Sunday, August 28, 2022

Cleon Jones On Mets Retiring Willie Mays' #24 On Old Timers Day

Cleon Jones (right, 21) with Willie Mays' 24, aside (from left) Willie's son Michael Mays, Felix Millan, Jon Matlack, and Ed Kranepool. @Mets on Instagram.

The Mets made a surprise announcement during Saturday's Old Timers Day that Willie Mays' number 24 would be retired by the club, fulfilling a promise Mets owner Joan Payson made to him 50 years ago when she brought him back to New York.

Mays is known for playing the lion's share of his career with the Giants in New York, at the Polo Grounds in upper Manhattan from 1951 to 1957, and then in San Francisco, from '58 to 1972, when he was traded to the Mets.

Cleon Jones was a key part of the Amazin' Mets 1969 World Championship team, and is known for making the final out of that World Series. He also was a teammate of Mays in 1972 and on the National League Pennant-winning 1973 team, and he spoke afterwards of what it was like to share the outfield with Willie.

"This was a special occasion for me because, during my tenure in baseball, we're talking about the greatest player to live, as far as I'm concerned. Nobody could do all the things that he could do," Jones said in a press conference after the Old Timers Day festivities.

"I watched him from afar for years; for two years, I got to watch him up close. To see what he brought to the game, and even what he brought to the clubhouse each and every day, just sent a swell of  confidence around a clubhouse. Willie Mays, a guy to me, as a Giant, was a giant. No disrespect to Mickey Mantle, Duke Snider (the Yankees and Brooklyn Dodgers center fielders to whom Mays was frequently compared to in the 1950s), Hank Aaron, (Roberto) Clemente, no disrespect, but nobody could do all the things that Willie could do to win a game. 

"You could cite three to four things that he did better than anybody. Nobody was a better outfielder, nobody positioned himself better to make plays, nobody was better on the basepaths. He would steal a lot of runs if there was ever a mistake. If the ball got two feet away from the catcher, he was standing on second base; nobody else did that, and he did it all - all the little things it would take to win a ballgame, this guy did. 

"Guys on the other side marvel at what we saw him do, and I was so struck by Willie that I watched him run on and off the field because it was exciting to me to see that there was somebody as so talented, I was hopeful that I could be one-tenth what I thought he was; of course, I never made it, but I was hopeful that I could be that kind of player.

"When he came to New York, and he was my locker-mate, so to speak, his locker was right next to mine, and I got a chance to watch him put on his uniform, and he put on his uniform just like I did. I got a chance to watch him take off his uniform. He took off his uniform just like I did. 

"Once he put on that uniform, there wasn't anybody like him. Even when he played with us those two years, and he was over 40, he was still the best player in the clubhouse when his knees weren't swollen. He came to the ballpark every day, he didn't go to the trainer's room, and I could see his knee's puffed up, and I say, 'why don't you tell Yogi (Berra) that you don't feel like playing?' and he would say, heck what he would always say, 'It'll be alright, I can make it,' and he'll go out there and do a good job, and then the next day, he has to come out of the game because he's all swollen, but it rubbed off on me.

"Nobody could duplicate what this guy did, in my opinion, but to be a locker-mate and hit behind him or in front of him just gave me so much confidence I got to the point I was loving coming to the ballpark, you know, because I liked coming to the ballpark, but I didn't like going out, taking batting practice every day and wearing myself out, a lot of things I didn't like doing, but when he came those last two years, I felt differently about it because that's what he did. He went out on the field and he shagged fly balls; he didn't have to do that. He took batting practice, he would take infield, and I said, 'if Willie Mays could do this, then everybody else could do it, even with swollen knees.' 

"He was different leader in the ballpark, but he was a different man in the clubhouse because guys value his opinion, I mean, the whole clubhouse, (Tom) Seaver included, (Jerry) Koosman include. He made the atmosphere in the clubhouse conducive to winning. No knock on Yogi Berra, no knock on Yogi, but even with Yogi as the Manager, he wasn't Gil Hodges, he didn't make a lot of moves, but Yogi was a good friend and a good baseball man, also. He made fun, Willie did, and I could go on and on talking about him, because, again, no knock on Mickey Mantle, I didn't see much of Joe DiMaggio or Ted Williams or Stan Musial, I didn't see much of those guys, but I saw Hank Aaron, I saw Clemente, but this man was just the best to ever play the game."

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