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Mays hopes to rebuild children's lives

Mays hopes to rebuild children's lives

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SAN FRANCISCO -- About 34 years after his final Major League at-bat, Willie Mays delivered a hit on Tuesday that could have more impact than any of his 660 home runs.

Appearing at the dedication and groundbreaking ceremony for the Willie Mays Boys & Girls Club at Hunters Point, the Hall of Fame center fielder did more than just wave, mutter a few well-chosen words and pose for pictures with a shovel. Mays spoke passionately about the significance of the club that will bear his name -- a place where youngsters from ages 6-18 can participate in educational programs as well as athletic ones to gain direction in their lives.

"This is like a homecoming for me," said Mays, who grew up in a similarly impoverished neighborhood near Birmingham, Ala. "I think I'm going to get involved with all the gangs up here to find out, what is their problem?"

This ceremony launched a memorable day for Mays, 76, who was expected to be the focus of a pregame ceremony at Tuesday night's All-Star Game honoring his singular career. Mays is widely regarded as the quintessential All-Star, having set numerous records while participating in 24 Midsummer Classics, besides being considered among the best players ever.

The juxtaposition of Mays and Hunters Point was a natural one. Mays established his greatness while playing for the San Francisco Giants at Candlestick Park -- located a long home run from the Boys & Girls Club that will bear his name. The beacon of such a facility is necessary in Hunters Point, one of San Francisco's most economically disadvantaged areas. Mayor Gavin Newsom, who attended the event, noted that Hunters Point residents suffer from prostate cancer, breast cancer and cervical cancer at rates two to four times the national average.

A youth center can't change that health-related phenomenon, but it can offer hope by showing young people ways to better themselves.

"If there is a spirit of the day, it's the spirit of Willie Mays," Newsom said. "Willie Mays wasn't interested in being successful. He was committed to being successful. Committed people find ways of getting things done."

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In that vein, Newsom said it would be a tragedy for the Mays clubhouse, which sprang from the All-Star Game's community legacy program, to become neglected -- as he admitted has been the case with other well-intentioned city projects.

"My admonition to you," Newsom said, "is, please don't walk away."

The turnout to honor Mays and the Boys & Girls Club suggested that his legacy will help sustain the program. Commissioner Bud Selig, Giants owner Peter Magowan and the Rev. Jesse Jackson were among the other dignitaries in attendance.

"Willie has been there and will continue to be there for the kids," Magowan said before an entirely fitting backdrop -- an oversized reproduction of a familiar Mays photo playing stickball in a Harlem street in the 1950s.

"Another generation will be influenced by his legacy," Selig said.

Anybody, Mays insisted, can serve as a positive influence. He urged youngsters to take advice from the more learned and experienced people surrounding them to find a path toward success.

"My father told me when I was 10 that you don't have to take a back seat," Mays said. "But you have to take a side street."

Chris Haft is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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