Self-effacing Willie McGee is key factor for Cardinals in Series

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Ordinarily, there are several sets of jumper cables that St. Louis Manager Whitey Herzog relies on to spark his Cardinal Red Machine into action. This is a team of mostly line-drive hitters that needs its running game working to be effective. But in the early part of this year's World Series, Herzog had an all-points bulletin out for his missing rabbits. The one notable exception was Willie McGee, who is actually part rabbit and part RBI-man in the Cardinal scheme of things - and a Gold Glove centerfielder to boot.

McGee was one of the few Redbirds who did anything in the two opening losses at Minnesota, with three hits in seven at-bats. He added two more hits in the Cardinals' first victory Tuesday night to raise his Series average to .455, easily the best among St. Louis regulars.

The other speedsters at the top of the Cardinal lineup - Vince Coleman, Ozzie Smith, and Tommy Herr - hit a combined .083 (2-for-24) in the first two games. They, too, came alive in Game 3 to spark the win that pulled the National League champions back into the picture. But day in and day out, the importance of McGee can't be overstated.

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Once thought of as primarily a speedy ``table setter,'' Willie blossomed into an all-around hitting star in his MVP season of 1985, when he lead the league with a .353 batting average, stole 56 bases, scored 114 runs, and drove in 82. This year he went over the century mark in RBIs for the first time, placing among the league leaders with 105. And while a 170-pound wrist hitter is never likely to hit too many home runs, he even managed a career-high total of 11 in this department.

McGee is easy to identify. He is the almond-eyed St. Louis player who is so bashful and self-effacing that even after making a spectacular play in the field or getting an extra base hit he continues to stare at the ground. Sorrowful Jones looks ecstatic next to Willie.

But put a bat in McGee's hands and the shyness gives way to an aggressive confidence that he can hit any pitcher - and with good reason. Some baseball scouts, in fact, think he's the best switch-hitter to come along since Pete Rose.

Willie's swing is so compact that he could probably hit in a phone booth. His body is a coiled spring that rips into a baseball like a backhoe into a piece of soft turf. His line drives are so crisp that you could hang out the wash on them. And his concentration and bat speed have to make pitchers uncomfortable.

Even the wrist and thumb injuries which have bothered him throughout the current postseason couldn't stop him from batting .308 against San Francisco in the Cardinals' playoff victory and continuing to look sharp against the Twins.

And then there is his defense. Probably no other outfielder in baseball is better at cutting off apparent doubles that are hit into the alleys and reducing them to singles.

But McGee, who would rather be seen than heard, acts like a spear carrier among his teammates rather than the genuine star he is. Applause makes him uncomfortable. He responds to cheers like a guy getting a parking ticket.

``I'm not here to be recognized, I'm here to play baseball,'' he says. ``I don't like to talk about myself because I'm just one member of the team.''

For Willie, one sentence is a book, two sentences a filibuster. It's not that he is unfriendly or anything like that. He just doesn't like to talk to people he doesn't know.

Ozzie Smith, one of McGee's closest friends on the team, tells this story:

``When the Cardinals brought Willie up from Louisville partway into the 1982 season, I knew he didn't have a place to stay, and that can be tough on a rookie. So I told him my wife and I had this extra bedroom that he could use. Six months later he was still calling my wife Mrs. Smith. That's how polite and shy he is.''

Where the steel inside Willie begins to show is anytime he comes up to hit. He's not up there taking, he's up there swinging. This year he had 620 at-bats and walked only 24 times.

But, as Smith points out, such numbers don't always tell the whole story.

``Despite the fact that he still doesn't walk much, McGee is a more patient hitter than when the Cardinals first got him in 1982,'' Ozzie said. ``Now he's more apt to wait for the pitcher to come to him, instead of reaching out and maybe only getting a piece of the ball.''

Herzog, asked how he communicates with his star pupil, replied:

``I don't. I just send him out there and watch while his natural ability takes over. Even when he's off a little at the plate, you never have to ask him to take extra batting practice, because he does that anyway. And he already gets to everything that stays up in the field, so what am I going to tell him ... run faster?''

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