With nearly half a season under his belt as part of the St. Louis Cardinals coaching staff, Willie McGee is getting more and more comfortable with the routine and responsibilities of being back in the big leagues.
“It’s been a transition,” shared McGee. “Playing, all I had to worry about was myself. Now I’ve got to worry about several guys in several situations and I have to pay attention when they’re on defense to every pitch, every hitter, who’s on deck, this and that, so I’m learning. But we’ve got great coaches. Ollie Marmol, Mike Shildt, manager Mike Matheny, Jose Oquendo, and all these guys are helping me tremendously. And I don’t feel threatened or I don’t feel embarrassed in going to them if I don’t know something about a situation, so I’m learning. They’re great to work with, they really are.”
Rookie outfielder Harrison Bader is equally appreciative of what McGee brings to the table.
“Willie’s just an incredible resource and somebody I really do lean on on a daily basis,” said Bader. “Just little things, whether it be angles, decisions to make, whatever it is–having a guy like that behind you, I just can’t really put into words how much respect I have for him and what he’s done in the past. Him being here, it does lift me up a lot everyday. He’s just always teaching me and I’m always learning from him, I’m always soaking up information from him, and he’s allowed me to unlock my talent out there.”
“It’s fun, because he likes to work and I love to work, I love to teach–so him and Tommy Pham, those are two,” smiled McGee. “We’ve got veteran guys, they know what they’re doing. They’ve been around, they know what to do, they know what they need to do so they don’t need as much, so you let them play. But when you’ve got a younger guy, that’s a blank canvas, that’s willing to learn and willing to ask questions, you can kind of mold them or not mold them, but give them advice.
“Like I tell them, this is what I’ve seen. This is how I did it, not necessarily skill wise but this is how I worked, this is what I worked on–it doesn’t mean you have to this but, keep hustling, you know, just the basics. Take balls off the bat, work on your base-running, tell them how to work on certain things, and they do it.
“Bader’s a perfect example of a person that I love to…because he wants to learn and he loves to work. It’s him that’s doing all the work and his ability is coming out. It’s nothing I’ve done or we’ve done as coaches, but just try to keep them going in the right direction and they take off and do what they’ve got to do. But he’s wise enough to use the experience that’s around him, just as I was with the guys before me. He’s played the game his whole life at a high level, so you’re not teaching him anything. It’s just a matter of him getting more playing time in the future, whenever, and developing.”
The relationship between Bader and McGee isn’t new, the two met when the outfielder was in Springfield (AA). He did some of his own research and quickly learned about Number 51 and readily accepted any advice provided.
“Same way with Pham, I saw Pham in Double-A and told him then ‘you could play in the big leagues right now and hold your own’ because of the way he goes about his business, the intensity, and the way he plays,” said McGee. “Always felt if you could play at Double-A and hold your own, you could play in the big leagues. And mentally, those two guys are mentally strong. They’re not intimidated–they’re not cocky, but they’re not intimidated either. They’re going to go out there and they’re going to give you their best. They’re going to fight.”
Understanding of the work that Pham dedicated to getting his swing back on track, McGee remained available for the outfielder but also was careful not to interfere too much in the process.
“I don’t have a resume or track record as a coach, this is my first year, to say a 100% that’s what works,” explained McGee. “It’s kind of a watch and see. I watch Mabry and them, I talk to them, I watch and see how they handles stuff and that’s how you learn. Maybe in a few years if I’m still around then I’ll know better how to handle situations. But what you don’t want to do is go up to a kid and say ‘Hey man, do this. Do that’ and then you confuse them worse.”
As part of the St. Louis Cardinals first Hall of Fame class, an MVP, batting champion, and World Series champion, one could argue that McGee has the resume to say or share whatever he wants. But that’s not his personality and his humbleness is part of the reason why he is one of the most loved players in franchise history.
There’s also a difference in how the game has changed from when McGee played to now–not as much in the relationship between players and coaches, but more specifically how the makeup of the dugout has changed.
“We had more veteran guys around,” noted McGee. “You had Gene Tenace, Bruce Sutter, we had all these guys on the bench–Dane Iorg, Steve Braun. You had three or four big league guys on the bench that were 33-34 years old that know how to play the game. They make you feel like big brother, so they’re watching you and making sure you’re paying attention. You don’t have that now.”
With a player like Pham, that attention and emotion is easy to see as he carries himself with a distinct intensity. With others it’s not as easy to detect, but McGee assures it is there.
“You ought to see Bader,” he pointed out. “You oughta see these other guys, they don’t like failure. They wouldn’t be here if they did. They all fight in their own way. You’ve got Ozuna–he’s happy all the time, but I guarantee you he doesn’t like failure. He hurts when he’s failing, I guarantee it. His way of countering that is not showing it on the field. His personality, that’s his style. He’s a little more calmer, a little more easier on himself. He’s got more experience.”
photo credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports, Brian Stull-STLBaseballWeekly.com