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July 11, 2012

Prospects Will Break Your Heart

Willie Mays’ House of Pancakes

by Jason Parks

A few weeks ago, I received an email from Joe Hamrahi, our beloved leader and spiritual advisor at Baseball Prospectus, in which he outlined the details of the All-Star event in Kansas City that I was scheduled to attend. As usual, I read the email like a hyperactive kid who had just snorted a baby arm of FunDip, which is to say I opened it and recognized a few words and immediately started dreaming of a better life, when I happened upon the name of Willie Mays and the word “brunch.” Apparently, the Baseball Prospectus gathering would be taking place at the theater across the street from the Negro Leagues museum, which had scheduled an event involving all seven living Negro League players who had become major-league all-stars. A private brunch was to be held that morning with the distinguished guests. At the top of the guest list was Willie Howard Mays, Jr.

Instead of spending quality time with the email and forming a relationship with the proper context, I drifted off into a romantic fantasy in which my Sunday morning would be spent with Willie Mays, sharing stories and slamming mimosas. We would fast become tethered by an unbreakable bond; our friendship dance would be aesthetically pleasing to the blind. The Futures Game had previously occupied the role of apple of my eye, but I no longer cared about minor-league baseball or the participants in such an event. Two weeks ago, my heart belonged to Willie Mays and the brunch we would consume in a shared space. As per normal, I scripted the event to the letter and the line, and I felt comforted by the familiarity of the teleprompter I placed a few feet from my scene. I entered my own head and started spelunking for the memories I would no doubt come to appreciate after they matured into adulthood. It all started with an iPhone alarm puffing out its chest at 8:02 AM on Sunday, July 7th.

***

My head was pounding; dynamite was taped and triggered in my head-cave. The previous evening, I had enjoyed a meal with two good friends, and I followed up the experience by physically assaulting a bottle of bourbon, served without remorse with a raw wedge of ginger and a chilled cup of amber-colored ale water. Friends multiplied like boredom babies hatched in colder climates. We toasted the evening and celebrated our own ability to smile, and I kissed a strange girl on the lips, gave her my real name and number, and promised to call her when I became a functioning human. My eyes hurt from the sight of my own deconstruction. The alarm was malicious and violent in its reproach, and I took my first conscious breath of air with an electronic pulse marching in syncopation with the swallow beat of my own heart. Bring me back to life, Oh, sweet Lord. I cried in the hotel bathroom, missing the feeling of health and good fortune. My head was pounding.

After an hour of self-reflection and personal growth, I showered, dressed, and awaited my ride to the Negro Leagues museum in the living room of the hotel lobby. Because the occasion warranted a bouquet that was not only prim but proper, I wore a pressed buttoned-down dress shirt that was a defiant shade of blue, which played nicely with the green slices of color lodged in my somewhat unscrupulous brown eyes. The color marriage made me appear more emotionally sound and stable; it’s always important to present yourself as sound and stable. The playful blues and greens interacting on my person brought the human element back into the equation, and I felt comfortable with the presentation. I was also wearing my skeleton accessory, a pompous smile that I like to flash at times when it could be considered clever. I once used it at a funeral, and it was considered foolish.

My head was under constant threat of sodomy by my hydration level, so I sipped on a chilled bottle of flat water and prayed to the God of Regret to undo the damage I’d done. My good friend Kevin drove up in a rental car that looked like it was designed by someone without much design experience, and we were 20 minutes from our target. I wasn’t hungry because I was already chewing on the dead leftover lips of my bar scene kissy partner, but I would fight through the discomfort in order to eat eggs and slightly toasted bread squares with Willie Mays.

My stomach was in anxious knots, tied with experienced naval hands and thoughtfulness; the type of feeling normally reserved for a kindergarten wet-your-pants-and-panic session. I couldn’t feel the ground with my feet. I was wearing my standard exotics, both because they showcase my obnoxious Texan pride and because they help frame my lower-half quality with an angular point. It’s a personality badge worn on the feet, with a secondary fashion utility. My nervous fingers gripped the aluminum handle of the door. My life changed when I overcame the resistance with a healthy dose of leverage, and I crossed into a room overflowing with new experiences. I saw a lot of faces, and I heard a lot of wallpaper chatter, and I smelled the scent of history and breakfast foods. For the first time in recent memory, I allowed myself to feel something positive.

My eyes achieved orgasm and started to water when I spotted the greatest living baseball player navigating the impressive width of the entry corridor with impressive routes and a gold glove swagger. Mays was wearing a standard issue choir robe, constructed with a loose but effective hand; the almost biblical cloth was draped over his body like a blanket covering a newborn. I imagined that he was also holding a non-descript electric guitar accompanied by a perfectly coifed Teddy Boy hairstyle, completing the package first presented by Muddy Waters on the album insert from Electric Mud. Sans instrument and tsunami hair flip-up, Mays moved with elegance, pushed from behind by a body of light so brilliant that an army of tiny Mayans appeared at his feet and started a culture based around his incandescent glow. The room was a church, and Mays was the book of verse we all accepted as a path to salvation. I wanted to read his face and learn from his soul.

