Last night was sort of a special event in St. Louis for my beloved, fading St. Louis Cardinals. Willie McGee was back in town, igniting again debate between zealous fans who think McGee’s number should be retired and derisive scribes who look askance at the adulation poured onto a single player and point out that number retirement is reserved in St. Louis for Hall Of Famers.
I know. I know. The baseball writers tell us that if the Cardinals are really intent on retiring a number for a player who won’t be enshrined in Cooperstown, then that number should be the 15 worn by Jim Edmonds and not the 51 worn by Willie McGee. I get it. I loved me some Jimmy Ballgame back in the day, and his statistics are clearly superior to the numbers McGee put up during his career.
There’s a thing, though, about Willie McGee. I think maybe you had to be a young Cardinals fan under the age of 16 or so, or a female fan with kids, to really, really get it.
When there was nothing going on on the baseball field, Willie McGee looked like he just didn’t belong. He seemed to always be staring down at the ground submissively, like a kid who is about to be yelled at. He walked with that awkward, goofy pigeon-toed gait that seemed to promise that he was about to fall flat on his face. He was as ugly as any ballplayer since Don Mossi; he *did* sort of look like ET.
…and then Gorman Thomas would hit a ball that looked sure to sail over the fence in center, and there was that awkward doofus, suddenly transformed into a graceful greyhound streaking towards the wall like a bullet; an impossible leap, glove in the air, and a thwap as the homerun died in his mitt. You’d see Willie strike out in the first inning on that infernal low-and-inside curve in the dirt and he’d spin and all but stumble-run back to the dugout looking for all the world like Timmy Lupus from Bad News Bears about to break into tears on the way. A few innings later,though, McGee would use that awkward, awful swing of his to drive a ball into the gap and again he was flying–this time around the bases–and setting up his offense to take control.
I know a lot of grown adult men at the time appreciated Willie, but it was the kids and moms who made him an icon in St. Louis. The moms thing is easy to understand. Willie had that hard-to-define “Ringo factor” with that hangdog expression that seemed to click some maternal instinct into overdrive in women. They loved the guy. They wanted to hug him after a strikeout and tell him it was going to be ok. They wanted to cluck him on the chin and tell him not to be so down.
The kids though–those of us who were lucky enough to follow the Cardinals during those magical 1980′s years and who were still young enough to be able to talk about them in junior high and grade school–we were the ones who really took Willie to heart. It is tough to empathize with the Roy Hobbses and even Willie Mays Hayses of popular baseball fiction. Those fellows were gifted with athleticism and confidence. The dark secret that no one talks much about in adulthood is that not many of us were particularly gifted athletes when we were young, and even fewer of us manifested much confidence in ourselves. What we’ll only tell therapists about childhood sports is that for most of us it was a non-stop exercise in paranoia and abject fear of being picked last, being made fun of, of not fitting in with the faster, stronger, more graceful kids. (In typing that I’ll confess that the “graceful kids” that I perceived had the same fears and uneasiness about their betters, and that there were less-athletic kids than I who probably saw me as one of the “athletic kids”; such is the sliding scale of anxiety that is childhood sport.) If you struck out or dropped a popup or gave up a 7-run inning in little league, , if you airballed a free throw in Youth League basketball, heck, even if you dropped a sure touchdown pass in backyard football, the derision your peers would rain down on you could be crushing and brutal.
And so here was Willie McGee. He was ugly and ungainly and hardly fit in with the other members of the Cardinals. He looked like he’d spent his entire life being the last guy picked for teams, and when you saw him hobble around staring at the ground the whole time, you could understand why that was. And so here’s what we kids realized: Willie was one of us. We could relate. Willie made awful and super-visible mistakes. (I happened to be present in person at the 1982 LCS game when Willie wrote his name into one of the great juvenile baseball jokes of all time by ignoring entreaties from Redbird third base coach Chuck Hiller to keep running, choosing instead to stand resolute at third.) He looked like a misfit out there, and for those of us struggling through the insecurities of pre-and early adolescence all of that clicked with us. We identified with it and adopted him as our own.
That in and of itself does not get a generation of fans begging for a jersey retirement. For all his awkward shyness and seeming lack of grace, Willie was a damn good ballplayer. Led the league in hitting twice. Won an MVP. Took 3 gold gloves. Guy could play. And so you’d see Willie on TV looking like he didn’t belong in the pregame introductions for Game 3 at County Stadium in Milwaukee…and then later in the game there he was taking a home run away and then cracking two himself to lead the team to victory in one of the greatest single-game Fall Classic performances of all time. That taps into the second part of what made Willie a guy so many of us took into our hearts. If he was clearly the last guy picked his whole life, here he was suddenly doing things that few, if any, other players on the field could do. Time and again he seemed to step into the moment and deliver. Time and again commentators would shake their heads and chuckle and remark about the “unlikely hero” of the Redbirds. What I’d only come to understand much later is that Willie was our version of the kid who was ordinary like us but who possessed within himself the ability to rise above. Willie was Harry Potter a decade before anyone knew what Hogwarts was. Willie made his insecure, unsure, awkward young fans realize that they too could do great things if they cared enough, worked hard enough, and tried enough.
Don’t laugh at us, then, those of us who would be delighted to discover that number 51 had been retired by the Cardinals. Don’t mock those of us who have as their most cherished memory a birthday baseball trip to Busch Stadium in October of 1999. (McGee had already announced his retirement and this was to be his final game; he had torn his hamstring badly a week before and could barely walk, but somehow gutted out an AB–he hit into a double play–and then was allowed to limp/walk out to left field for the start of the next inning. In a classy move, Tony LaRussa took him out of the game before the first pitch of the inning to applause that would have only been more thunderous if so many of us weren’t wiping tears from our eyes.) The Cardinals brought Willie back to town last night for “Willie McGee Bobblehead Night” and the stands were packed and Willie took a trip around the field in the back of a truck, an honor reserved for Redbird Hall of Famers like Stan Musial and Bob Gibson and Lou Brock. The standing ovation was loud and prolonged, and I realize that as such it probably makes that Cardinal fanbase an easy target for the jibes of cynical writers and sabermatricians. That is what it is, I suppose. What cannot be understood if you weren’t of that generation was a need felt by so many of us to stand as adults ourselves and once again give Willie McGee a heartfelt thanks for showing us the way.