How The Cardinals Can Really Honor Willie McGee
Last night’s tribute to Willie McGee reinforced one obvious truth: McGee remains one of the most beloved Cardinals of all time. In St. Louis, he’s bigger than Bob Gibson. Bigger than Jim Edmonds. Bigger than Lou Brock, even if you threw in Rex Hudler as a PTBNL. This shy, athletic, sweet-natured country boy captured the heart of a baseball city that cherishes, above all other things, humility and effort. McGee might be baseball’s best example of both qualities.
As McGee circled the field of Busch III, a stadium he’s never known before, he received a welcome that reassured the embarrassed star that he owns the place anyway. The long, loud ovation was an auditory love letter to a man who epitomized one of the greatest decades of Cardinal baseball. Willie would never admit it, but the roar of the crowd made his protestations moot. St. Louis loves Willie McGee, and will never forget what he did here.
McGee’s return after so many years away reignited the ongoing dicussion about how to best honor his special Cardinals career. Many fans feel that McGee’s signature #51 should be retired. This would, of course, go against the long-standing club policy to only retire numbers of players who reached Hall of Fame status. That would exclude McGee, who, despite a startling career, didn’t quite achieve the types of numbers needed to reach that milestone. So, by that standard, McGee’s number should not be retired.
And I begrudgingly agree with that decision. We can’t start adjusting the rules simply because of one player’s popularity. All that will lead to are unworthy players receiving retired numbers based on less-tangible merits. Then, we’d be forced to retire the numbers of players like Tom Lawless simply because some fans liked him after he hit that home run in the 1987 playoffs. To permanently retire a number, we need to have some sort of standard. Hall of Fame election seems like a pretty good yardstick.
Curiously, there doesn’t seem to be anyone pushing for the easiest and most obvious way to honor McGee’s Cardinal legacy – erect a statue somewhere on the grounds for him. It could be in among the statues of other fan favorites like Stan Musial or Ozzie Smith, or it could have a home somewhere in one of the huge entrances to the park.
As for his number, I think the club’s current policy is respect enough – nobody has worn the number since McGee last had it on his back in 1996. Why does the number need to be officially retired when it has been unofficially retired already? By continuing this policy, the Cardinals honor McGee while not altering the standards by which everyone else is judged. Such favoritism isn’t the Cardinal way (although TLR would unkindly disagree with that).
So put up a statue, have a dedication ceremony, and allow fans of all generations thrill to the exploits of a simple, talented young man who carried the birds on the bat with dignity, pride, and decency. It is the best and most honorable way to honor McGee’s accomplishments and his place in the hearts of Cardinal fans, while still preserving the honor of the other great players in the rich history of this franchise. Willie wouldn’t have it any other way.