Willie McGee stepped into Grant's Cabin restaurant in St. Louis one recent afternoon and stood in line behind several other patrons. The people in front of McGee were waiting their turn to buy tickets to the 39th Annual Sportsman of the Year Luncheon, sponsored by the Kiwanis Club of South Side, and a huge photo of the honoree hung in the banquet room.
McGee waited his turn with mouth closed and almond-shaped eyes characteristically cast downward. When the others had bought their tickets, McGee stepped to the ticket seller's table, looked up and, clearly uncomfortable, said, "I'm Willie McGee. This luncheon's for me."
McGee needs no introduction in St. Louis, but that never occurred to him. He is so bashful and self-effacing that he spends nearly all his time looking down. "When Willie hits a home run," says Cardinal pitcher Bill Campbell, "it's almost like he's embarrassed."
Looking down is also the only way McGee can see the rest of the National League. He leads the NL in hitting at .357, 36 points higher than the next best, the Dodgers' Pedro Guerrero. He'll probably break the league record for highest average by a switch hitter, .348, held by Pete Rose and Frank Frisch, and he has a chance to break Mickey Mantle's alltime mark of .365. Even Dwight Gooden can't get him out: McGee is 10 for 18 against Doctor K this season.
"I don't think I've ever had a ballplayer I've just stayed away from," Cardinals' manager Whitey Herzog says. "I never have said anything to Willie. I just watch him use his natural ability."
That ability includes speed (49 stolen bases), power (26 doubles, 16 triples, 10 homers) and as good a glove as can be found in centerfield. Whenever he runs, he looks like—beep, beep—the Road-runner, accelerating in a puff of dust and arriving slightly ahead of his legs. He is the heart of the first-place Cardinals and a strong candidate for the Most Valuable Player award. "I told Willie to quit making a joke out of the league," says Cincinnati's Pete Rose.
If MYP stood for Most Voluble Player, however, McGee would finish far down in the voting. "Does he talk, or just hit and run?" asks Reds pitcher Ted Power. Shy guy that he is, McGee prefers to avert his I's, too. "I'm not one that has to be in the limelight," he says. "I feel better if I'm not recognized. I'm not here to try and be a movie star. Baseball—that's it. If I get rich, fine. If not, O.K."
Since McGee said this from behind the wheel of a new black Mercedes-Benz 500 SEC (price: $57,800), one can assume he's more fine than O.K. His $25,000 bonus for making the All-Star team was the down payment. But the car abashes him. He hasn't mentioned the purchase to many people and still drives his Chevy Blazer to Busch Stadium.
"If you're telling everybody how good you are and all of a sudden you hit rock bottom, then they come up and ask what's the matter," McGee says.
"You'll find that Willie is one of the shyest people you will ever meet," says shortstop Ozzie Smith, with whom McGee lived for his first two seasons in the majors. "That's not his thing, talking about himself. He's a total team player. He's very sincere. He's not trying to be disrespectful." Smith's 30-year-old wife, Denise, says, "For the first six months Willie stayed with us, he called me Mrs. Smith. Finally he called me Denise, but it was two years before he called me Neecie, which is what my friends call me."