JUPITER, Fla. • Former Cardinals star center fielder Willie McGee, then a special instructor for the club, had told Tommy Pham as early as 2011 “that I could play in the big leagues,” Pham related the other day. “I’ll never forget that.”
Six years later, Pham finally made it to the big leagues to stay — and star — and he paid special tribute to McGee the night of the Baseball Writers’ Dinner in January when Pham was honored as the St. Louis Baseball Man of the Year.
Yes, Pham might have made it to the big leagues without McGee. But McGee made it easier for him when he would make his periodic visits to see Pham and others in the ensuing half-dozen years.
“He helped me mature a little faster,” Pham said. “I’m not saying I wasn’t mature, but I might have gotten in my own way. I’ve seen guys at this level who get very frustrated. At times, it doesn’t help them.
“You can get mad, but, at that moment, you can’t really focus. This is a game where you need to be focused at all times. (McGee) helped me stay calm through the good and the bad.”
McGee, hired as a Cardinals coach in the off-season, pointed to several men who had helped him, starting with “Mr. Ricketts,” he said, referring to longtime Cardinals coach and instructor Dave Ricketts. “I had a number of teachers, from George Hendrick to Ozzie (Smith) to Bruce Sutter to Bob Forsch.”
Hendrick, the Cardinals’ veteran right fielder, enjoyed having fun at rookie McGee’s expense in 1982, but there were teaching moments, too.
“You’re going to earn that Gold Glove,” Hendrick said to McGee. As they stood together in the outfield, Hendrick told McGee, “I’ve got this (foul) line.
“Then,” McGee said, “he took a couple of steps away from it and said, ‘You’ve got the rest.’”
“Sometimes,” McGee said, laughing, “the ball would be hit between us and he’d just be pointing at it.”
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But Hendrick had a serious side, and he mentored McGee just as McGee has done with Pham.
“When I would have a tough game and we’d be driving home, he’d be playing his jazz and chewing his gum like there isn’t anything happening,” McGee said. “I wasn’t even sleeping when I had a bad game.
“I finally get enough nerve to ask him, ‘George, how do you do it?’”
“Do what?” responded Hendrick.
“Well, you struck out twice,” McGee said.
“He said, ‘Willie, it’s like a wheel.’ And he points at the steering wheel.”
Then, motioning at various parts of the wheel going clockwise, Hendrick said, “You’re here and you’re here and you’re here ... and then you’re back here (at the top).”
“It put it in perspective for me,” McGee said. “As I got older, I realized as long as I was able to stay healthy and didn’t have anything off the field to distract me, you always wind up where you’re supposed to be. It’s like a wheel.”
‘HE DOESN’T WASTE WORDS’
Manager Mike Matheny, who added McGee to his staff this year, long has been aware of McGee’s ability not only to impart but to soothe and counsel.
“If you’ve held Willie McGee on a high pedestal, I’ll tell you that you haven’t built it high enough,” Matheny said.
“He’s such a sneaky teacher. He’ll tell you something, and it has so much wisdom to it. He doesn’t waste words. He doesn’t waste people’s time.”
McGee scrunches his face when he hears such talk.
“That’s scary,” he said of that praise.
McGee has come on board along with new pitching coaches Mike Maddux and Bryan Eversgerd (bullpen), plus Jose Oquendo, who has rejoined the staff.
Oquendo and McGee often find themselves advising the position players at the same time.
“He’s the ‘ying’ and I’m the ‘yang,’” McGee said. “He doesn’t hold back any punches, I’ve kind of got to ease into it. I might say, ‘Fellas, fellas, come in for a minute.’ Jose says, ‘Get over here!’”
Hall of Fame shortstop Smith was one of the first to tutor McGee at the major league level and, in fact, adopted him. McGee lived with the Smiths for two seasons.
“He was looking for a direction,” Ozzie said.
“He cleaned up very well. Very polite. He would call my wife ‘Mrs. Smith.’ He was just being Willie. That’s the way he was taught. That hasn’t changed. The only thing that has changed is that he doesn’t respect me as much. It’s a shame.”
Smith, of course, is joking here, but he calls himself “just a caddy” to McGee now. The first day the two were together in the Cardinals’ coaches room as Smith had a week’s tour as an instructor, there was loud, continued cackling as one or the other would tell a story.
“He’s become more like George Hendrick,” Smith cracked. “He hung around George, and I don’t know if that’s good. George was an instigator. But it’s fun watching him develop.”
