Willie Mays of the New York Giants, in the 1954 World Series, caught a deep drive to center field off the bat of Vic Wertz of the Cleveland Indians at the Polo Grounds in New York. Mays caught the ball directly over his head with his back turned to home plate, running full out towards the wall in deep center field. He whirled and threw the ball back to the infield to complete a double play which turned the tide of the series, which the Giants went on to win four games to one. This was the last World Series played at the Polo Grounds as the Giants soon moved to San Francisco. The play, still a highlight for baseball fans today, is the greatest catch in history. Having played center field as an amateur, for thirteen years myself, winning many championships, I too know the competitive skill, satisfaction and exhilaration of baseball played at the highest level.
From the outside, Jack’s Park in Monterey, California, looks like any other ballpark, with its enclosed cyclone fence and tall light posts hovering over the outfield. When a night game is played, the downtown arena lights up the entire city. During fishing season the park also provides plenty of illumination across the bay, helping the squid fisherman fill their nets. Inside, the grass is cut to a perfect three-quarter-inch length for every game with base paths chalked in uniform lines of forty-five foot white.
Center field in Jack’s Park is 360 feet in the left field alley, 480 feet in right center and 300 feet down each line. A home run to dead center requires the batter to hit a monstrous shot of over 460 feet past the outfield light pole and over the fence. Speed covers a lot of ground. Knowledge covers the whole outfield. As a defensive specialist, my first order of business is to know the hitter and the pitcher. The feeling of precision placement, seeing the pitch location before the ball leaves the pitcher’s hand, being inside the batter’s head before he swings the bat, then getting the split second break just before the ball is hit, making a running catch in the deep alley at full stride, knows no other moment. Make that catch in a crucial spot of a big game and life itself is in the perfect place. Come up with a smoking line drive on one hop, running in at full speed, uncorking a laser throw to the plate to nail the winning run by a step, then nonchalantly strolling to the dugout because you knew you had ’em: he was dead meat from the moment he took off, and he’ll never try to take the extra base on my arm again. The hitter will strike out, trying to hit away from the strong center field defense in his next at bat, breaking his tendencies before even stepping to the plate. That’s when respect is given without a word for the best defensive player in the game, as the cleanup man goes down.
The game was tied in the eighth inning with Omoto’s Rippers, the top team in our division at bat with the bases loaded and no outs. Clean-up hitter Howard Johnson hit a monster shot to deep right center field, well over my head. I turned at the crack of the bat, back to the plate, racing into the gap. Feeling the air above my head split as the ball continued past at the top of its arc, I reached out, diving towards the wall, catching the ball in the webbing of my glove. Landing in the outfield grass, then quickly leaping to my feet, I set and whirled, rifling the ball to the infield cut-off man. The runners, sure that the ball had been hit safely, had rounded the bases. George Molano, our second baseman, caught the relay, stepped on second, threw the ball to third to complete a triple play. New Life Fellowship, my team, scored seven runs in the bottom of the inning to salt the game away. We never lost another game to Omoto’s Rippers and went on to win eleven championships in a five-year span.
The competitive instincts, drive and personality of the player at the top level of competition are innate. They are not learned, only honed to perfection by use. To deny these traits, as some religions have done, is to deny the spirit of the man, by ripping out the soul. Inner drive when excellence is exercised to full potential provides strength, gives a savory peace and calms the self. Just ask any great center fielder, like Willie, Mickey, and the Duke, or me.
Willie Mays was traded to the New York Mets in the twilight of his career, long after his skills had eroded. The “Say Hey Kid,” as he was called with the Giants, lost the joy that played with him in San Francisco. He retired a disgruntled, aged man, and did not carry the memories of his stellar career to his retirement, like he carried the Giants for so many years.
My last championship game, I played on a torn hamstring, the result of an injury suffered in the previous night’s playoff victory. In the top of the ninth with the score tied at one, I led off the inning with a solid single into right. The next batter chopped a ground ball to shortstop. Barreling into second to break up the double play, I forced the cover man to drop the ball, both runners safe. My injured leg ached. Ken Cauderno, out third hitter, smoked a line drive up the middle past the infield, into center field. Steaming home, I felt the hamstring rip while rounding third. The center fielder of the Killer Bees uncorked a throw on direct line home. I beat the tag by sliding past the plate, reaching out to touch the base with my left hand while the umpire signaled safe!
As I walked off the field with my arm around my father, toting the A Division trophy, with another title, I knew retirement would be satisfying. I went out on top, at the peak of my skill and ability, never regretting that decision for one moment since that day. My soul is at peace.