Willie McGee the player from a physical perspective shouldn't have happened. From a literal, historical sense, he almost didn't happen, too: his father, Hurdice McGee, was a machinist and strict Pentecostal deacon who did not want his son to play any sports. McGee spent most of his free time as a child cleaning buildings for extra cash with his dad. Baseball was stolen out of Sunday School, where McGee slipped out to play for fear of hearing his dad say "no."
McGee-- at least Willie McGee the Cardinal, slapping balls around Busch Stadium's inhumane spaces-- almost wasn't a Cardinal, either. He started life as a Yankee, and was traded for something named Bob Sykes after only rising to Double-A ball with the organization. In 1981 he was called to the majors, in 1982 the Cardinals won the World Series, and McGee wouldn't leave the starting lineup for nearly a decade.
McGee's understanding of the strike zone as measured by his own anatomy started six inches below his heels, and extended to somewhere just above his head.
Like most beautiful historical accidents, McGee flourished in large part because of finding just the right habitat at just the right time. The odd national passion for building monstrous, multi-use stadiums capable of swallowing entire cities whole hit its apex in St. Louis with Busch Stadium, a hot concrete wasteland with astroturf for miles and vast dimensions only a cricket fan could adore. Hit a ball in the right place, and search parties would have to be sent for it.
The Cardinals, rather than fighting the stadium, simply made it their own and went about building a team to suit it. It is hard to describe now what watching baseball in Busch Stadium then was like without just saying, "cricket." Other baseball teams that played normal baseball with decisive home runs and doubles ringing off the outfield walls were lost and paralyzed before the thing that Whitey Herzog created out of all that void. The Cardinals did obscene, terrifying, and perverse things, things like turning Tommy Herr into a 100 RBI player and having a tarp eat one of their star outfielders once. They pitched, played defense, and hit balls into the empty savannas of Busch Stadium and dared someone to go get them while their baserunners ran loops around the diamond.*
*With McGee, Vince Coleman, and Ozzie Smith, the Cardinals might be the only team in the history of the game with enough speed to run the bases for an in-the-park home run, and then simply keep running back to first with ease for another run. That's not legal by rule, but it could have been with them.
It was perverse, but so was the very presence of McGee, a player who managed to be beautiful and ugly all at once. He was a Gold Glove outfielder who always looked tragically out of control in pursuit. He valued his defense so much that errors left him visibly distraught, something you could see from his body language on the rare occasions when he missed a ball, watched it bounce over the wall, and slumped his shoulders at an unnatural angle. During one error-binge in a 1990 season full of disastrous defense, he threw his glove over the wall and never asked for it back.
He led the NL in batting average twice while taking some of the worst swings at the most unviable pitches imaginable. McGee's understanding of the strike zone as measured by his own anatomy started six inches below his heels, and extended to somewhere just above his head. There was an invisible eight foot tall man buried to the ankles in concrete at Busch Stadium just behind home plate, and McGee protected him by trying to slap away every single ball he could before it hit him.
And while the Cardinals had a general M.O., McGee was the exemplar of every aspect of it. He stole bases, played frenetic defense, and hit power alleys with a disturbing ease and versatility. His 1985 MVP season was his masterpiece: 18 triples, 56 stolen bases, 26 doubles, and even a special bonus of ten home runs. McGee didn't care about those: in fact, Whitey Herzog said he always seemed a bit embarrassed by them.
The Cardinals appeared in three World Series during the 1981-90 heyday of Whiteyball, and Willie McGee played an integral part in that success not just because of his overall excellence, but because of his specific brilliance in the Cardinal system. He was a very, very good baseball player by any standards, and an excellent one in his special spot in Whitey Herzog's reductionist game of the 1980s.
Yet as good as he was as a player, Willie McGee starts to soar when you look at him as a style unto himself.
When he got to the plate, he looked like he had just been beaten by angry people with truncheons, a crouched, stiff figure who didn't swing a bat so much as he threw it at the ball hoping for something to happen. It was a half-swing, really, the kind you'd take if an old war injury had left you with half a shoulder joint and shards of depleted uranium in your knees. He leaned backward waiting for pitches like a 75 mile an hour gale was blowing in his face. He looked, in the words of his teammate John Morris, like he "was in a lot of pain, and having a miserable time."
That sounds bad, but it got worse. At one point, provided McGee threw the bat and it made contact with the ball, there was a point where Willie McGee, all pained face and salvage-grade joints, had to begin moving like a human. Once he turned and got over the shock of hitting the ball-- and no matter the situation, McGee always looked shocked he'd made contact -- McGee would lurch forward and begin running on the balls of his feet, always at a ridiculously pitched angle like he had an invisible drag chute bolted directly to his shoulder blades.
It looked fast in motion, but let's specify what kind of fast. There is the fast of a Usain Bolt, the kind of effortless, long-striding speed, and there is the bull-strong intimidation of a Lamborghini you get when someone with giant traps can also run a 4.4 second 40 yard dash. (Think Bo Jackson in his prime.) Then there is the kind of fast that terrifies you for all the wrong reasons, like when a toddler in a grocery cart gets loose and begins rolling downhill in a busy parking lot. That is the kind of speed Willie McGee had: something that once in motion begs for a merciful stop, and the immediate intervention of safety authorities.
You may like an athlete because they happen to be very good at what they do. You won't love them for this, though, or at least not without combining it with other variables that make them unique. There were players as good as Willie McGee, but none were as entertaining to watch based strictly on quirk and the apparent misery that every step caused him. That misery was only part of it, though. McGee chose the odd set of options in life in every facet of the game, a switch hitter who looked equally strange from either side of the plate, a superb center fielder prone to rare but grandiose mistakes in the field, and a man who could not take a baseball card portrait without looking like you had just:
a.) bought him the most adorable rabbit in all the world
b.) made it his only and best friend
c.) slaughtered this rabbit in front of his horrified eyes
d.) put a bat in his hand, and pointed him toward the DonRuss artist while tapping at your watch
It's easy to explain why you love a conventionally excellent player, but way, way more fun to try and explain the appeal of a top-flight athlete whose every step and twitch appeared to be bringing him dangerously close to death itself. You had this guy, St. Louis, and he was awesome and everything, but every time he hit a triple he'd pop up and have the saddest look on his face like everything he loved had died, and left him with the soul of an ancient, sad, and immortal Golem. It was like watching Buster Keaton play centerfield, and he was like that every time he played.
In summary, Willie McGee looked like a man with 300-year-old joints running downhill in a hailstorm. He was and is as close as we will ever get to watching Octodad play sports in real life, and may have been controlled at a distance by brilliant, baseball-loving aliens. If they don't consider him among their finest works, well, we certainly do.