The tables were configured like a cookie-cutter wedding reception, with 10 tables strategically placed around the main dining hall, which was really just a regular room wearing the disguise of a main dining hall. The room was just a room, and I was just a man, and Mays was just a myth dressed as a man. I was not placed at Mays’ table, nor was I placed at any table that featured a historically significant figure, but I was placed near the serving station, which changed the complexity of this story. The historically significant members in attendance were applauded by the room for being significant, and I slammed my hands together as if the concussion from the impact of my palms needed to be felt in their historically significant loins. I felt honored to clap with such vigor, and my fingers bled with the tears of their past accomplishments. I clapped 45 seconds longer than the last person to clap, which was no more awkward than the most awkward event you could imagine. I clapped with purpose; I clapped liked a man who knew how to clap; I clapped for all of those in the room who felt too awkward to clap for the duration I deemed necessary.

I was seated at a table labeled number four, which meant I would be fourth in the queue for the serve-yourself brunch, which was placed generously in innumerable faux silver chafing dishes on the table to my immediate six o’clock. I could smell various pork options when the serving dishes were uncovered, with a slight and somewhat playful aroma of maple syrup underneath the more powerful pork product musk. Based on this discovery, I assumed waffles or pancakes were being served in addition to the pork meats. The first group to commence its feeding was group number one, a popular group of historically significant men, headlined by Willie Mays, whose robe was now the color of translucent seawater. Mays walked like a man with roller skates for feet, gliding to the buffet spread without upper-body effort or noticeable motion in his legs. He simply rolled over to the food.

Everything was going as planned; my table was discussing the surrealism involved in watching Willie Mays roller skate over to a serving dish packed with hot and fluffy scrambled eggs while wearing a choir robe, although I seemed to be the only person pushing the details. Mays turned out to be a pancake man, and his stop at the pancake station resulted in a deep stack that intimidated every mouth in the room. I calculated that the flapjack stack was at least seven layers tall, rising from the plate like golden, edible discs of hope and happiness. The stack was covered in syrup, but my nostrils did not detect the now familiar scent of the provided pancake/waffle accouterment; rather, it become obvious that Mays had rolled up to the scene with his own breakfast syrup, a creation I imagined he had brewed in his own home with his own hands. He struck me as a man who feels comfortable in his tastes, a man not afraid to stack the jacks higher than usually accepted, a man who makes his own pancake syrup because he demands the finest quality toppings. I barely fought off a nervous breakdown triggered by my respect for the man and his convictions.

After what seemed like an hour, group four was called to the dance floor and instructed to fill its plates with the provided breakfast items. I dominated the race to the first plate like my hustle would get noticed, talked about, and finally rewarded with an accepting look or perhaps a physical embrace dispensed at the appropriate time. Before I could decide between pancakes or waffles—I was leaning waffles, because Mays had already established the bar for pancake consumption and I couldn’t hang with his quantity—a figure appeared behind me, and the room fell silent. Willie Mays.

Because the approach was executed in a silent glide, I didn’t hear the looming footsteps until the robed figure stood directly behind me, the outermost breath of his angelic cloth kissing the back of my shirt. I was frozen in time, locked into a moment that lasted a decade and died in an instant. With a forceful yet elegant stab, Mays reached beyond my body—almost directly through my soul—and grabbed a stack of pancakes from the serving dish with his bare hands. His grip could choke a rhinoceros to death, yet not a single crumb was tortured, as the transfer from the dish to his hand was executed with precision and perfection. The seven-deep stack rested in his Hall of Fame hands, and he looked into my eyes as he held the breakfast food in front of my empty plate. I remained cast in stone, trapped in his gaze and his unbelievable gifts. I finally began to tremble.

As Mays lowered the tender stack of seven jacks onto my plate, he never dropped his eyes from mine. His focus was worth celebrating on its own, and it didn’t take long for the room to stand at attention and witness the event from its feet. I think I heard someone sing the first few bars of the National Anthem. The breakfast architecture stood naked for only a few seconds, as Mays pulled a bottle of maple syrup from his robe, complete with homemade label featuring his face on the belly of the bottle. The syrup smelled like success and maple trees, and Willie’s pour was as smooth as his swing. The room fell in love with the moment, and I fell in love with Mays. Pour completed, the legend rolled backwards to his seat, keeping his eyes locked on mine until his chair caught his frame and he fell into seated comfort. I was left holding a stack of beautiful cereal food iconography, a delicious example of the greatness of the greatest player alive. I was humbled. I was honored. I was anxious to try his homemade pancake syrup.

***

Weeks later, when I look back on the original email distributed by Joe Hamrahi, I’m saddened by my utter lack of reading comprehension and expectation management. I was never invited to brunch with Willie Mays; rather, it was mentioned that Mays would in fact be brunching in the surrounding area, and yes, the event to celebrate the historical accomplishments of the seven men mentioned would in fact occur in the building across the street from the building where I would be answering questions about my drinking habits. As it turns out, Mays was a late scratch to the event; he was probably at home being a legend and paying meticulous attention to his home-brewed syrup concoction. Regardless of my inability to separate my dreams from my reality, my love for Willie Mays was enhanced just the same, as was my approach to pancake consumption. Thanks, Willie. 

Jason Parks is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jason's other articles. You can contact Jason by clicking here

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