St. Louis — Willie McGee, this year's National League batting champion at .353, was standing outside the batting cage doing what he does second best: not talking. The thing the fleet St. Louis Cardinal centerfielder does best, of course, is slice baseballs into parts of the field where no outfielder would ever think to look for them. Power he has in only limited supply, but under the right circumstances Willie could probably steer a baseball through a keyhole, a fact the Kansas City Royals are discovering in the World Series.
When it comes to conversation, though, Willie is a walking quiet zone who considers any spoken sentence with more than one vowel in it the equivalent of a book.
Asked to explain the spectacular improvement in his batting average this season, McGee never raised his eyes from the ground as he replied: ``Sorry, sir, it's too close to game time for me to talk right now.''
When a visiting reporter wanted to know out loud what all this sir stuff was all about, teammate Ozzie Smith, who was standing nearby, came to the rescue.
``It's just Willie's way,'' the Cardinal shortstop explained. ``He's always like that before a game because he concentrates so much. When we got McGee in 1982, I knew he didn't have a place to stay. So I told him my wife and I had an extra bedroom he could use. Six months later he was still calling my wife Mrs. Smith. That's how shy he is.''
What was it you wanted to ask him, Ozzie wanted to know, while assuring the writer that he wasn't kidding about the Mrs. Smith part. The reporter said he was curious about the 62-point increase in Willie's batting average from his .291 figure a year ago.
By now, with the groundskeepers disassembling the batting cage, Smith and a newspaperman had started to walk toward the Cardinals' dugout.
``I doubt if he'd tell you the reason, because he doesn't like excuses,'' Ozzie said, ``But Willie was fighting injuries all of last year. They weren't serious enough to keep him out of the lineup, but I know they bothered him a lot. Of course I didn't find out he was having problems until well into the season, and then only by accident. He never complains; he just goes out and plays.''
Putting a bat into the 6 ft. 1 in. McGee's hands is like giving a Stradivarius to the lead violinist of the New York Philharmonic. He can't wait to give you a recital, only Willie, instead of playing cadenzas, turns base hits into the William Tell Overture. The pitch doesn't always have to be in the strike zone to satisfy his tastes either.
McGee, who came to St. Louis from the New York Yankees in a minor league trade, had a fine rookie season in 1982. It was in Game 3 of the World Series that year, however, when he made his presence known to all, smashing two home runs and making a pair of spectacular catches to highlight a victory that helped the Cardinals on the way to their eventual overall triumph.
Willie continued to play well in the outfield while hitting in the .290s in 1983 and '84, then made his quantum leap on the statistical ledger this year. He led the league in hits with 216, and while teammate Vince Coleman may have gotten more headlines with his 110 thefts, McGee fired a few after-burners himself en route to 56 stolen bases, a league-leading 18 triples, and 114 runs scored.
The highest previous batting average in the National League for a single year by a switch-hitter was .348, held jointly by Pete Rose and Frankie Frisch. Well, that record now belongs to Willie, although he's still a few percentage points behind all-time leader, Mickey Mantle, who once hit .365 for the New York Yankees.
When a player of McGee's caliber is hot, there is no way any pitcher is going to keep him consistently off the bases. And that includes the New York Mets' Dwight Gooden, against whom Willie hit over .400 this season.
Actually, one of the few times McGee wasn't himself this year was in the National League playoffs against the Los Angeles Dodgers, whose pitchers worked him very carefully and had good success jamming him inside.
He came to life in the deciding game, however, with three hits, two runs scored, two RBIs, and a stolen base, and has also been a key factor in the World Series so far.
In the Cardinals' 3-1 opening game victory, Willie drove in the first St. Louis run with a ground ball and later smashed a double only to be thrown out trying for third on a textbook relay. Then in Game 2 his leadoff double triggered the four-run ninth-inning rally that lifted the Cards to a come-from-behind 4-2 decision and a two games to none lead as the best-of-seven series moves to St. Louis for the mid-week contests starting tonight.
Physically, McGee has a gaunt body, so slim that he looks like a guy who could shower in a clarinet. His teammates have nicknamed him after a TV cartoon character called the Roadrunner, whose speed is legendary. In fact, Willie's legs during a steal of second base are moving so fast that they often seem to disappear into thin air.
``If you're wondering why Willie is so good with the bat, it's because he gets out and practices hitting baseballs more often than anyone on this team,'' volunteered Cardinal coach Red Schoendienst. ``He's what I call a good old country boy who just loves the game.''
Winner of a $25,000 bonus this year for being named to the All-Star team, Willie took the money and made a down payment on a new Mercedes. But did he tell anybody about it or ever drive it to the park on a game day?
``The last time I saw him in our parking lot,'' says Schoendienst, ``he was driving a 4-wheel drive Blazer.''
Willie just isn't the type to change his ways overnight -- either in conversation or in cars. And the way he has swung the bat this year, it will be fine with the Cardinals if he doesn't make any changes there for a while either.