St. Louis — The most captivating story of the 1982 World Series so far is surely that of Willie McGee, the rookie centerfielder of the St. Louis Cardinals who has made such a big splash with his bat, his glove, and his electrifying speed.
''I don't believe I'm here,'' said the 23-year-old refugee from the New York Yankee farm system as he stood in the glare of the national spotlight after one particularly dazzling performance in Milwaukee.
His incredulity was easy enough to understand, too, in view of the fact that he began the season in the minor leagues and originally came up in May for what was supposed to be only a two-week, stopgap measure.
There was irony, also, in the fact that Willie's sudden fame came about largely through something he normally hasn't done much of - home run hitting. In five years in the Yankee organization he had a total of just 12 roundtrippers , and as far as he could recall he had never before hit two in one game ''unless maybe in Little League.''
But that's what he did in Game 3, leading the Cardinals to their only victory in Milwaukee over the weekend as the Brewers won the next two to take a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven series, which returns here for its conclusion this week.
McGee has also come up with some big defensive plays, topped by a spectacular leaping catch to rob Gorman Thomas of a probable two-run homer in that same game. He has displayed all the speed expected of him on offense, too, stealing two bases and keeping constant pressure on the defense because of the way he flies down the line. But the thing that puts him in the record book is that the two homers tied him for most by a rookie in a World Series game - matching a feat accomplished previously only by Yankee stars Charlie Keller in 1939 and Tony Kubek (one of this year's TV commentators) in 1957.
Willie grew up in San Francisco and was signed by the Yankees at age 18. He developed slowly at first, hitting only .236 and .251 in the low minors, but came along strongly after that, capped by a .322 batting average in Nashville in 1981. That was still only Class AA ball, and New York wasn't sufficiently impressed to protect the 6 ft. 1 in., 175-lb. switch-hitter by keeping him on its 40-man roster. So St. Louis jumped in, acquiring him in a minor league deal that went virtually unnoticed at the time, but looms very large right now.
''I'm glad I left them to come over here,'' McGee said earlier this year in reference to the trade. ''They're paid to hit home runs, and that's not my game. I'm basically a line drive hitter and just try to make contact.''
There's quite a bit of irony there, of course, on a couple of counts. For one thing, the long ball seems to be acquiring a somewhat bigger place in McGee's arsenal (in addition to his World Series heroics he hit the only Cardinal homer in the playoffs and should have had another). Then, too, even as the Yankees were helplessly dealing Willie away last October, knowing they'd lose him anyway as an unprotected player, owner George Steinbrenner was bemoaning the team's lack of speed in its 1981 World Series loss and getting ready to spend millions in the free agent market to acquire some.
St. Louis Manager Whitey Herzog plays down talk about any Yankee goof or his own eye for talent, pointing out that he had never seen Willie play and had gone strictly by scouting reports. But unable to resist just a little zing, Whitey added: ''With that speed and that quick bat from both sides, though, how could anybody not like him? The Yankees were the only ones who didn't like him!''
To be fair, the Cardinals weren't ready to measure Willie for a big league uniform at that point either. In fact, they were much higher on another rookie outfielder, David Green, who had been the key to the big trade with Milwaukee the previous year.
It was Green who got the media guide hype as ''the next Roberto Clemente,'' and was installed in centerfield at the start of the season, while McGee wound up in Louisville. But David was injured in May, moving the reserve outfielders into action and opening up a spot for a backup man. So McGee was called up, presumably for a couple of weeks, to fill in on the bench.
''Every time he got into a game, though, things happened,'' Herzog recalls. ''Then George Hendrick got hurt too, and once Willie started playing regularly you couldn't get him out of there.''
McGee indeed went on quite a streak, hitting in the .350s for several weeks. When Green and Hendrick were both ready to play again, and with Lonnie Smith a fixture in left field, there was one starting-type outfielder too many. But this time it was Green who went down to the minors for a while so he could play regularly, while McGee remained in center for the rest of the year.
His hitting eventually tailed off, but he still wound up as a Rookie of the Year candidate with a .296 average and 24 stolen bases - and in post-season play he has been even better.
He had a home run, two triples, and a single, scored four runs, and drove in five in the three-game playoff sweep over Atlanta. And after sitting out Game 1 of the World Series in favor of Green, who Herzog thought might do better against Milwaukee left-hander Mike Caldwell, Willie has contributed both offensively and defensively in each of the next four contests.
In Game 2 he reached first on a force play, stole second, and scored the first St. Louis run. Then after his big Game 3, when most rookies and many veterans would have been swinging from the heels trying to duplicate that explosion, Willie showed commendable discipline by reverting to his normal style , slashing an opposite-field single to left, stealing another base, and eventually scoring.
Herzog considers McGee less of a threat batting right-handed and Caldwell was pitching again in Game 5, but just as in the regular season, Willie was too hot to take out. He came through again too, with a single, giving him two homers, two singles, two stolen bases, four runs scored, and four RBIs so far, in addition to being all over the outfield.
Willie does still make some ''rookie'' mistakes, and can be erratic both in the field and on the bases. His speed enables him to reach more than his share of balls, but once there he misses some that appear catchable - as happened on one drive in Game 4 that became a key double. He also has had problems getting picked off base at times, and one of his playoff triples came about via a baserunning blunder, when he stopped at third on what would have been a certain inside-the-park home run.
Even now, though, the pluses far outweight the minuses - and when Willie eventually learns to harness all that raw speed and talent, George Steinbrenner is probably going to be a lot sorrier than he is already.