a few others, not so many as there are now), which generated some interest, and the parent club did on occasion attempt to stir up some sort of interest, either in them or in the AAA club. This Old-Timer’s Game must have been one of those.

I have a few distinct memories. It was a beautiful day, clear and sunny and warm without being oppressively hot—the sort of day that explains why people all over the Midwest spend thousands of dollars to be in the Valley of the Sun during February—and we were sitting, as we usually did, along the third base side. Juan Marichal did his famous high kick, obviously more in fun than to get more power driving the pitch. Willie McCovey stretched out to take a throw at first. And Willie Mays (who was allowed to participate for the first time after Peter Ueberroth lifted the ban) drew a bead on a fly ball, held out his glove like a basket, and let the ball fall in.

Baseball fans have more reason than anybody to keep in mind that our memories betray us constantly. We remember very clearly a favorite player’s at-bat against, say, Steve Bedrosian in a Braves uniform, and it turns out that Bedrock had already gone to the Phillies by that time, so maybe it wasn’t him, or it was the Phillies, or it was some other player batting. Gabe Schechter has written very movingly about being the guy at the Hall of Fame that people called to ask what day such-and-such an event took place, when it never did. Last Week Mike Krukow got the details wrong talking about his own MLB debut. And Joe Posnansky writes in a magnificent essay called Willie Mays turns 80 years old today about a famous moment that he can’t find any actual record of in the box scores. So really, I am not making the claim that any of this actually happened the way I thought it did.

But in my memory, that moment when I saw Willie Mays make a basket catch—that’s the moment when I decided I wanted to live.

Willie Mays turns 80 years old today.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,