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May 6, 1998

At The Ballpark

Shannon Stewart, Willie McGee, and machismo at the plate

by Steven Rubio

I had a chance to see Toronto outfielder Shannon Stewart in person recently, when the Jays came to Oakland. What I picked up, among other things, is that he is very fast. He also happens to be a good baseball player, so we aren't talking Vince Coleman here.

In the game I attended, Stewart belted a single, a triple, and finally a double that he tried to stretch into another triple. He was called out, although replays showed he was apparently safe. It seemed as if any ball that got past the outfielders, Shannon was gonna go for three. As the game went on, I looked forward to his every at-bat. He also called to mind a couple of Willies who used to play in the Bay Area, Willie Wilson and Willie McGee. Both were past their prime when they played for the local teams, but nonetheless they were the fastest players to come around in recent memory.

I have a special soft spot for McGee, who attended the same community college as I did many years ago. He was, and still is, a very entertaining player to watch. It hardly mattered that he wasn't much good; I just loved to see him play.

McGee spent four seasons with the Giants, always hitting around .300 with an occasional walk and the even less occasional homer. McGee was the kind of player who could lead his league in triples one season (1985) and lead the league in GIDP in another (1987). You didn't see him hit towering flyballs, you didn't see him styling and profiling. You just saw him swing the bat and run ... and run and run and run. Not since the Willie Mays of my childhood was there a more exciting baserunner than Willie McGee. He'd hit one up the alley, round first, put his legs into overdrive, and suddenly this normally gawky-looking ballplayer would become the smoothest man on the planet. It was something to look forward to when you went to the ballpark, watching Willie McGee run the bases. Shannon Stewart reminded me of that.

The point is, when McGee would round first, the last thing on my mind was the fact that Willie wasn't a very productive hitter. I'd be on my feet, acting like a fool, urging McGee on as he tore around the basepaths. Some folks, whose idea of an intelligent argument is to reduce their opponent to a lowest common denominator position and then attack them for being shallow, would have you believe that "statheads" care nothing about the game of baseball as it is actually being played on the diamonds of the world. We're accused of not appreciating the aesthetics of the game, or that we would rather look at an actuarial table than a ballgame. Those folks are wrong.

It is one thing to reflect on the game of baseball at home, to study the numbers, to analyze the sport, to use your intelligence to further your knowledge of the game. But once the game starts, a stathead is every bit the lover of the game as the so-called expert on aesthetics. We even love Willie McGee.

McGee is finishing out his career with the Cardinals, and he came to town awhile back to play against the Giants. The first time he came to the plate, I told my sister we'd have to keep track of what we call the "LMQ." It's a simple calculation designed to measure the macho quotient of the hitter, whereby you divide the number of swings a batter takes by the number of pitches he sees. If, say, Rickey Henderson came to the plate, worked a walk on five pitches, and only swung the bat once, he'd have an LMQ of .200. Someone like Cory Snyder used to regularly post LMQs well over .500. And Willie McGee? Well, Willie never met a pitch he didn't like.

In his first at-bat, Willie swung at every pitch to give him an LMQ of 1.000. He kept it up in his next at-bat; he kept it up all day. The only time he didn't swing at a pitch is when Tony LaRussa gave him a take sign so a runner at first could try to steal second base. Luckily for Willie, the runner was caught stealing for the third out, so that at-bat didn't officially count, and when McGee led off the next inning, he was swinging away again. Got a hit, once, too. It didn't make the boxscore, but we knew McGee had pulled off the rare 1.000 LMQ for an entire game, and we were impressed. (We were also glad he did it playing for the opposing team.)

It happened that the Giants won this game in their last at-bat when the Cardinal pitcher couldn't find the plate, walking Bill Mueller on four pitches with the bases loaded to give the locals the victory. Mueller is my favorite Giant, partly because he will look at a few pitches when he's up to bat, and you could see that game-winning walk coming a mile away as soon as he strode to the plate. As the crowd screamed in delight, Mueller took ball one, and ball two, and ball three. There was no doubt in our minds that ball four was soon to follow. And at that moment I looked out into leftfield, where Willie McGee was standing, head down in that shy fashion he has, and I wondered if at times like this, Willie McGee looks at what's happening and thinks to himself, "Maybe the next time I bat, I should look at a coupla pitches."

Ball four.

We left, happy with our hometeam triumph, and when we looked back on the game during the ride home, we took special pleasure in recognizing how guys like Bill Mueller represent the best of what a "stathead" thinks makes a good hitter. But we also took a moment to silently thank Willie McGee, the antithesis of Bill Mueller, but someone who nonetheless made our day at the park a little better than it would have been without him.

So, thank your lucky stars, Toronto fans, that Cito Gaston is finally gone. Because now you get to watch Shannon Stewart, who runs like McGee but isn't afraid to look at a pitch or two. You're going to have some fine times at the ballpark watching someone like that.

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MORE BY STEVEN RUBIO
1998-07-24 - Evaluating Managers
1998-06-10 - BP Polling: Steven Rubio's Ballot
1998-06-05 - Team Talk
1998-05-06 - At The Ballpark
1998-04-27 - Interview with Henry Schulman
1998-03-25 - Breakouts and Flameouts in 1998
1998-02-25 - Abstract Progress: Rebuttal and Reply
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