URBANA — He looked like many of the fans at Saturday's University of Illinois softball games at Eichelberger Field, attired in an orange shirt and wearing white tennis shoes.
Billy Williams was not just another face in the crowd of 1,259. He was one the media sought out for interviews. He was one fans chatted with and asked for autographs or pictures.
It has been 36 years since the Hall of Famer, who played most of his career with the Chicago Cubs, suited up for a major league game.
"It has been so long," he said, "it don't seem like you played the game."
Time has not diminished the memory of the people who used to spend their afternoons exactly the same as Williams is this weekend: watching.
"You hear a lot of good stories," he said, "that they were there when I hit such-and-such a home run. It's good to know I gave enjoyment to people."
Williams had reason to cheer during the UI's ninth annual World's Largest Softball Tailgate, a promotion orchestrated by the marketing department and former player Brooke Buzard.
Williams' granddaughter, Nikki Simpson, — who will be one of the four seniors honored before their final home game Sunday (10:30 a.m.) — had a hit and a stolen base in the Illini's opening-game 4-2 victory against Penn State. Simpson scored a run and stole another base as Illinois completed the sweep with a 6-3 second-game win.
"It's a thrill to enjoy your grandkids and watch them have fun," he said.
That was reason enough for Williams to leave Chicago for the weekend even though the Cubs have a series at home against the Dodgers.
"I'm still involved (with the Cubs)," he said. "I'm like the senior adviser. I sit up there with Theo (Epstein, team president).
"In spring training, I put the uniform on and talk to the players from time to time. This weekend, I gotta be with my granddaughter."
Even in Arizona for spring training, he's not far removed from the UI softball program. "I follow them on GameTracker," Williams said.
The Illini (26-23) scored four runs in the first inning of each game. In the nightcap, senior Kelley Wedel delivered her second career grand slam.
The largest crowds for UI softball games at Eichelberger Field:
ATT. DATE OPPONENT
1,445 April 28, 2007 DePaul
1,283 May 6, 2006 Northwestern
1,259 May 5, 2012 Penn State
1,105 May 7, 2011 Western Illinois
1,028 April 18, 2009 Michigan