NEW YORK -- Willie Mays admits that he thought it might be uncomfortable returning to New York when he was traded to the Mets in 1972. He'd left the city once before, playing for the New York Giants for six seasons before Mays moved with the franchise to San Francisco.
And playing those latter years with the Mets in his 40s, the legendary center fielder wasn't exactly able to perform up to the iconic status he would wish to portray to the fans. Somehow, though, Mays found his two seasons with the Mets to be "something to behold."
The fledgling franchise welcomed him with open arms, he said, just as it will this Sunday when the Hall of Famer returns for Shea Stadium's closing ceremonies, which will take place after the regular-season finale. As of Tuesday, the Mets said they will not announce other players who will be attending.
"I haven't been to Shea in quite a while," Mays said, adding that he doesn't remember who owned the club the last time he was in town.
Again, Mays said he was a little hesitant to return to New York for the ceremonies, because he knows his affiliation rests mostly with the Giants. But he came around, saying "when you have something to do with a ball club, there's history involved, you have to come back."
While Mays played 135 of his 2,992 career games with the Mets, his final season was with the 1973 team that lost the World Series in seven games to the Oakland Athletics. Also, he will always remember New York fans' appreciation for his performances.
He recalled one game where the Giants were visiting Shea Stadium, and Mays unfortunately came down with an illness. The Giants wanted to sit Mays that game, but he said, "No, no." Mays then went out to hit two home runs in a contest the Giants won, 4-2.
"It's just something where you come to New York and you just want to play," Mays said. "It's a thank you."
Mays, who has heard some discontent from nostalgic New Yorkers who want to keep venues like Yankee Stadium and Shea Stadium open, brushed off the sacrilege that comes with tearing down a prized landmark. In a big city like New York, new is necessary.
And he will be happy to say goodbye to Shea on Sunday.
"Everybody is trying to get a new ballpark," Mays said, "and they need two good ballparks in New York. ... I think if you are a New Yorker, it's a sentimental thing. But that's life, though."
Jon Blau is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.