Monday, February 21, 2011

Every day you see Mr. Willie is a good day

There has already been enough written about Mr. Willie Smith. Countless newspaper articles, TV news profiles virtually every year, even a spot on ESPN's web site a few years ago.  By now, most everyone knows virtually everything about the man with the booming, gravelly baritone, usually ensconced in his general admission seat behind home plate at Historic Grayson Stadium, so why write about him again?  Because when you see him for the first time in a while, you realize why news people fall over themselves to interview him, and also why we love him so doggone much.

"How you doin' brother?  I didn't recognize you without the hat," Mr. Smith said as we greeted each other before a Savannah State women's basketball game.  It was the first time I had seen him since the Sand Gnats were eliminated from the playoffs last September.  He seemed to be limping more than usual, and maybe was a little more stooped.  But he was also typical Willie Smith.  "Oh, I got this thing going on with my legs," he dismissed with a wave of his hand, "but I'm here!  And I gotta be here to support my girls."  Were I in his shoes, I'd be lucky to be supporting my own rear end, much less as many sports teams as he supports.

Mr. Smith, now pushing 72, is rarely without his smile or the magnificent voice that resonates off walls and empty seats and that you still hear an hour after a game ends.  "Come on, now.  Let's play some defense."  Watching him attempt to navigate the stairs at Grayson or at Tiger Arena is excruciating.  Every step seems to shoot pain through his body.  I have never had the courage to ask him if it does, though, because he would probably just say, "Oh, I'm alright."  Then, he'd launch into a diatribe about how much Chipper Jones looks and plays like an old man and should just retire.

"These are my girls," he says of the Savannah State women.  Mr. Smith quickly amends, "well them and the high school girls."  The high school is his high school, Beach High School, he lets me know in case I didn't.  It's the only school that could have been his high school during his "separate but equal" youth.  "You'll see me at the men's games sometimes but I'm always here for my girls."  Mr. Smith doesn't need to say it's partly because the women's teams usually get about half as much attention as the men.  The way he says "my girls" tells you that.

"Sometimes, Mr. Crump comes out here, too.  You remember Mr. Crump?"  Mr. Crump is Mr. Smith's fellow permanent Sand Gnats season-ticket holder; they both have small plaques with their names on their seats.   Mr. Crump is the one who doesn't get stories written about him because, while he has also been attending Savannah baseball games for decades, you can't hear his voice clear across Daffin Park.  Perhaps someone will profile Mr. Crump this year.  Maybe I will even remember Mr. Crump's first name - it's on his seat plaque, but he's always sitting down and covering it up.  He generally doesn't fellowship with entire ballparks or arenas like Mr. Smith.

Speaking of which, that time has come. "Well, I gotta go say hi to my lady over here."   He could have been talking about 50 different ladies.  He also might have been referring to all of them because, sure enough, Mr. Smith will greet every single one before The Star Spangled Banner signals that it's game time.  As is customary, a handshake turns into a hug and a "Love you, brother!"  Then, he turns a shoulder as he toddles off and yells, "see you at the ballpark."  With the exception of family time, there aren't many better places to be than at the ballpark with Willie Smith.  Then again, Mr. Smith IS family.  To all of Savannah.

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