Former major leaguer and St. Louis Cardinals fan favorite Willie McGee was in Sauget Friday to help the Gateway Grizzlies open their 2016 Frontier League season. Before the game, he sat down the BND Sports Editor Todd Eschman for a conversation about his career, his continued popularity, and his approach to baseball. Here’s a partial transcript of that conversation:
Q: How do you personally account for your continued popularity in St. Louis?
A: You live life, man, you just go be yourself. I think I’m just fortunate that I was able to be myself all those years. What you saw out there on a field is who I was. I tried to play the game hard every day. That’s just how I was raised. I was raised to work hard at a young age. My dad would take us after his first job, we would do janitorial work, help him clean up buildings in the evening. He’d come by the elementary campus after school and we’d be able to play about an hour or so until like 4:30. He’d come by in his ’64 Chevy Impala and blow the horn and we would try to hide and hope he wouldn’t blow it again. Then he’d blow it a second time and we’d run out, get in the car and go with him. I’m glad he did to this day, that we could get that experience and learn a good work ethic. You just learn to appreciate opportunity. I wanted to make sure when I got out of the game that I wouldn’t have any regrets in the end, that I’d take every day like it was going to be my last.
Q: Is it that work ethic that Midwest fans appreciate so much about you?
A: What they saw was just Willie McGee. They saw my upbringing, they saw how I was raised and how I went about my business. That’s my good fortune of having a good upbringing, with a two-parent household. You learn discipline one way or another, whether it’s by mouth or by belt or whether it’s by being sent to your room. Whatever it was, I learned it. I was just very fortunate.
Q: What was it like in 1982, making such an impact in your rookie year? Did you ever feel overwhelmed?
A: Not initially. That’s what the minor leagues are for. You groom for that and you learn how to play in front of people. Once the game starts you don’t realize, you know, what’s going on outside. You hear everything, but it’s still baseball. You train all those years in the minor leagues to be able to mentally adjust to that. When I understood where I was that year was after Game 3 of the World Series. I came into the locker room in Milwaukee ... and I turned around from my locker and I have have an aisle of reporters probably three wide and all the way back probably halfway to the wall. It’s like you stand up on the seat, and you’re like ‘wow.’ Then you start to feel the impact of what you’re into.
Q: You started your career in the Yankees organization. Do you remember much about the circumstances that brought you to St. Louis?
A: You know, playing in the Yankees organization you’d look up to the big leagues and you see Reggie Jackson and Dave Winfield and Oscar Gamble and these million-dollar players signed for years. It’s like ‘oh boy, I’ve got no chance.’ That’s the feeling you’d get. I didn’t feel like I’d have much of a chance to move up through their minor league system because of that. We pretty much stayed at whatever level for an extra year and so won there in the minor leagues. Everything was first class, (owner George Steinbrenner) treated you well and he paid you well. But that’s what they teach you in the minor leagues — how to win or else.
Q: Can you tell me a little bit about your current involvement with the Cardinals?
A: I’m basically a consultant so I go around ... and I watch the young players. If I see an outfielder not backing up a base or not throwing to the right base or whatever, I’ll tell him. If I see a hitter doing something, some basic fundamental — not mechanical, because I’m only there for a week — then I’ll go to the hitting instructor to ask him if he sees the same thing. It’s just another set of eyes. But the most important part, and the part I like the best, is that I suit up during the game and I sit in the dugout. It’s amazing after the first day how the kids start coming up to you and start asking you question. To me, that’s the most valuable part of it. They start opening up, you know, ‘hey, what did you do to be successful? What does it take to be successful?’ They start asking all the right questions.
Q: What do you tell them about being successful?
A: In the lower level, you’ll see the kids hanging their heads. They don’t know what they’re into and the game is fast to them at that stage. I’ve been there, which is another good asset. Now I can tell these kids that no matter how good you’re going, or how bad you’re going, you stay in the same routine. Myself, I would get to the park at 3 o’clock for a 7 o’clock game, get in the cage, do my routine, take my soft toss, work on my fundamentals. I’m not hitting then, I’m just working on my fundamentals. Then I’d go in, relax, get a sandwich or something, watch some video, talk and have a few jokes with the fellas, then go out to regular BP. While I’m doing regular BP, I’m out there in the outfield, not just standing around. I’m taking balls off the bat, because Whitey (Herzog) told me when I first got there to take balls off the bat. By doing that, I learned you can take as many fungos as you want to from the coaches, but it’s not like a game. Anything I can do that’s close to a game, I learned is better for me. When I’m running the bases in practice, I take it serious. I’m not running 110 percent but I’m making sure I’m taking my reads every day, so when I get in a big game -- a World Series game or something -- I’m prepared. If I make a mistake, it’s not because I’m not prepared and I can live with myself. If I don’t take that initiative to chase balls off the bat during BP and I mess up, then I can’t live with myself. That’s how we looked at it.
