SF Giants fans share personal memories of Willie Mays at memorial event

SF Giants fans share personal memories of Willie Mays at memorial event

SAN FRANCISCO — As Vickie Santos stood outside Oracle Park on Monday afternoon, one of approximately 4,500 fans in attendance for a celebration of life in honor of the late Willie Mays, she held back tears as she reflected upon Mays’ life and legacy. To Santos, the Say Hey Kid wasn’t just a great baseball player. He wasn’t just a cultural icon.

He was something much more.

“A part of our youth is gone,” said Santos, 72, from Santa Clara, “but boy, the memories we have, they’ll never fade.”

Those who took the stage — among them being former president Bill Clinton, former San Francisco mayor Willie Brown and Mays’ godson Barry Bonds, among others — weren’t the only ones in attendance with memories of Mays.

Manny, 74, and Vickie Santos reminisced about the time they saw Mays at Don & Charlie’s in Scottsdale, Arizona during spring training. The couple had gotten married on Oct. 24 in honor of Mays’ famous digits, and while Manny was too starstruck to introduce himself, Vickie chatted with Mays as if they had known one another for years. During Manny’s time working at a post office, his route number was, also, 24.

“I didn’t want an autograph. I didn’t need to have a picture taken with him. I just wanted him to know what he had meant to us through the years,” Vickie said of the encounter at the legendary steakhouse that served as a second home of sorts for baseball legends when they visited Arizona. “I tell him that we got married on the 24th of October. He goes, ‘Oh, that’s my number.’ I said to him, ‘I know Willie. My husband-to-be said if we get married on the 24th, I will never forget our anniversary.’ And (Manny) never has.”

“I grew up watching Willie and I gravitated to him right away,” Manny said. “I just loved the way he played. When I was a little guy, I wanted to play like that.”

Ronnie Demer, 74, had a story of his own to share. Sometime during the late ’80s or early ’90s, Demer, born in San Francisco and raised in Richmond, was on a ski trip with the National Brotherhood of Skiers when he ran into Mays. Having watched Mays during his childhood, Demer seized the opportunity to chat with his idol. After chatting with Mays for several hours, Demer took a photo with Mays and former tight end Marv Fleming — a photo that he brought to the celebration of life in a ziplock bag.

Among those in attendance for Willie Mays’ celebration of life is 74-year-old Ronnie Demer, who took a photo with Mays and former tight end Marv Fleming in the late-80s, early-90s at a ski convention. pic.twitter.com/1DzlAhbMQA

— Justice delos Santos (@justdelossantos) July 8, 2024

“He was everything,” Demer said. “He was my icon, my hero, my legend. When we were little kids playing baseball, everybody was like, ‘I’m Willie Mays.’ ‘No, I’m Willie Mays!’ … Everybody wanted to be Willie Mays and make the basket catch like Willie did or steal bases like Willie did. We all wanted to be like Willie. He was definitely somebody I looked up to.”

“He was my idol,” said Gordon Blackwood, 63, from Sacramento. “I tried to emulate him when I was playing baseball myself. I wanted to be Willie Mays. I wanted to play just like he did. Beyond that, in the years after his playing days, he’s been a spokesman for the game of baseball and the game of life.”

As of today, only one number has been universally retired by Major League Baseball: Jackie Robinson’s No. 42. But given Mays’ contributions to the game, several fans in attendance were of the belief that Mays’ No. 24 should be retired, too.

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“I’d like to see his number be retired because of what he went through and how he was, in our eyes, the best ever to play the game,” said Vickie Santos. “Then, he served his country for a couple years. Imagine what he would’ve done in that period of time at his peak.”

“Maybe I’m biased because I’ve been a lifelong Giants fan, but I would encourage Major League Baseball to look into retiring numbers and having special dates like they do with Jackie Robinson’s number,” Blackwood said. “I don’t see any reason why they couldn’t do the same things with the No. 24 or No. 44 that Hank Aaron wore.”

Along with the idea of retiring Mays’ number, Demer believes the Giants should name Oracle Park’s field in honor of Mays.

“I think Major League Baseball can retire No. 24 like they did for Jackie Robinson. As far as the Giants are concerned … in Oakland, the name of the field is Rickey Henderson Field. The stadium is Oracle Park, but you can name the field — nobody pays sponsorship money to name the field, just the stadium. They could name the field ‘Willie Mays Field.’”