|Maybin hasn't put it all together yet, but apparently Willie Mays sees something he likes. (Getty Images)|
SAN DIEGO -- The invitations arrive unexpectedly and infrequently. There is no pattern. It does not happen often. But it is one of baseball's coolest and best-kept secrets.
The Willie Mays Booking Club.
Cameron Maybin, the Padres' fleet 24-year-old center fielder, accepted his invitation two weeks ago in San Francisco. Very quietly, before a game later that night, Maybin visited Mays' house for lunch.
"I don't even think I ate," Padres center fielder Maybin says. "Just to listen to him talk, it was pretty cool, man. I was flattered. He's a living legend. He's one of the reasons I wear number 24.
"Even now, I get chill bumps thinking about it."
OK, so maybe it's not exactly quite a "club." There certainly are no regular meetings.
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But in a game with a century's worth of rich history, no small part of the wonder is how readily available some of that history is to tap into ... and how, sometimes, that history taps back.
Mays, one of the greatest players ever, turned 80 in May. Something about the way Maybin plays resonated with him. Maybe the way Maybin speeds across center field reminds Mays of 1955, when he was 24. Perhaps he sees something in himself in another young, African-American center fielder.
An intermediary contacted Maybin about a week before the Padres were due in San Francisco to set up the lunch. It wasn't the first time Mays reached out.
Last summer, Mets third baseman David Wright visited Mays in the Giants' clubhouse before a game at the Hall of Famer's request. Two springs ago, Mays hosted some young Giants, including Darren Ford and Emmanuel Burris, for dinner at his home in Scottsdale, Ariz.
"Great guy," Ford says. "He says he covered the whole outfield."
I hope Ford, 25, listens to his elders. From the grainy footage and dog-eared stories, if there is anyone in baseball history who might have covered an entire outfield, it's Mays. As Ted Williams once said, they invented the All-Star Game for Willie Mays.
"It was a blessing," Ford says. "It definitely was an honor. A lot of people would love to do that, and I got the chance."
What did Mays' chef serve for dinner that night?
"Everything you can imagine," Ford says. "There was so much food there."
Fried chicken. Baked chicken. Mashed potatoes and gravy. Fish. Macaroni and cheese. Baked beans. Pumpkin pie. Blueberry pie. Pineapple upside-down cake.
Say hey, indeed.
"They ate like they were going to the electric chair," Mike Murphy, legendary San Francisco clubhouse manager (and last remaining original employee from when the Giants -- including Mays -- moved west in 1958), remembers, chuckling.
Aside from Maybin, Murphy cannot recall any other opposing player lunching with Mays at his San Francisco home. For his part, Maybin isn't completely comfortable getting too deeply into it, as if he's revealing secrets upon departing a church confessional.
The reverence with which even today's players treat a legend like Mays is saint-like.
"It's almost like they're nervous," Jim Moorehead, senior director of media relations for the Giants, says. "They're big-league players, but they're nervous because it's Willie Mays."
He can't see very well anymore, and he has trouble getting around. He's more visible at spring training, usually sitting at a table in the center of the clubhouse, chatting, teasing, staying as much in the loop as he can. Even at 80 -- maybe especially at 80 -- Mays likes to stay in the loop.
"When we get new guys, he wants to meet them, say hi," Moorehead says. "Especially the young guys. He loves to talk baseball."
Maybin arrived with a gift, an autographed No. 24 Padres jersey, and still can't believe one of his jerseys actually now is inside the great Willie Mays' home. He left with several autographs of his own from Mays -- and an even deeper understanding of his place in the game.
"It sounds cliché, but all kinds of people work jobs they don't like," Maybin says. "And we get to come out here to the ballpark for a living.
"Somewhere along the line, guys begin to feel entitled, like we deserve it.
"We don't deserve any of it."
Membership is exclusive. There is almost nothing like it anywhere else in the game. A seat at the Willie Mays Booking Club table comes with place-settings and perspective.
The legend can still find the sweet spot. Nearly two years apart, emerging from meals at Mays' homes in two different cities -- Maybin in San Francisco, Ford in Scottsdale -- the two outfielders' takeaway is remarkably similar.
"He was telling me, 'Go out and play every game like it's your last,' " Ford says. "He said, 'Work hard, you never know where you might end up.' "
Just sitting in the presence of Mays for a couple of hours and listening, Maybin says, was a gift.
"The respect the guy has for the game, the love he has for the game, it was very motivating," Maybin says. "One thing I already do is appreciate the game, but he makes you want to do it even more, to never take a day off. He gave me a sense of urgency to get the job done every day.
"It's a privilege to be here."