St. Louis Cardinals

Willie McGee’s humility, work ethic are what have endeared him to St. Louis Cardinals fans

Willie McGee formerly of the St.Louis Cardinals throws out a first pitch at the Gateway Grizzlies home opener at GCS Ballpark against the Washington Wildthings Friday.
Willie McGee formerly of the St.Louis Cardinals throws out a first pitch at the Gateway Grizzlies home opener at GCS Ballpark against the Washington Wildthings Friday.

The St. Louis Cardinals lay claim a total of 37 former players, coaches, administrators and associated media members who are enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

Willie McGee is not one of them and probably never will be.

But with the possible exception of Stan Musial — the greatest Cardinal of them all — who is more universally adored by this rabid fan base we call Cardinal Nation?

CONVERSATION WITH WILLIE MCGEE: See a transcript of my conversation with Willie here

Take yourself back to his heyday.

Cue the theme to “The Natural.”

See McGee walking to the plate with that awkward gait — his shoulders slumped forward like a teenage boy trying to learn control of his grown-up body. He’d drill himself into the ground swinging at two pitches in the dirt, then rope a line drive into that wide right-center field gap at old Busch Stadium and leg a double into a triple.

His career certainly has given us moments to remember, like that autumn evening in Milwaukee, when Willie the rookie practically won Game 3 of the 1982 World Series all by himself by hitting a pair of home runs and taking another one away from Gorman Thomas.

(My favorite Willie McGee moment occurred on a freezing cold evening at Busch Stadium II. The Cardinals were tied in the bottom of the ninth of their home opener with the Montreal Expos and McGee hit the first pitch he saw from Ugueth Urbina over the wall in right field for a walk-off home run. My wife Shelly, who loves McGee, was tucked head to toe under a quilt to keep warm — even her face — and she missed the whole thing.)

For my money, watching Willie run was a ton more fun than seeing Big Mac mash. Almost as fun was watching him in a locker room interview trying desperately to divert attention to someone else. It’s not because he was bothered or surly, but because he was too genuinely humble to understand the attention the rest of the room knew he had brought to himself.

He was the first former player voted by fans into the Cardinals’ Hall of Fame.

But this love affair between city and ballplayer is more profound even than a .295 lifetime batting average, two batting titles and an MVP award in 1985. I’m not sure such a stat exists, but I feel safe in assuming that McGee is baseball’s career leader in curtain calls.

McGee showed up at GCS Ballpark in Sauget Friday to help the Gateway Grizzlies kick off their 2016 Frontier League campaign. His presence drew a capacity crowd of nearly 6,000 fans, many of whom paid the $100 premium for a pregame meet-and-greet.

Down in the Grizzlies’ training room before the game, I asked McGee if he’d ever wondered to himself why he was, and remains, so popular in St. Louis.

He initially said no, but then volunteered something that gave great insight to the question.

“You live life, man, you just go be yourself,” he said. “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 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. You just learn to appreciate opportunity. “

This is why Cardinals fans love Willie McGee.

He is the right fit for St. Louis, a blue-collar player raised in California with Midwestern values that appeal to the hard working people who fill the stands.

His focus was set firmly on his game, his team and on being the best he can be day-in and day-out without any expectation of anything in return.

And for that, he’s the reluctant recipient of a lifetime of appreciation.

Sports Editor Todd Eschman: 618-239-2540, @tceschman