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Russ Ortiz Willie Mays watch

Russ Ortiz recalls Willie Mays’ gift to grandpa Rocky

  • Russ Ortiz - Digging Deep Podcast co-host Russ Ortiz, Digging Deep Podcast co-host
  • June 20, 2024

Willie Mays brought joy to generations

I can still remember the childlike expression on my Grandpa Rocky’s face as he stared at Willie Mays from across the San Francisco Giants’ clubhouse. The World War II veteran was now as giddy as a child looking at Santa for the first time. 

In this case, the superstar in the clubhouse was the Say Hey Kid, Willie Mays. 

My late Grandpa had made the trip to San Francisco from the Los Angeles area to see one of my starts for the Giants. He was my first baseball coach. More importantly, Grandpa Rocky helped raise my brother and me along with our mom after our father left us when we were very young.

Having my grandpa at my games was always special, but Mays made this one extra special. After my outing I went to get my grandpa so he could join me in the clubhouse. 

Once through the doors at Oracle Park, which was called Pacific Bell Park when I played for the Giants, you walk down a hallway before you get into the main clubhouse.

At the end of that hallway was former clubhouse manager Mike Murphy’s office. Murphy was always so gracious to Grandpa. Hall of Famer Willie McCovey was in there, and I asked Grandpa if he wanted to meet him.

He said yes, of course. Willie Mac was so awesome to him. Grandpa got to tell him how much of a fan he was. He was like a little kid, like my older brother Shad and I would be if we met a big leaguer. 

After I finished with my media obligations and icing my arm, I went to shower. I told Grandpa Rocky to just hang out at my locker while I showered. 

Quick audience

As I walked back to my locker I noticed Mays talking to a player just a couple chairs away. 

If you knew Willie, who died Tuesday at 93 years old, you could pick out his laugh anywhere. It was always great to have legends in the clubhouse and to hear Willie laugh and tell stories.

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So as I walked toward my locker, I saw Grandpa staring at Willie Mays in awe. He had the same look I would have if I saw one of my favorite players so close.

I got to my locker and asked my grandpa if he knew who that was. Of course he said yes. I asked if he would like to meet him, and he didn’t hesitate.

Russ Ortiz

“Yes,” he said with the eagerness of a child and fan.

Grandpa stood up, and we walked a few feet over.

“Excuse me, Willie, I’d like you to meet my Grandpa,” I said.

Willie stood up with his big, trademark smile and shook Grandpa’s hand. They exchanged pleasantries, and then Willie gave his full attention to Grandpa.

I felt so grateful. It was a moment I knew I’d never forget. Once Grandpa figured he took enough of Willie’s time, he said, “Thank you. Nice meeting you.”

Willie Mays was a true gift

As my grandpa prepared to walk away, Willie said, “Hold on. I have something for you.”

Then the greatest player who ever lived reached in his pocket and pulled out a Willie Mays watch and gave it to Grandpa.

My grandpa was blown away. Again the kid in him came out, and I got to witness it. The look on his face was priceless. 

Grandpa used to wear the Oklahoma University letterman’s watch I gave him in 1993. He wore that OU watch proudly every day until he received his Mays watch.

Needless to say, Grandpa started wearing the Willie watch every day instead of my old OU watch. He cherished that watch and shared the story proudly of how and where he got it. 

I, of course, was always in awe of the player Willie Mays was. Meeting and seeing him often I got a glimpse of what a great guy he was. After that day, however, Willie truly became a legend to me.

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