Willie McGee stepped into Grant's Cabin restaurant in St. Louis one recent afternoon and stood in line behind several other patrons. The people in front of McGee were waiting their turn to buy tickets to the 39th Annual Sportsman of the Year Luncheon, sponsored by the Kiwanis Club of South Side, and a huge photo of the honoree hung in the banquet room.
McGee waited his turn with mouth closed and almond-shaped eyes characteristically cast downward. When the others had bought their tickets, McGee stepped to the ticket seller's table, looked up and, clearly uncomfortable, said, "I'm Willie McGee. This luncheon's for me."
McGee needs no introduction in St. Louis, but that never occurred to him. He is so bashful and self-effacing that he spends nearly all his time looking down. "When Willie hits a home run," says Cardinal pitcher Bill Campbell, "it's almost like he's embarrassed."
Looking down is also the only way McGee can see the rest of the National League. He leads the NL in hitting at .357, 36 points higher than the next best, the Dodgers' Pedro Guerrero. He'll probably break the league record for highest average by a switch hitter, .348, held by Pete Rose and Frank Frisch, and he has a chance to break Mickey Mantle's alltime mark of .365. Even Dwight Gooden can't get him out: McGee is 10 for 18 against Doctor K this season.
September 29, 1985
"I don't think I've ever had a ballplayer I've just stayed away from," Cardinals' manager Whitey Herzog says. "I never have said anything to Willie. I just watch him use his natural ability."
That ability includes speed (49 stolen bases), power (26 doubles, 16 triples, 10 homers) and as good a glove as can be found in centerfield. Whenever he runs, he looks like—beep, beep—the Road-runner, accelerating in a puff of dust and arriving slightly ahead of his legs. He is the heart of the first-place Cardinals and a strong candidate for the Most Valuable Player award. "I told Willie to quit making a joke out of the league," says Cincinnati's Pete Rose.
If MYP stood for Most Voluble Player, however, McGee would finish far down in the voting. "Does he talk, or just hit and run?" asks Reds pitcher Ted Power. Shy guy that he is, McGee prefers to avert his I's, too. "I'm not one that has to be in the limelight," he says. "I feel better if I'm not recognized. I'm not here to try and be a movie star. Baseball—that's it. If I get rich, fine. If not, O.K."
Since McGee said this from behind the wheel of a new black Mercedes-Benz 500 SEC (price: $57,800), one can assume he's more fine than O.K. His $25,000 bonus for making the All-Star team was the down payment. But the car abashes him. He hasn't mentioned the purchase to many people and still drives his Chevy Blazer to Busch Stadium.
"If you're telling everybody how good you are and all of a sudden you hit rock bottom, then they come up and ask what's the matter," McGee says.
"You'll find that Willie is one of the shyest people you will ever meet," says shortstop Ozzie Smith, with whom McGee lived for his first two seasons in the majors. "That's not his thing, talking about himself. He's a total team player. He's very sincere. He's not trying to be disrespectful." Smith's 30-year-old wife, Denise, says, "For the first six months Willie stayed with us, he called me Mrs. Smith. Finally he called me Denise, but it was two years before he called me Neecie, which is what my friends call me."
"When I first brought him up in May of '82, he hit .350 or .390 for six weeks," says Herzog. "He would make an out and put his head down and come back to the bench, and it looked like tears would come to his eyes. One day Bob Forsch walked over to me and said, 'Boy, I'd hate to see him at a funeral.' "
McGee's 1982 season remains "a fantasy" to him. The year actually began in October '81, when the Yankees, for whom McGee had been nothing more than a lost ball in high weeds for five years, traded him to St. Louis for pitcher Bob Sykes. The deal soon brought back memories of the Ernie Broglio—for—Lou Brock trade.
Sykes began '82 in Triple A and finished in Double A, while McGee began in Triple A and finished in the World Series. In Game 3 McGee hit two home runs and made two spectacular catches in a 6-2 victory. Now, three years later, the Cardinals are fighting to get into another World Series.
McGee is a dogged worker. "When he first came to the big leagues, I wanted him to go out and take the ball coming off the bat in all the parks new to him," Herzog says. "So I told him to get out there in batting practice and play centerfield like in game conditions. Three years later, he still does it."
McGee's penchant for breaking a sweat was picked up early, from his father, Hurdice, a retired machinist. "When I was in elementary and junior high," says McGee, who grew up in Richmond, Calif., "my father was working two jobs, one of which was janitorial. My brother and I would go to the playground after school, and every day at five or six my father would come by and take us to work, to clean big buildings with him. Then I thought it was terrible, that he was taking away our childhood in a way. Now I know what it is to work hard. It doesn't scare me."
McGee's father is a deacon in the Greater Faith Pentecostal Church in Richmond. Mr. McGee prevented Willie's older brother, Roger, from playing ball because the church's bishop considered it a sin. "But my father never did try to stop me," McGee says. "I'd be in Sunday school and I'd slip out to go play, and I wouldn't ask his permission because of the fear I had that he might say no."
As Smith took McGee into his home, so last season did McGee do the same for midseason call-up Terry Pendleton. This year McGee's guest is Vince Coleman, he of the 101 steals. The three-bedroom condo they share is decorated with wool wall hangings, a pool table, stereo system and two big TVs. Architectural Digest hasn't called.
Their togetherness extends onto the playing field. With Coleman batting first and McGee second, they have driven rival pitchers and catchers crazy. They have 10 double steals, including last month's double-double steal against Chicago. Coleman's speed has helped make McGee a better, more patient hitter. "It used to be he would swing at anything," says Herzog. "But when Vince gets on, Willie really gives him a chance to steal. He has kinda thrived on it."
On the afternoons of most home games, the two can be seen ordering chicken nachos and stir-fried shrimp at T.G.I. Friday's restaurant. At such a lunch recently, McGee talked about the way people now react to him.
"They walk right up and start talking to you like they know you," McGee says. "They don't know me. If I saw someone over there I'd like to speak to, I'd think about what I would say and be really cautious. Girls come up and talk to you. I know where they're coming from. In the minors I couldn't get a date."
McGee now feels at home in the majors. When he arrived at spring training this year, he pulled coaches Dave Ricketts and Johnny Lewis aside and told them he felt confident enough of his swing that they could go ahead and work with the younger guys instead of him. Says Smith, "I said in the spring this would be the year that Willie blossomed into an all-around player."
Other than the All-Star bonus, there's only one other incentive clause in the three-year $1.2 million contract McGee signed before the '84 season. He'll get $50,000 if he wins the MVP award. "I say it's McGee all the way," Pittsburgh manager Chuck Tanner says. "He just does so many things, and he does them so well."