BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Now batting: No. 24, Willie Mays.

Those were the words that brought the Rickwood Field crowd to its feet on Thursday. No one was asked or told to quiet down. The chatter and the music that had just a minute prior filled the ballpark with life, completely and abruptly stopped at those seven words. At once silent and emotional, the 8,332 fortunate to be in attendance brought their full attention to the screen hovering above right field, where the narration of the life and career of Mays, who passed away at the age of 93 on Tuesday, emanated through the speakers. 

It was hard to believe Mays wasn’t physically present here at Rickwood, the place where he grew up, the place he called home, the reason so many from Birmingham flocked to the ballpark on a hot and humid Thursday night. But he was here

Mays’ son, Michael, said as much when he took the field alongside Ken Griffey Jr. and Mays’ godson Barry Bonds moments before the first pitch between the Giants and the Cardinals

“Let him hear you!” Griffey implored the crowd, which obeyed and responded with a raucous, joyous applause that felt like it went on for several minutes. No one present wanted to let go of this moment, of letting Mays hear you, so the crowd kept it going with chants of “Willie, Willie, Willie,” inducing another palpable wave of emotion.

“You can definitely feel the emotions here,” Giants outfielder Mike Yastrzemski said. “It’s real. It’s raw. It’s powerful and it’s special. As much as it hurts to lose a legend like that, we gained an angel above us to be here for the game.”

In reality, Mays was everywhere Thursday, as the Cardinals edged the Giants, 6-5, in MLB’s first regular-season game at Rickwood Field.  

He was in the No. 24 painted behind home plate in big block letters, mirroring the backs of the bright orange jerseys that said “MAYS” in the sold-out crowd.

He was on the field when his Hall of Fame plaque was placed along the third-base foul line. Dozens of former players in attendance for the festivities trekked along the grass and approached the plaque, including Bonds, Griffey, CC Sabathia, Derek Jeter, Reggie Jackson, Adam Jones, Dexter Fowler, Michael Bourn, Justin Upton, Ryan Howard, Chris Young and Jimmy Rollins. They all waited patiently for their turn with Mays, each eventually standing beside the plaque and grinning from ear to ear while someone else snapped a picture. 

Forty-five years after his induction into Cooperstown, Mays’ Hall of Fame plaque was removed from the New York museum for the first time and brought to Birmingham. It was a perfect tribute, seeing how the Alabama native began his illustrious and unforgettable career as a teenager sprinting around the outfield grass of Rickwood. 

The spirit of the “Say Hey Kid” could be felt all over Rickwood on Thursday, too. Mays’ image was on the orange-washed murals in front of the field. His quotes and words were adorned on the walls encompassing the MLB at Rickwood Field festivities. He was on the “Mays 24” patch that Giants and Cardinals players wore on their Negro Leagues throwback threads. His joy and passion for the game of baseball was reflected, and carried on, by those that had the privilege of meeting and knowing the Hall of Famer.

Mays’ son, Michael, was surrounded by a swarm of fans everywhere he went. Everyone wanted one more connection to Mays, one more story about the beloved ballplayer that no one wanted to let go of.

“I’ve been telling y’all that if there’s any way on earth my father could come down here, that he would,” Michael Mays said as he addressed the crowd before the first pitch. “Well, he’s found another way. You’re already on your feet, so make all the noise you can. Let him hear you, he’s listening.”

Giants manager Bob Melvin made sure to hold a team meeting before his club took the field versus the Cardinals, emphasizing Mays’ impact not just as a baseball player, but the way he carried himself in life. The first time Melvin met Mays was in 1986, Melvin’s first year as a catcher for San Francisco. The team held a spring training workout at Candlestick Park and Mays was there, as he typically spent many days around the organization years after his retirement. Melvin remembered being in awe, and having no idea what to say to him. 

Finally, he asked Mays how he was able to hit 660 home runs with the wind blowing in fiercely from left field at Candlestick. Mays looked Melvin directly in the eye and said, simply, if the wind was blowing from left, he hit the ball out to right. 

“He’s the reason I loved baseball as much as I did,” Melvin said. “I was at a young age when I first started watching baseball and Willie. Whether it was on the radio or TV, anytime he came to the plate, you stopped what you were doing. I went to Candlestick a lot as a kid. I was there for his 3,000th hit. And then I grew up one town over from him, and he’d wave to us in his pink Cadillac. He was a big part of my youth. He’s meant a lot to me over the course of my career and my life.”

That’s just how Mays was; he meant a great deal to everyone that watched him at his craft, and everyone who watched how humbly and graciously he manifested it. His influence had no bounds, but his heart was always at Rickwood. Mays’ absence here was enormous, but his presence was always felt. Chant his name, and remember his legacy. 

Let him hear you. 

Deesha Thosar is an MLB writer for FOX Sports. She previously covered the Mets as a beat reporter for the New York Daily News. The daughter of Indian immigrants, Deesha grew up on Long Island and now lives in Queens. Follow her on Twitter at @DeeshaThosar.

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