By Chris Haft

A lot of us little boys and girls around age 65 and older cried together Tuesday night. It didn’t matter that we weren’t joined physically.  We were united in our lifelong admiration of Willie Mays, whose death convinced us  — maybe stronger than ever — of our faith in his greatness and the power of his very being which made us believe in the wonder of baseball.

The first Mays acolyte I heard from was a buddy from Menlo Park, Calif., where

I spent my formative years. Well into our adulthood, he would remind me, “Willie Mays can do no wrong.” Tuesday, my friend’s cell phone clearly conveyed the  sorrow in his voice.

My aunt, who is hastening my recovery from illness,  nurtured me with privacy and popcorn, which I nibbled as the notifications from friends poured in. The depth and breadth of people I heard from in such a short time was stunning. Mays’ passing was becoming a bonding experience for us to share.

My ex-girlfriend, who as a native San Franciscan  understood Mays’ mastery, was next to text. Then came about 10 texts in rapid succession from college friends. Jeez, you’d think we were cramming for a final exam. In came another trio of texts, these from treasured high school classmates. I also heard from a pair of my best friends dating back a couple of decades to my days in Cincinnati. Celebrating and mourning Willie brought these people together for me. They called from the southwest (Houston) and the northwest (Seattle), just to talk about Willie.

I’ll leave the recitations of Mays’ baseball achievements to my former sportswriting colleagues (I will say that I saw him hit a home run on my 12th birthday in 1971). Instead, I’ll share a few moments I enjoyed with Mays the man, who visited the Giants’ ballpark often during my 14 years of covering the team (2005-18).

“Willie,” I asked him one day during spring training. “how did you stay in such good shape?” He puffed out his chest ever so slightly and replied with a sly grin, “I never got out of shape.”

When I was collaborating with Giants clubhouse boss Mike Murphy on his autobiography, I was hanging out in “Murph’s” office one afternoon with him, Willie and Joe Torre, trying to comprehend my good fortune. Think of all the interviewing I could do! Mays, sitting next to me, sensed my overeagerness. “Let them talk,” Mays whispered, urging me to just let things happen. The all-time great as interview coach.

One interview I DID conduct was with Hall of Famer Billy Williams, who insisted that Mays, not San Francisco’s catcher, called pitches from center field in an effort to win a game and end a Giants slump. I brought this anecdote to Mays, who laughed uproariously before saying, “Naw, naw, naw, naw.” But his laugh said, “Sure. Of course. Yep.”

I should have retained Mays as my agent. Learning of my per diem allowance on the road which one organization allotted me, Mays squealed in his high-pitched voice, “Forty dollars? How are you supposed to survive on forty dollars?”

Yes, this was a saddening day, to say the least. But once we’ve dried the tears that were prompted by the innocence of youth, remember how much fun we had while loving Willie Mays for all these years. Hold onto those memories, and Willie will live onward.