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for the love of mcgee

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words of praise this morning for willie mcgee, the onetime yankee farmhand whose number comes down from the busch countdown wall this evening (and who surely will execute the deed in person). i saw his first big-league at-bat and was not impressed; he pinch-hit for dane iorg in the 8th inning of a 3-1 loss to the reds and struck out on three pitches, the last one six inches over his head. his swing on strike three traced the same arc as an overhand serve in tennis. willie's trip back to the dugout after that "at-bat" was the fastest in mlb history, and you can understand why; he'd spent so little time at the plate half the crowd still hadn't noticed who was batting, and he wanted to disappear before those patrons found out.

that was may 10, 1982. the cardinals seemingly did not need another outfielder at the time; they already had lonnie smith, george hendrick, dane iorg, david green (the anointed cf of the future), and tito landrum, and they were leading the league in runs scored and stood first in the nl east by 4.5 games. but when green went on the dl, herzog needed an outfielder to play centerfield against left-handed pitchers -- so up came mcgee, whose minor-league career was undistinguished at best. he hit .236 in rookie ball (playing 3,500 miles away from home at the age of 18), .251 in his first year of a-ball, .243 in his first half-season of double-a. he spent two more full years at that level and was already 23 by the time he saw his first triple-a pitch -- not promising. he'd only taken 55 at-bats at that level when the cardinals called; no wonder he was swinging at pitches over his head. kid was terrified.

so herzog started him the next day, probably against bob shirley (retrosheet's down!), and willie drew a walk and stole a base and the cardinals won 5-1. he started again the next game, got his first hit, and the cards won 10-9. he took a day off, then came off the bench to go 2 for 2 in a 7-6 win over atlanta. got a pinch-hit double the day after that to raise his big-league average to .400. he got a start in san francisco and went 2 for 5 with 3 rbi in front of hometown family and friends; went 2 for 3 with 3 runs a couple days later against san diego. now herzog was hitting him 2d in the order, behind either ozzie or lonnie; he went 4 for 5 at busch on may 31, then 3 for 4 on june 6, launching a string of five consecutive starts in which mcgee went 11 for 24 and raised his average to .365. (thanks to pinto's day-to-day database for game-by-game log.) that essentially won him the everyday job; he started 66 of the club's last 81 games. finished at .296 with 24 steals; steve sax and johnny ray finished ahead of him in the rookie of the year voting.

in the summer of 1989 willie was on my flight from st louis to san francisco (i was living in berkeley at the time). he was sidelined with a bad hamstring injury and presumably coming home to see his family and friends in richmond, california. my buddy dan, a native new yorker and mets/yankees rooter, met me at the airport and as he and willie and i stood around the baggage carousel he kept bugging me: c'mawnnn, go up a twalk t' him. unable to goad me out of my native midwestern modesty, dan the man walked on up to willie himself and started new yawkin' him. who's better? he asked, you or juan samuel? the cards can't beat the mets, can they? (both teams were trailing montreal at the time, and rather badly.) why don't you come play for the yankees? we need a centerfielder. willie surely wanted to run away as fast as he had from his mlb-debut at-bat years before, but he stood politely and played it straight -- samuel's a good player . . . . mets are good . . . . yankees are a great organization. even gave it back a little; to dan: you look like a ballplayer; maybe the yankees should take a look at you.

he was as gentle a soul as ever wore a cardinal uniform, but also tough and (his first at-bat notwithstanding) unafraid. one play above all others sticks out in my mind -- a line drive that he snared with two on and none out late in game 6 of the nlcs against the giants. the cards were clinging to a 1-0 lead and clearly weren't going to score anything more off of dave dravecky; sf had put the first two men on; after a failed sacrifice, somebody (again, w retrosheet down i can't check) scorched a line drive into the left centerfield gap that looked sure to give the giants the lead and, likely, the series. no arc on the drive whatsoever; it was headed for the base of the wall on the fly, plumes of exhaust trailing off it. except mcgee cut it off, closed the gap with those long stick-figure strides of his, reached up over his head on the dead run and hauled it in. the 1-0 lead held; the cards won the next night 6-0 and went to their third world series in six years.

17 years on the stage, 51, but you were still on and off too fast for me. wish i were there to applaud you tonight.