By Barbara Wood | Almanac Staff Writer
Little League baseball players, their families and the community gathered in Atherton on Saturday, May 9, to officially open Homer Field at Willie Mays Ballpark, with Atherton resident Willie Mays himself the guest of honor and the subject of a grand slam of loving tributes from those in attendance.
Speaking from the infield of the just-rebuilt field in Holbrook-Palmer Park, San Francisco Giants president and CEO Larry Baer said it the most simply: "Everybody loves you Willie. Thank you for everything you've done for all of us."
Mr. Baer said growing up in San Francisco, "I would be listening to Giants games and I would be channeling Willie Mays."
"This man, this man's accomplishments, this man's personality as 'The Say Hey Kid,' ... he gave us the great love for baseball," Mr. Baer said.
Mr. Mays had just turned 84 on May 6, and the crowd sang "Happy Birthday" to him and celebrated with birthday cupcakes along with the food that event organizers said Mr. Mays had requested: hot dogs, Cracker Jack and sodas.
Giants' play-by-play announcer Jon Miller reminded the nearly 400 Little Leaguers and their families, who had gathered at the field along with almost as many community members, just why Willie Mays is thought by many to be "the greatest ballplayer there ever was."
Mr. Miller said that in 1963, when he was 10, he had a chance to go to his first Giants game. Before the game, Mr. Miller said, in his bedtime prayers he asked for blessings for his family, "and bless Willie Mays and please let him hit a home run when I go to the game."
"So I went to the game and Willie did hit a home run," Mr. Miller said. "I never missed church again."
Mr. Miller also told those gathered at the field, which was paid for and donated to the town by the Menlo-Atherton Little League, about "The Catch" made by Willie Mays in the first game of the 1954 World Series.
The then New York Giants were playing the Cleveland Indians at the Polo Grounds in New York, with a center field fence 483 feet back. Vic Wertz hit a long fly ball to center field and 23-year-old Willie Mays, who had been playing much closer in, sprinted to "465 feet from home plate, he reached out over his shoulder and he made 'The Catch,' " Mr. Miller said. Then, "he stopped on a dime," turned and threw the ball all that distance to the infield to stop the runner, who had tagged up, from scoring.
The Giants, who had been the series' underdogs, won it in four straight games.
Willie Mays, said Mr. Miller, is the greatest player of all time because he "could do it all." He hit as many as 52 home runs in a year, he sometimes led the league in stolen bases; and, as he did at the Polo Field that day, he could make the difficult catches and the long throws.
"I want you kids to know," Mr. Miller said, "the day this ballpark was dedicated, it was dedicated to the greatest ballplayer there ever was to play this game, number 24 Willie Mays!"
Mike Gardner, who with Bob Hellman spearheaded the fundraising for and logistics of the $1.4 million field renovations and new grandstand, said he, too, grew up idolizing Willie Mays.
"To this day, I wear 24, my son wears 24, on every uniform we have," he said. "My goal was to one day be just like Willie Mays."
Mr. Gardner also spoke about how happy he and the rest of the Little League was to finally have completed the ball field project, which began more than five years ago. "I can't tell you what an exciting and joyous day it is," he said. "We've waited a long time."
The field was also dedicated in honor of Mike Homer and his family. Mr. Homer, who died in 2009 at the age of 50, had raised much of the money for the original Little League field at the park and had asked that it be named in honor of his father, James Homer. Mr. Homer's wife, Kristina and his three children, James, Jack and Lucy, were at the event.
Bob Lessing spoke about his son-in-law. "I know Mike would enjoy being here today to see this beautiful field being officially opened," Mr. Lessing said. "But I think even more he would have enjoyed being in one of these bullpens coaching his son this morning."
Mike Homer was a Silicon Valley executive who worked for Apple and Netscape among others. However, Mr. Lessing said, "the love of his family, including his three beautiful and resilient children ... defined his success even more than his professional accomplishments."
"He had a wonderful sense of humor, he was extremely generous. He never forgot his friends. And he was probably the smartest individual I've ever met," Mr. Lessing said.
Among those in the audience at the event was the Homer children's great-grandfather, Walter Lessing, 95, who watched from one of the grandstand's designated wheelchair accessible spaces. The entire facility is wheelchair accessible, including new wide paved paths, several wheelchair spaces and the restrooms in the back of the facility.
After a ribbon was cut to officially open the field, 9-year-old Atherton resident Sophia Preston belted out the national anthem, a cappella. Charlie Gielow, whose dad Doug is his coach on the Electric Supply Scrappers, threw out the first pitch. Charlie, who has played for five years, admitted to being "a little bit" nervous about the honor.
Doug Gielow said he was "thrilled" with the improvements. "It's gorgeous -- it's spectacular," he said. Not only is it a "safe place for the kids to play," but the volunteer effort from the players and parents "brought the community together" to get it ready, he said.
In the first inning of the inaugural game, which featured the Big Tray Dragons versus the Independent Electric Supply Scrappers, some of the safety features of the new stadium were immediately tested out by fly balls, which bounced off the overhead backstop screening instead of flying into the grandstands, and off the roof of one of the new dugouts instead of flying inside.
The Big Tray Dragons won the first game by a score of 11-6.
How new field was designed
Bob Hellman, who with Mike Gardner led the building of the new ballpark, said the new grandstand is designed "so it is architecturally consistent with the other buildings in the park." It has similar siding and color to the park's historic buildings, and a cupola and "widows walk" on the roof.
"That was important, that it feel like it belongs in the park," he said.
Most of the field changes are to make it safer for the 9- and 10-year-old Little League players, for whom the field was designed. Enclosed and roofed dugouts keep fly balls out while enclosed bullpens keep practice balls in.
The field itself was leveled and compacted, with gopher holes and swampy areas filled in.
The finishing touch? "This grass is actually the same sod that's used at AT&T Park," Mr. Hellman said.