The summer before, the Cardinals had traded McGee to Oakland in the midst of hitting .335 – the second highest average during his 18-year career and the second time he led the National League in batting average. The Giants, McGee's new team, was in St. Louis for a four-game series, bringing the beloved outfielder back to St. Louis for the first time since the trade. There had been some discussion in the media about the reception for McGee's return. Vince Coleman had received boos his first game back in St. Louis after signing a free agent contract with the Mets. Of course, it was different for McGee.
After being announced, a standing ovation swept through the crowd. In the box seats and the nosebleeds, in the bleachers and almost all the seats in between, St. Louis welcomed McGee home. In an obvious effort to calm his emotions, McGee stepped out of the batter's box, squatted down and waved his arm above his head in a small acknowledgment. He didn't tip his cap, he didn't stand and look around at the crowd milking every cheer out of it he could. During that special ovation, he didn't try to make himself bigger than the moment. With one small gesture, that's Willie McGee.
When Willie returned to the Cardinals in 1996 until his retirement after the 1999 season, he was greeted by a similar ovation almost every time he entered the game. It was as if the fans wanted to say thank you for that first stint with the Birds on the Bat every at bat.
I know why I cheered McGee that June 1991 night and every game in his last four seasons here in St. Louis. First, he was the last link to the great Cardinal teams of the 1980s. Ozzie Smith retired in 1996. Whitey Herzog had been gone for several seasons. Tommy Herr, Jack Clark, Darrel Porter, Jon Tudor, Danny Cox and the rest were long gone. But we still had Willie.
No. 51 always played the game the right way. He hustled in the outfield. He ran the bases hard. He could have the ugliest swing on the first pitch and stroke one to the wall the next. I remember Willie once told "This Week In Baseball" that his favorite hit was the triple because of the distance. An inside the park homerun was just too far, but a double wasn't far enough. The triple was just the right distance to run. Hustle players think that way.
Willie was the last Cardinal before Albert Pujols to win the MVP. When Willie came out on opening day this year to catch one of the two first pitches at the new stadium from Pujols, No. 51 received one of the loudest ovations on the day. As loud or louder than Brock, Gibson and even Musial.
I'm not going to argue stats because this debate isn't about numbers. It's an appeal to the heart not the head. No, McGee isn't a Hall of Famer, but neither is Ken Boyer. Willie was an All-Star four times during the 1980s. He won three gold gloves during that same decade. As a rookie, he sparked the 1982 team in the Brewers series with his glove and his bat.
Where the debate ends for me is when you look at the eras already represented with retired numbers on the left field wall. Dizzy Dean represents the 1930s. Enos Slaughter, Red Schoendiest and Stan the Man played for great teams during the 1940s and 1950s. Lou Brock, Bob Gibson and Boyer for the 1960s and 1970s. Ozzie for the 1980s and Gussie Busch for 36 years of commitment to the team. No other Cardinal besides Ozzie will even be considered to represent the three World Series teams in the 1980s, and that's a damn shame. Those of us who grew up watching the running Redbirds compare all other teams to those squads.
Just like his first at bat back at the old Busch Stadium, McGee isn't going to lobby or seek the attention for his number. That's why the fans have to speak up for him. He deserves it, and the memories of those 1980s teams deserve it too.
Besides, name another Cardinal who had a brand of cookies named after him.