Q: Have you ever thought about being a manager?
A: Nah. I’m not a thinker (laughing hysterically) I’ll tell you what kind of manager I would be. I’m not going to go by the book. I’ll have one bunt play, I’ll have the least amount of plays, the least amount of strategies as I can to keep the game simple and fun.
Q: Who was the best hitting coach you had?
A: I helped myself a lot by putting in the work. But, we had a coach, Dave Ricketts. I liked coaches that don’t over coach. As he’d say, a big thing about the big leagues at that point is confidence. I’ve tried everything, done everything, so he would just say ‘when are you going to be Willie?’ We would go down to the batting cages and wouldn’t even take a bat. We’d just sit down and talk and just clear my head.
Q: Did you do anything special with bat grip or philosophy in your approach to hitting?
A: I just grabbed the bat, see the ball, hit the ball. I try to keep it as simple as possible. You work on fundamentals. When I’m in the cage hitting early BP, I’m not worried about where the ball goes. The best chance I have at being successful is to see that ball leave the tee. If I’m hitting off the tee, boom, I’m not worried about where the ball goes. I can’t control where the ball goes once it leaves ... so I want to make sure the thing I have control over is seeing the ball hit the bat ... I would take a lot of swings. That was my way. If I didn’t hit a lot, I didn’t feel comfortable. Some guys, if they hit too much, they don’t feel comfortable. You have to learn yourself. In the off season I hit a lot. If you start switch hitting at 19 in pro ball and in three years become a .300 hitter, you had to put in some work. Talking is not going to get it ... You’ve got to get in there and work and work and work. That’s what worked for me.”
Q: You spent time with the Cardinals in spring training. What was your impression of the team then?
A: I stay on the minor league side. They try to get me to come over, but I like teaching over here and talking to the young guys. I just enjoy that a lot.”
Q: Before you rejoined pro baseball with the Cardinals, you stayed very close the game.
A: Even when I retired, I coached fast-pitch softball for 10 years. I helped coach at the college, I’ve coached Little League, I’ve coached travel teams. I’m always around it some where. I’ve found as long as I’m around the game, I’m OK. It doesn’t necessarily have to be travel and be in a professional uniform. You realize baseball is baseball. I have to be around it now and then.
Q: Was it ever a goal to coach in the professional ranks?
A: No, not at the time. I just wasn’t ready. I still had a family that was still growing and I wasn’t ready up until a couple of years ago. Everybody is grown and doing their own thing now, so it’s time. The way I coach is I like to think about things I liked about coaches, what they did and what they applied to me. And I thought about the things I didn’t like about coaches and make sure I don’t do that to these kids. You learn from the good and bad of every situation.
Q: What is the biggest mistake coaches make with young kids?
A: Over coaching and not giving them a chance to fail or succeed. I had an experience my first year in big league camp. I had played three years in the minor leagues and had gotten better every year to a point to where I thought I was ready for my chance at a big league job. It took me three years in the minor leagues to where the game slowed down and I didn’t have to think, but just react. It slowed down that much. I got to spring training and my first day I’m ready to get in the batting cage and a coach pulls me aside and he says ‘hey, I taught Willie Wilson how to hit and I want you to do this, and do this, and do this ...’ I was like ‘oh no. I’ve waited for this opportunity all my life and I want to do it my way.’ I felt like I should have that opportunity, but now I’m going in a cage and I’m thinking ‘man, if I don’t do what he says, they’ll think I’m uncoachable.’ But this was my time and I’m fighting it. You can’t take batting practice thinking like that, let alone play a game. I see some coaches doing this to kids during the game and get them thinking about too many things before they go up there instead of just see the ball and hit it. I said I’ll never do a kid like that. Thank God, that same day, Dave Ricketts went over and grabbed that guy and said ‘hey, you don’t know this kid, leave him alone.’ I was like ‘whew, thank you.’