When you come to San Francisco, you’re in Willie Mays country. This is his turf. You go by the statue of him outside AT&T Park, and it really hits home. This is where he played some of his greatest baseball, one of the all-time best.
It’s almost like he invented the position I play. He was the master of center field, no quesiton about it.It’s his position, and I’m honored to follow in his footsteps.
I had the good fortune to meet him once. It was at the 2007 All-Star Game here. He was The Man that day, walking out on the red carpet, getting that great ovation from the people. It was emotional for everybody. Seeing Willie Mays walk on that field, a tear in his eye, that really got to me. He is loved here, that’s for sure.
When we all huddled around him on the field before the game that day, I shook his hand. He had a tear in his eye, and I remember how thrilled I was when he told me that he liked the way I play the game. I can’t tell you how much that meant to me, coming from where I did in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, a football player who became a baseball player. Hearing the great Willie Mays tell me that, it blew me away.
All I could think of watching him that day was the film of that classic catch he made in the 1954 World Series, his back to the infield, whirling and making that throw. He was known as the “Say Hey Kid” when he was young, and he played center field the way I’ve always wanted to play it, dreamed of playing it. He threw his whole body and soul into the game. I think that’s why he’s always been so admired — that attitude he brought to the game along with his incredible tools.
People always focus on a guy’s power, his offense, but Willie could beat you running the bases, making great catches and throws, doing it all. He had amazing instincts. When you have a five-tool guy like that, you don’t let him go. You keep him, work with him, help him grow into the player he can be.
I just wish I could have seen him play live. Everybody I’ve talked to who saw him says he was the best, that the brought so much energy and passion to the game that it had an impact on everybody. That’s what I try to do, play the game aggressively, without fear of failure. A young guy like Sean Rodriguez comes up and sees the way I play, hopefully that shows him that you should play aggressively, go first to third, not worry about making a mistake. You have to be bold and believe in yourself to succeed in this game.
I got to know Preston Gomez after I signed with the Angels, and he’s someone we all miss, like Nick Adenhart. Preston was in the game for about 60 years, and he always said Willie Mays was the greatest player of them all.
One of the best compliments I’ve gotten was when Preston told Lyle Spencer of MLB.com, just before he had that accident after leaving Spring Training in 2008, that I reminded him of Willie Mays in some ways. He told Lyle that it was not just the way I played center field and hit with power and ran the bases, but the way I work at my game, trying always to get better. I’m learning new things all the time, and I think I’m better now than I’ve ever been, because of the knowledge I’ve been able to pick up and apply to my game.
One thing Preston told Lyle that I especially appreciate is that I have a positive impact on my teammates. He said I was one of the best leaders, and it would show in the work ethic of my teammates. If that is the case, it’s something I’m tremendously proud of, because nothing is more important to me than playing the game right and being an example for the younger guys coming up.
When you think about it, being compared to Willie Mays in any way is an honor. Coming from a great and respected baseball man like Preston Gomez, that is something I’ll always cherish.