In a more serious vein, Smith said, “When they brought Willie in and Jose (Oquendo) back, I said the team became better, without getting two players, because of their experience and their knowledge that they’ll be able to pass on to these guys, basically getting back to fundamentals and working to where everything we do with the birds on the bat becomes subconscious. That’s everything from running the bases to getting bunts down to consistently being able to get guys in from third base with less than two out — all those things are important things in the game.
“People talk about the Cardinal Way. These are the guys that can share the Cardinal Way with people. It’s very simple. It’s doing things the right way and you don’t beat yourself. You learn to hit and catch and run and throw. Your desire to win has to be greater than your opposition. If you develop a greater desire to win than your opposition, you’re always going to finish ahead of them.”
A NUDGE IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION
McGee says, in a way, he always has been a teacher, as he has been a father to five children: four grown girls and 15-year-old William. Those who know him say he instructs best by letting people be themselves, with a nudge in the right direction, of course, with the message that hard work can solve a multitude of ills.
“He was very skillful at what he did,” Smith said. “He was different. He was one of those that swung at balls out of the strike zone. But that was him, and that was the one thing that Whitey Herzog allowed him to do, not trying to make him something that he was not.
“He swung at balls out of the strike zone. But he still hit .290. He hit .290 on turf. He hit .290 on grass. I think that’s one of the things he’s going to bring to this organization from a teaching standpoint, and that is there’s more than one way to skin a cat. You’ve got to let people be themselves.
“You impart the knowledge, but you’ve got to let people be themselves.”
McGee likes being a confidence builder, just as Smith was to him, but the Wizard said, “He’s done it on his own. He had this persona of being quiet and shy ... but he was always a very baseball-conscious person, and that’s one of the reasons he was able to stick around the game.
“He’s learning from being in the minor leagues. And now he has a better understanding of how to pass that knowledge on to other people. You watch him now. His level of confidence at what and who he is is a lot greater. But I can’t take credit for that. That’s him.
“He’s graduated to the point where he is comfortable enough to get to the big-league level and do the things that he’s doing. This is the best I’ve seen him since he retired from baseball.”
‘HE’S TEACHING LIFE STUFF’
Matheny, listing the merits of McGee, decided they were “limitless. He thinks he’s just teaching outfield. But he’s teaching life stuff, the pride you take in your teammates.
“Without realizing it, he’s speaking in different levels to every one of these guys whenever he opens his mouth. He’s amazing.”
McGee would win two batting titles, one Most Valuable Player award and play for three World Series teams with the Cardinals, for whom he had two tours — 1982-90 and 1996-99. He first exploded onto the national scene in Game 3 of the 1982 World Series, won by the Cardinals when he hit two homers and saved two more with catches in the outfield at Milwaukee.
Something Smith had told him before the Series stuck with him. “He said, ‘Willie, no matter what you did during the regular season, what you do here is what they’re going to remember you by,’” recalled McGee.
“I’m thinking, ‘What if I lose a fly ball or lose a game?’” McGee said. “That’s in the back of my mind, but I knew I was prepared. I had worked my butt off every day, chasing balls off the bat, and it paid off.
“The counter to the fear was the preparation.”
McGee doesn’t know how he’ll feel about being away from his eight grandchildren this summer. His son and Vivian, his wife of more than 30 years, will spend time with him this summer in St. Louis. But Willie McGee, who said he might have gone into carpentry with his brother if he hadn’t made it in baseball, knows that he wants to teach.
“It’s always been in me as a ‘giver.’” McGee, 59, said. “I’ve got all this experience baseball-wise and life-wise in me to give back.
“They can call me at 8 o’clock at night and I can try to get a key to get down here (to the Cardinals’ facility) and help them do what they want to do to be better as a baseball player.”
All the while, though, those players should assume nothing, McGee said.
“I always came in as a rookie, even in my last year,” he said. “I didn’t want to let that go. I was keeping the mindset that I could be gone. Tomorrow. And you’re scared to stop doing what you were doing to get here.”
On opening day this year in St. Louis, as the cars containing Cardinals players, staff and Hall of Famers circle the warning track, McGee likely will get as loud an ovation, if not louder, than anyone from the Busch Stadium crowd. Both for what he’s done, but more importantly for who he is.
He scrunches his face again. “I try not to think about that.”
But he added, “I was always told the same people you meet going up, you’re going to meet them going down. I know I’d be able to go to a lot of houses and get a meal — if I were not to be in the position that I was in.”
And everybody would want to sit next to him.