Giants honor Willie Mays, score a walk-off victory: 'I really love that we did that for him'

SAN FRANCISCO — For the first time in a half-century, Giants fans cheered as No. 24 smacked a home run and rounded the bases Monday night.

They cheered as No. 24 raced to the deepest part of center field and made an over-the-shoulder catch. They cheered as No. 24 flung himself into the stands while securing a fly ball in his glove. They cheered as No. 24 hustled a single into a double while igniting a ninth-inning rally. They cheered as No. 24 sprinted down the first-base line and beat out a crafty bunt single. They cheered when No. 24 channeled his exuberance with the game on the line and drew a critical walk. Then they cheered when another No. 24 did the same to force home the winning run.

“We all got to wear 24,” said Giants manager Bob Melvin, after the Giants scored three runs in the ninth to seize a desperately needed 5-4 victory over the Chicago Cubs. “So that was pretty cool.”

It is no small compliment when you are called a major-league franchise’s all-time greatest baseball player — especially when you played for the Giants, founded in 1883 when four-wheeled conveyances were powered by buckets of oats. But Willie Mays was so much more than the greatest Giant of all time. His reach and his impact were so much more universal. Mays was 93 when he died on Tuesday. The only potential downside to living such a long and illustrious life is that you leave so few people behind who fully understand who you were and fully comprehend the height of your greatness.

But a younger world was not prepared for Mays to leave it. If this past week proves anything, with its outpouring of emotion and preponderance of paeans, both from those who saw Mays play and the many more whose fondest wish is that they’d been born earlier so they could say that they did, the life and legacy of No. 24 will be celebrated long into the future.

“Whether you watched him when you were a kid yourself or whether (you’re) like me and so many others and you heard about him long after his career was over, no matter what, you wanted to share the experience of Willie Mays around you,” said Giants broadcaster Dave Flemming while addressing the crowd in pregame ceremonies Monday. “Every single one of us who care about the Giants and are part of this Giants family is a friend of Willie Mays and always will be.”

Flemming’s halting and emotional radio broadcast last Tuesday at Wrigley Field, when he struggled to pass along the news of Mays’ death, instantly became a timeless clip and primary source material that will forever be associated with that day — the baseball broadcasting equivalent of Walter Cronkite taking off his glasses. Flemming continued to process his emotions two days later when he arrived at Rickwood Field, where Mays began his pro career as a 17-year-old high schooler who was allowed to play on Sundays for the Birmingham Black Barons. Flemming, in his pregame remarks on Monday, told the crowd that he walked by himself to center field where Mays once stood, took a deep breath and pondered an amazing life.

“There we were on his field,” Flemming said. “A little boy who was born just a few blocks from there, in 1931 in the segregated South. Just think about the odds that were stacked against Willie Mays when he was born. And he would go on to make more fans of this game that we all love together than anybody who has ever lived.

“When you sit here tonight and look around and cheer on your Giants all wearing No. 24, talk to your Giants friend sitting next to you and tell some Willie Mays stories.”

The Giants returned home to San Francisco, their fans gathered for the first time at 24 Willie Mays Plaza since the passing of an icon, and the pregame speeches and ceremonies were as heartfelt as you might expect. Every Giant in uniform wore his number. The team had honored Mays in every respect — except for doing the one thing that would’ve meant most to him. They had lost five consecutive games after learning of Mays’ passing, including last Thursday’s commemorative game at Rickwood Field in his hometown of Birmingham, Ala.

Finally, they were able to celebrate and point to the sky in their homestand opener. And no matter where you looked, No. 24 did it all.

“Finally winning a game for him, whether it was Rickwood or wherever,” Melvin said. “It was good to be able to do it at home.”

No moment better embodied Mays than when Heliot Ramos turned his No. 24 to the infield and struck a familiar pose while making an over-the-shoulder catch in the seventh inning.

“Every time I watch his highlights, I dream of making a catch like that,” Ramos said. “I don’t think it was even close to what he did.”

But it required so much more hustle to chase down a victory in a game that the Giants trailed 4-0 after five innings.

Matt Chapman and Nick Ahmed started the comeback with solo home runs and then Chapman’s hustle double along with Thairo Estrada’s surprise bunt single set the stage for a three-run rally in the ninth. Michael Conforto hit a pinch sacrifice fly. Patrick Bailey threaded a pinch single up the middle. Ahmed walked to load the bases, then tagged from first to second on Austin Slater’s tying sacrifice fly when he noticed that nobody was covering second base. It might have seemed like an inconsequential advancement in the moment — the winning run was ahead of Ahmed on the bases — but it compelled Cubs manager Craig Counsell to issue an intentional walk to Ramos to load the bases. Cubs left-hander Drew Smyly had no margin of error when he walked Wilmer Flores on five pitches.

Mays will be remembered for his cap-flying showmanship. But he was also as shrewd a player as the game has known. So Ahmed’s heady advance was as fitting a tribute as anything else the Giants did on the field Monday night.

When Chapman went deep in the fifth, it was the first time a Giant wearing No. 24 trotted around the bases in San Francisco since Aug. 15, 1971. On that day at Candlestick Park, a 40-year-old Mays (who wasn’t the same hitter but still led the National League with 112 walks and a .425 on-base percentage) hit his final home run as a Giant in San Francisco — a three-run shot off the Mets’ Ron Taylor that broke open a 2-1 game in the seventh inning. A 27-year-old Tito Fuentes was one of the two base runners who scored on Mays’ home run. On Monday, Fuentes was an 80-year-old commenting on the action from the Spanish language broadcast booth.

Juan Marichal was the winning pitcher that day. It will not shock you to learn that he went the distance.

As desperate as the Giants have been for a franchise star, even one that might dim in comparison to Mays, what they really could use right now is another Marichal. Their rotation past Logan Webb and a fatigued Jordan Hicks is a potluck spread left out in the sun. They approached the first of three TBA games in this series by using left-hander Erik Miller as an opener and following with Spencer Bivens and Raymond Burgos, a well-traveled minor league pitcher who made his debut June 16 and another who debuted Monday night. Both acquitted themselves better than struggling veteran right-hander Luke Jackson, who left a three-run mess in the fifth.

Spencer Howard became their best approximation of Marichal, even if the phrase “featured bulk reliever” never applied to the Dominican Dandy. The right-hander struck out eight, including a pair to strand two of Jackson’s runners, and walked one in 4 2/3 scoreless innings.

“He’s pitched some good games for us,” said Melvin, “but nothing like this.”

Without Howard’s contributions, there’s no way the Giants remain within striking distance in the ninth inning. On so many nights in this otherwise inadequate season, that’s all they’ve required.

No, there isn’t a lot of flair involved with a walk-off walk. But when Flores reached first base, the .211 hitter turned around to find a mob of No. 24s grabbing his jersey and spraying him with water.

As long as the Giants won the game, it didn’t matter who decided it. The hero was destined to be No. 24

“It’s an honor, it’s a privilege,” Ramos said of breathing new life into No.24 in center field. “I really love that we did that for him today.”

(Photo of Heliot Ramos: Brandon Vallance / Getty Images)

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