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"When I first brought him up in May of '82, he hit .350 or .390 for six weeks," says Herzog. "He would make an out and put his head down and come back to the bench, and it looked like tears would come to his eyes. One day Bob Forsch walked over to me and said, 'Boy, I'd hate to see him at a funeral.' "
McGee's 1982 season remains "a fantasy" to him. The year actually began in October '81, when the Yankees, for whom McGee had been nothing more than a lost ball in high weeds for five years, traded him to St. Louis for pitcher Bob Sykes. The deal soon brought back memories of the Ernie Broglio—for—Lou Brock trade.
Sykes began '82 in Triple A and finished in Double A, while McGee began in Triple A and finished in the World Series. In Game 3 McGee hit two home runs and made two spectacular catches in a 6-2 victory. Now, three years later, the Cardinals are fighting to get into another World Series.
McGee is a dogged worker. "When he first came to the big leagues, I wanted him to go out and take the ball coming off the bat in all the parks new to him," Herzog says. "So I told him to get out there in batting practice and play centerfield like in game conditions. Three years later, he still does it."
McGee's penchant for breaking a sweat was picked up early, from his father, Hurdice, a retired machinist. "When I was in elementary and junior high," says McGee, who grew up in Richmond, Calif., "my father was working two jobs, one of which was janitorial. My brother and I would go to the playground after school, and every day at five or six my father would come by and take us to work, to clean big buildings with him. Then I thought it was terrible, that he was taking away our childhood in a way. Now I know what it is to work hard. It doesn't scare me."
McGee's father is a deacon in the Greater Faith Pentecostal Church in Richmond. Mr. McGee prevented Willie's older brother, Roger, from playing ball because the church's bishop considered it a sin. "But my father never did try to stop me," McGee says. "I'd be in Sunday school and I'd slip out to go play, and I wouldn't ask his permission because of the fear I had that he might say no."
As Smith took McGee into his home, so last season did McGee do the same for midseason call-up Terry Pendleton. This year McGee's guest is Vince Coleman, he of the 101 steals. The three-bedroom condo they share is decorated with wool wall hangings, a pool table, stereo system and two big TVs. Architectural Digest hasn't called.
Their togetherness extends onto the playing field. With Coleman batting first and McGee second, they have driven rival pitchers and catchers crazy. They have 10 double steals, including last month's double-double steal against Chicago. Coleman's speed has helped make McGee a better, more patient hitter. "It used to be he would swing at anything," says Herzog. "But when Vince gets on, Willie really gives him a chance to steal. He has kinda thrived on it."
On the afternoons of most home games, the two can be seen ordering chicken nachos and stir-fried shrimp at T.G.I. Friday's restaurant. At such a lunch recently, McGee talked about the way people now react to him.
"They walk right up and start talking to you like they know you," McGee says. "They don't know me. If I saw someone over there I'd like to speak to, I'd think about what I would say and be really cautious. Girls come up and talk to you. I know where they're coming from. In the minors I couldn't get a date."