SAN FRANCISCO -- Covering spring training for three decades, I've seen my share of PFPs (pitchers' fielding practices), jersey numbers 65, 78 and 99 and red-eyed players missing workouts because of, ahem, "flu-like symptoms."
Some days are more memorable than others.
Like the day last year when Joe Garagiola walked into the San Francisco Giants' clubhouse and sat down with Willie Mays. In private settings, Mays is the one usually holding court. Not with Garagiola in the house. In front of a handful of blessed people, it was Joe's show, and he eloquently chatted about baseball in general and Mays in particular, including what he considers Mays' greatest catch. (Hint: Not from Game 1 of the 1954 World Series, for which Garagiola had a bird's-eye view.)
Garagiola, 87, is retiring as a Hall of Fame broadcaster after 58 years -- he had been a part-timer in the Arizona Diamondbacks' TV booth since 1998 -- and held a news conference in Scottsdale that more closely resembled a comedy act.
At one point, the former catcher spoke of finishing his playing career with the 1954 New York Giants.
"This was my fourth team, when there were only eight in the league," Garagiola said. "That told me I was either wanted or modeling uniforms. I didn't know which. The great Stan Musial comes up to hit. Apparently he didn't see the papers. So he taps the plate and backs out and says, 'What the hell are you doing there?'
" 'I just got traded, Stan.'
" 'You did, when?'
" 'This morning.'
"He kind of looks stunned and then says, 'Why don't you quit?'
"You know what I said to him? 'Now?' "
Garagiola has a ton of stories, and never mind that one might be a bit off base. He played five games for the '54 Giants (all in September), none against Musial's St Louis Cardinals. Not that we should allow details to interfere with a master storyteller.
On Mays, Garagiola is an expert. He was at Game 1 of the '54 World Series when Mays made his famous catch at the Polo Grounds off the bat of Cleveland's Vic Wertz. Garagiola wasn't on the roster and was in the center-field clubhouse peeking out a window when Mays raced back for his over-the-shoulder grab and magnificent whirling throw to the infield.
In some pictures of the play, a man can be seen in the window. It's Garagiola, who has a copy of the photo autographed by Mays, who wrote, "I'm glad you didn't call that pitch."
Garagiola said he saw a better catch by Mays in July 1951, shortly after the Say Hey Kid burst into the majors. Garagiola was a Pittsburgh Pirate, and the Giants were at Forbes Field. Rocky Nelson, a left-handed hitter, drilled a ball that sent Mays running deep, but it tailed away from him, away from his glove side.
No worries. On the run, he stuck out his right hand and barehanded it.
"That one really sticks out for me," Garagiola said.
That play wasn't captured on film and wasn't in a World Series, like the Wertz catch, but it's well documented. Branch Rickey, then Pittsburgh's general manager, called it the "finest catch I have ever seen."
What about Garagiola's career? He played nine seasons and hit .257 before becoming a broadcaster, calling NBC's "Game of the Week," co-hosting the "Today" show, guest-hosting "The Tonight Show" and appearing on other TV programs.
For a guy who has witnessed two of Mays' greatest catches, Garagiola called his wife of 63 years, Audrey, "the best catch I ever made."
The Diamondbacks will honor Garagiola on June 22.
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, shns.com.)