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Plaschke: Maury Wills stole Dodger fans’ hearts. Changed the overall game. Insufficient for Hall of Fame

Dodgers bunting and base running coordinator Maury Wills adjusts his cap during spring training at Dodgertown

Maury Wills adjusts his cap during Dodgers spring trained in 2003. (Richard Drew / Associated Press)

He stole bases. He stole championships. He stole a citys heart.

Yet, for several his accumulated riches, Maury Wills often lamented the main one shiny object that has been forever out of his reach.

He couldnt steal his way into Cooperstown. The inventor of the present day stolen base unbelievably couldnt sprint and slide into baseballs Hall of Fame.

The baseball writers rejected him for 15 consecutive years. The veterans committee turned him down for 10 more years.

It hurt and haunted him until his death Monday at age 89.

Why wont they i want to in the Hall of Fame? he asked me once throughout a quiet moment at Dodger Stadium. What more did I must do?

Wills was the Dodgers‘ underappreciated legend, a three-time World Series champion and National League most effective player who was simply traded due to off-field issues, a record-setting speedster who nonetheless couldnt escape the lure of alcohol and drugs, the perfect yet flawed hero.

In his old age he found redemption as a Dodgers advisor who’s credited with saving Dave Roberts career and putting him in relation to becoming the teams manager, yet at that time it had been too late for the national recognition he deserved.

God, how Ive keep coming back, Wills explained in 2002. But just what a price Ive paid.

He is highly recommended among baseballs all-time greats. He literally changed what sort of game was played. He joined the Dodgers in 1959 after spending nearly nine seasons in the minor leagues. Appearing out nowhere, he was suddenly everywhere.

He led the league in stolen bases in his first full Dodgers season in 1960, and again in 1961, then in 1962 he ran wild. That has been the entire year he stole 104 bases, breaking an archive that had stood for 47 years since Ty Cobb stole 96 in 1915. That has been the entire year that changed everything.

Before Wills, baseball wasnt about speed. Before Wills, baseball wasnt about savvy. Wills showed that the stolen base could possibly be as powerful as a clutch hit, as unnerving as an excellent catch, as eventually impactful as a house run.

He brought speed to the overall game, and that speed fueled the Dodgers dynasty in the first 1960s, Dodgers historian Mark Langill said. Rather than the power of these final years in Brooklyn, this new LA team won with pitching, defense and speed and Maury was that speed.

Dodgers' Maury Wills slides safely into third as St. Louis Cardinals' Ken Boyer takes the throw in 1965.

Maury Wills slides safely into third base as Ken Boyer of the St. Louis Cardinals takes the throw in a 1965 game at Dodger Stadium. (Associated Press)

Wills stole so many bases, whenever he reached base in 1962, fans at newly opened Dodger Stadium would chant, Go! Go! Go!

Wills heard them, as he distributed to The Times Houston Mitchell come early july in the transcript of a speech.

On days when I really was hurting, hearing ‘Go! Go! Go, Maury, go!’ kept me running, Wills wrote.

It had been a chant that basically christened Chavez Ravine. It had been the type of reaction that hasnt been repeated since.

Its the only real time theres been that type of interaction at Dodger Stadium between a new player and the fans through the game, Langill said. Hes the only real player which has had people consistently chanting for him, begging him, cheering for him to steal a base.

Wills played such mind games with opponents, the lands crew at San Franciscos Candlestick Park famously soaked the basepaths to slow him down before a crucial series in 1962.

Maury was the person in the spotlight, former Dodgers general manager Fred Claire said. The eye he drew, the attendance he created, no-one was more vital that you the Dodgers and the building of fascination with the team.

However, his on-field intensity was matched by off-field partying. And although he was the shortstop of a team that won three World Series championships, he was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates following the 1966 season because he left a Dodgers barnstorming tour in Japan without permission and was observed in Hawaii playing a banjo and telling jokes on stage with Don Ho.

Regardless of that Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale and Wes Parker also missed that trip. Wills was considered a hard personality, and therefore was sent packing for Bob Bailey and Gene Michael, a trade that never must have been made. Wills must have been a lifelong Dodger, and although he returned to the team 24 months later, his impact was never exactly the same. He retired following a 1972 season where he stole exactly one base in 71 games.

He changed the overall game along with his ability and determination, Claire said. He was only a very special person.

Ramon Martinez, left and Olmedo Saenz, right, listen as base running instructor Maury Wills gives pointers.

Maury Wills gives instructions to Dodgers infielders Ramon Martinez and Olmedo Saenz during 2007 spring trained in Vero Beach, Fla. (Rick Silva / Associated Press)

In 1980 he became baseballs third Black manager when he was hired to lead the Seattle Mariners, but he behaved erratically and didnt last a complete season as he began spiraling into alcohol and drugs. The abuse lasted before Dodgers helped him become clean and sober in 1989.

At one point during Wills lowest moments, Claire and former Dodgers pitcher Don Newcombe drove to his boarded-up house and convinced him to admit himself right into a rehabilitation center beneath the pseudonym Don Claire.

It took him a lot more than eight years in the minor leagues to get himself as a baseball player, and in life he also needed time and energy to find himself, Claire said. But once he did, he changed his world again by helping others.

Indeed, Wills engineered his life ahead back to where it started as he returned to the Dodgers as a particular advisor, dealing with players on bunting and base stealing, concentrating on one notable student.

From 2002 until midway through 2004, he devoted the majority of his time and energy to a feisty kid named Dave Roberts, helping him hone his game in pregame workouts, in-game chats and postgame calls. It really is no coincidence that after being traded to the Boston Red Sox in July 2004, Roberts executed what became arguably the most crucial stolen base in baseball history, a swipe in the playoffs contrary to the NY Yankees that eventually resulted in the Red Sox’s first World Series title in 86 years.

When Roberts spoke to reporters about Wills on Tuesday, he did so with a tear running down his cheek.

He just loved the overall game of baseball, loved working and loved the partnership with players, Roberts said. We spent lots of time together. He showed me how exactly to appreciate my craft and what it really is to be always a big leaguer. He just loved to instruct. So, I believe lots of where I get my excitement, my passion and my love for the players is from Maury.

Ultimately, the pioneer baserunner doesnt have a Hall of Fame bust, but perhaps he was presented with something more important. He might not need a retired jersey, but he’s got a full time income, breathing jersey.

While managing the team to annual success within the last seven years, Robert has purposely dressed up in No. 30.

Yeah, it’s the number once worn by Maury Wills.

This story originally appeared in LA Times.

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