SNY broadcaster and former MLB star Keith Hernandez was visually emotional Tuesday night after the news broke that Giants legend Willie Mays passed away at 93. Hernandez grew up in the Bay Area and watched Mays as a child.

“The best player I’ve ever seen. The greatest player,” Hernandez said, his voice cracking several times as he continued. “An extraordinarily good five-tool player. You’d go to a game, he’d do something. A great catch, a great throw, a stolen base, hit a home run, or he’d do it all. He was just that kind of player.” 

The news of Mays’ passing affected many fans the same way, but few of these reactions were captured in real time over the air. Hernandez’s touching tribute to a player he idolized as a child reached hundreds of thousands of viewers and reflected Mays’ meaning to the game.

When Mays joined the Birmingham Black Barons in the Negro Leagues in 1948, he was still in high school and already earning attention from several major league teams. He joined the Giants in 1951, earning the N.L. Rookie of the Year award, but left the team in 1952 to serve in the Korean War. Upon his return in 1954, he was named the N.L. MVP and led the Giants to a World Series victory. He didn’t miss another All-Star Game until his retirement in 1973.

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Mays remained with the Giants when they relocated from New York to San Francisco in 1958. There, he spent most of his career playing on the West Coast in front of Hernandez and millions of new California baseball fans.

As Hernandez and others noted during SNY’s broadcast, Mays also had a special connection to the Mets, as the all-time great spent the end of his career in Queens. As part of the agreement to acquire Mays in 1972, Mets owner Joan Whitney Payson promised to retire his number. She died soon after, however, leaving the promise unfulfilled for 50 years. In 2022, current owner Steve Cohen made good on the deal, finally retiring No. 24.

“Willie Mays was one of the greatest to ever play the game,” the Cohen family said in a statement Tuesday. “Willie ended his Hall of Fame career in Queens and was a key piece to the 1973 N.L. championship team. Mays played with a style and grace like no one else. Alex and I were thrilled to honor a previous promise from Joan Payson to retire his iconic #24 as a member of the Mets in 2022. On behalf of our entire organization, we send our thoughts and prayers to Willie’s family and friends.”

Mays ended his professional career with 660 home runs, and many speculate that he could have hit many more in modern-day ballparks. As long as baseball remains a cultural institution, the “Say Hey Kid” will be remembered as an icon.

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