The crossed t’s of Willie McGee
When we visited Cooperstown several summers ago—a trip I’ll be writing about again soon—we stayed at a bed and breakfast just off the town’s picturesque main drag. As the proprietors were eager to show us as soon as we checked in, the B&B’s entryway had become, over the years, its own small Hall of Fame: Dozens of players who had slept and eaten there had left their well-wishes and autographs on the wall in Sharpie, senior yearbook-style.
Rickey Henderson’s ink was the freshest; his family had just left that morning, a day after the annual induction weekend had wrapped up. Ozzie Smith, Bruce Sutter, and Vince Coleman were there, too, along with a slew of non-Redbirds whose signatures we had fun deciphering at the time (much to the delight of the male B&B owner, who marveled that a pair of women recognized so many of the game’s greats), but who have mostly faded from my memory since.
Our favorite inscription, though, was Willie McGee’s. Partly just because it was his—Cardinal Nation shares a deep, protective love of number 51—and partly because when he wrote “thanks for the hospitality” in his loping cursive, he accidentally crossed the L instead of the T: “Thank you for the hospitatily.”
That’s our Willie, shyly gracious and lovably inelegant, and a true Cardinal fan will dump a cold frosty one on the head of anyone who makes fun of him for it.
The hospitality—however you choose to spell it—was running high Friday night in St. Louis, as the Cardinals honored Willie McGee with a bobblehead night (I still don’t get the bobblehead thing, but that’s a crotchety ramble for another post) and a celebration of his years with the team. It took some trickery to get the painfully modest McGee to take a lap around the stadium by himself, but he showed up, as he always did when his team needed him, and earned the cheers of Ozzie Smith, Vince Coleman, and a whole lot of fans who have plenty reason to be wistful about the scrappy, speedy Cardinal teams of the mid-’80s.
Willie McGee was one of the most lopsided, lanky, lurching players ever to stand in a batter’s box—check out John Morris’s spot-on impression of his batting stance from a 1989 episode of This Week in Baseball—but once he made contact (and he did; remember, the man won two batting titles), he ran like a cheetah who’d spotted a gazelle standing on third base. Defensively, he didn’t so much patrol center field as Roomba it, occasionally seeming directionless but reliably suctioning up everything that came his way.
And what a guy. What a guy. Check out Vahe Gregorian’s wonderful 1998 profile if you need further evidence of McGee’s native grace, or even if you don’t. I’ve seen his character likened to that of Derek Jeter, the go-to Classy Dude of the modern game, but I’m fairly certain Jeter’s never called the Twins’ front office to apologize for fist-pumping after a home run, or waited in a ticket line to get admitted to a luncheon thrown in his honor. (Obviously. He’s Derek F***ing Jeter.)
What a treat it was to see Willie, and to hear from him on the game broadcast, before he scurried back to his home in Hercules, California, a town north of Berkeley. Sometimes I think about driving through on my next trip to the Bay Area, seeking out the ball fields where he now puts his MVP skills to use as a Little League baseball and girls’ softball coach, hoping to catch a glimpse of a superstar so earnest that he never even had a nickname.
I’m not sure I’d stop to chat. I wouldn’t want to embarrass him.
P.S. Thanks, Julie, for the Wall of Fame photo!
P.P.S. Yes, the post title is a really terrible pun, sort of.