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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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