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51-card pickup

wanna hear something kind of weird? two weekends ago we did a community projection of the brewers, and in the ensuing week ben sheets got laid up; this past weekend we projected the cubs, and now mark prior's shoulder is unsound.

we're projecting the astros this weekend; roy oswalt, beware.

i think we'd better not project the cardinals at all.

this morning's hardball times includes a perfectly timed chaser to cardnilly's excellent monday post about willie mcgee -- and if you haven't read that yet, go do it now. the THT article, written by dan fox, takes a hard look at whiteyball and finds . . . . well, i think the author bungled his own conclusion. he ends with the thought that "Whitey Ball was more style than substance and that plain old good hitting was the key offensive component to those great Cardinals teams." no doubt -- as the article notes, all three of the stl pennant winners of the 1980s led the national league in on-base percentage. but fox also determines that -- in 1985, anyway -- the cardinals speed afoot (they stole 314 bases) added 30 runs to their offense, which translates to about three games in the win column. and the cards' margin of victory over the mets that year was . . . ?

three games.

so the conclusion might just as well have read: "the cardinals' phenomenal baserunning in 1985 provided them with a thin but decisive advantage over the second-place mets."

i've been thinking a lot about that cardnilly post, wondering why i -- like so many other st louisans -- hold #51 in such lofty regard. what makes us adore him so? certainly not his performance. let's be honest: mcgee was probably the worst centerfielder the cardinals have had in the last 25 years. nilly's too courteous to put it that bluntly, but there it is. in 9 seasons as the cardinals' starting centerfielder (1982-1990), willie topped the .800 mark in OPS just one time; in the 15 years since, cardinal centerfielders (ray lankford and jim edmonds) have bettered that standard 12 times -- and topped .900 8 times. no doubt it was a different game in those days (see another recent hardball times article, "ode to the '80s", for a breakdown); and yes, mcgee was a much better fielder than lankford and a much scarier baserunner than edmonds. even taking those factors under advisement, i can't convince myself that willie was anywhere near the equal of his successors. his skill set -- a high batting average, outstanding baserunning, and superior range afield -- seems in retrospect as slight as his build.

but that doesn't make me love mcgee any less. on the contrary: those of us who saw him in his prime loved (and still love) him all the more because of his limitations, which were apparent from the moment he stepped into a big-league batter's box for the first time, back in may 1982. i happened to be in the ballpark that evening and wrote about the occasion in this old post:

he pinch-hit for dan 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.
mcgee never lost that quality of innocence, of a yearling unsteady on spindly legs. nor did he forget how thin the margin between survival and humiliation.

in that regard he personified a team that always walked a razor's edge. it's hard to picture this today, in the era of pujols and rolen and edmonds, but in 8 of mcgee's 9 seasons as the everyday centerfielder the cardinals finished dead last in the league in home runs; the other year (1985) they placed next to last. they were little guys who won their pennants over teams full of big guys -- big bats, big egos, big salaries -- from gigantic coastal cities. here's another little factoid: during all but 2 years of mcgee's 9-year run, the cardinal payroll placed in the bottom half of the 6-team nl east. they lacked money and power, yet they won anyway; how democratic. how american dream-y.

this, in my opinion, contributes mightily to the cult of mcgee. he's a link to the days when being a cardinal fan meant standing up for the common man, rooting for a team that had the odds stacked against it -- pitted against rivals from bigger markets with better players and higher payrolls. what a contrast to today's circumstances, which find the cardinals firmly ensconced as the lords of the nl central. now the cards are the big guys with the swollen payroll and the juggernaut lineup.

i don't think most of us would want to go back. the teams of the '00s are flat-out superior to the herzog teams -- better balanced, more multifaceted, and deeper in hall-of-fame-type players but those 80s teams had an ennobling quality, something the current edition can never possess -- the capacity to rise above their own limitations as well as their opponents' strengths. willie mcgee embodied that nobility better than any other member of the 1980s cardinals.

so dan fox's conclusion about whiteyball applies after all, at least vis-vis the card nation's fetish for willie mcgee: it is style over substance -- not what he did as a player, but how he did it. i'll give cardnilly the last word:

Wrapped up in one wiry, goggle-eyed package, Willie is both a symbol of the glory and success of the Powder Blue Era and a symbol of winning in the way we like to think that the Cardinal organization represents -- winning with class, winning with hard work, and winning with humility. By celebrating Willie, we're also celebrating Cardinal tradition and Cardinal values.