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Cubs great Billy Williams: Turning 80 and already in heaven — at spring training

Billy Williams — looking good in uniform. (Photo by Steve Greenberg | Chicago Sun-Times)

MESA, Ariz. — Billy Williams stood Friday morning at a batting cage on a practice field at the Cubs’ spring-training complex, watching one minor-leaguer after another hit the baseball. The ‘‘thwacks’’ never get old.

‘‘I love the horsehide hitting ash,’’ Williams said. ‘‘I’ve loved it all my life.’’

A long, wonderful life it has been. The Hall of Famer indeed has gotten old. He will turn 80 in June.

‘‘How time flies,’’ Williams said. ‘‘It seems like just yesterday I was 18 years old and signing a professional contract to go to Ponca City, Oklahoma. Sometimes I can’t believe it.’’

As far as Williams is concerned, he already has gone to heaven — again. Spring training is his favorite time of year and favorite place to be. The weather agrees with him, of course, but it’s really about baseball and a sense of renewal. It’s more than a little nice to don a Cubs uniform, too.

‘‘I’m not breaking any records moving around, but this makes me feel young,’’ he said.

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Williams doesn’t miss the question he has heard more than any other out here through the years: Are the Cubs going to win a World Series before I die?

But he does miss Ernie Banks. He misses Ron Santo. And he misses former teammates who are still, thankfully, among the living: Fergie Jenkins, Glenn Beckert, Don Kessinger. Williams mentioned them all after plopping down in a chair to give his bones a rest.

‘‘I think about them out here all the time,’’ he said. ‘‘I think about all those individuals who tried so hard to bring a pennant to Chicago. And we didn’t do it, but some of us still got a chance to celebrate.’’

Williams never could replace those old pals and wouldn’t want to, but he has made a few new ones along the way, too. Such as Addison Russell, to name one. When Russell first appeared in Cubs camp, Williams approached the native of Pensacola, Florida, and assured him that because he grew up only 60 miles or so from Mobile, Alabama — home of Hank Aaron, Willie McCovey and the sweet-swinging Williams himself — he was certain to become a clutch hitter.

‘‘I told him the water flowed from Mobile to Pensacola and carried good hitting in it,’’ Williams recalled with a laugh.

A year ago, Williams walked up to a then-little-known Ian Happ and said: ‘‘I hear a lot of talk about you. They say you’re a good baseball player. Are you?’’

Happ replied, ‘‘Yeah, I’m that good.’’ They liked each other instantly.

This week, Williams asked Happ if he remembered that conversation. The answer was, of course, yes.

‘‘Because I know now,’’ Williams told him. ‘‘You are that good. And you’re going to be even better.’’

Williams is convinced the Cubs will win another World Series in his lifetime, but what invigorates him out here isn’t the way Cubs spring training has turned into a massive celebration of a rock-star team; it’s that next prospect who’s coming along. Williams wants to see him with his own eyes.

‘‘I want to see the young guys play,’’ he said. ‘‘I want to see them progress. Because I used to be where they are.’’

It was a long time ago.

‘‘I’m happy about being in Arizona,’’ he said. ‘‘I’m happy about just moving around. I’m happy about being anywhere at this time because a lot of guys my age, they can’t hardly move around.

‘‘I’m so blessed to have my strength to walk around here and do some things. The age is just a number, I suppose.’’

Follow me on Twitter @SLGreenberg.

Email: sgreenberg@suntimes.com