Tonight in the third game of the World Series, America experienced the same shock of recognition that the St. Louis Cardinals received seven months ago in spring training.
Then, the stunned Cardinals players looked at Willie McGee, the 23-year-old AA ballplayer they'd gotten from the New York Yankees in an invisible trade, and said to each other, "Do you have any idea how good this guy could be?"
Now millions of viewers know how dazzling the heretofore unknown, marvelously gifted, utterly unfettered and unpredictable McGee can be.
And they can start guessing about his future.
Cardinal Manager Whitey Herzog rather succintly summarized his team's 6-2 victory over the Milwaukee Brewers tonight.
With his club suddenly leading this 79th Series, 2 games to 1, Herzog didn't talk about the 6 1/3 innings of victorious pitching of Joaquin Andujar, who left the game with a badly bruised shin that was smashed by a Ted Simmons' one-hopper. Hospital reports on Andujar said he had no broken bones, no neurological damage -- only a bruise below the knee -- and, if needed, could pitch again when his turn arrives in Game 7. He was released from the hospital and later rejoined the team.
Herzog didn't rhapsodize about the hitting of Lonnie Smith, who doubled and tripled off the County Stadium walls: Whitey's Wallbanger. He didn't even praise Bruce Sutter, who got the last seven outs and the save, although giving up a two-run homer to Cecil Cooper in the eighth.
What Herzog, the man who traded for McGee and the man who had the guts to play the glorious-to-goofy rookie, said was: "I don't know if anybody's ever played a better World Series game than Willie McGee did tonight."
Well, Reggie Jackson has and Babe Ruth. But not many others.
McGee became only the third rookie in history, and the first in 25 years, to hit two home runs in a Series game. He drove in four runs. He jumped well above the 10-foot high fence in left center field to rob Gorman Thomas of a certain two-run home run in the ninth.
He had earlier made a great grab in the first at the very top of the wall in center at the 402-foot sign. Even the final out of the game was a fly to McGee so that he wouldn't have to ask anybody else for permanent possession of the final ball.
"I don't believe I'm here," said McGee, the absolute definition of an innocent, appealing, up-from-the-bushes success story.
"I believe I hit a fast ball, although it could have been a changeup," said McGee of his first home run, stunning his mass audience by citing the two pitches at opposite ends of the pitching spectrum. "I'm not for sure . . .
"No, sir, I've never hit two home runs in a game before . . . It's unexpected, I'll say that," said McGee, who had four homers in 422 at bats in the regular season, but, starting with a homer in his last swing of the playoffs, has three in his last eight at bats. "Probably I had two in a game in Little League, but that's a long way back . . .
"I still don't know if the ball would have been out of the park, or what," he said of his game-preserving catch in the ninth.
The rookie largely took the spotlight away from veteran Andujar, a good pitcher on a great streak (9-0 in his last 13 starts). For his evening's trouble, Andujar gets an ambulance ride and a lump on his right shin to go with the whopper that Atlanta's Chris Chambliss put on his left shin last Sunday.
Asked what he'd do if Andujar weren't ready if a seventh game was necessary on Wednesday, Herzog said, "We better hope for about three-four days of rain."
This whole night, from first inning to last, was McGee's to glory in.
On the first Brewer batter of the game, center fielder McGee sprinted to the deepest part of the park, leaped at the 402-foot sign and caught a drive by Paul Molitor a foot from the top of the fence. Talk about your corny foreshadowings.
In the fifth inning of a scoreless pitcher's duel between Andujar and Pete Vuckovich, McGee arrived with men on the corners and one out. He hit the first pitch into the right field bleachers for a three-run homer that proved to be the game winner. The pitch in question was either a fast ball or a changeup. Or perhaps a slider or curve. As McGee said, "I don't know . . . Whatever happened, happened."
Two innings later, the lean (6-foot-1, 175-pound) rookie encountered the forbidding-looking, 240-pound, extremely annoyed Vuckovich once more. Vuckovich's first pitch was aimed at the most conspicuous part of McGee -- his Adam's apple.
Smith didn't even look at Vuckovich; rather, he hopped quickly back in the box, tapped the plate and swung from the heels on the next pitch.
In all good storybooks, when the clean-cut rookie has just been flipped by the veteran with the menacing Fu Manchu mustache, the rookie hits a long home run on the next pitch. In big-league reality, the nasty pitcher usually throws a curve on the knees and the rookie grounds out. The pitcher threw the reality curve, but McGee still hit the fantasy homer.
That put McGee in two-homers-by-a-rookie company with Charlie Keller of the '39 Yankees and Tony Kubek of the '57 Yankees, who did the trick right here in County Stadium.
If the Brewers, who will send playoff pitching hero Moose Haas against rookie Dave LaPoint in Saturday's fourth game (WRC-TV-4, 1:20 p.m.) were shell-shocked at the emergence of McGee, who didn't even start the series opener, then they're now in the small boat the Cardinals have been all year.
This spring, in St. Petersburg, Fla., the Cardinals didn't know what to make of the strange new flying creature in their midst. He had the legs of a greyhound, the neck of a giraffe, the big innocent eyes of a visitor from outer space and the quiet, gentle smile of a good kid from a big family who'd been taught his manners.
In the outfield, he covered ground like a 6-1 pair of legs with a glove on top. In batting practice, after his last hacking swing, he raced around the bases with what seemed like a trail of exhaust behind him. Occasionally, when he took his funny little speedster's imitation of a baseball swing, the ball disappeared into the distance and everybody scratched their heads and wondered how it happened.
In exhibition games, McGee commited base-running gaffes of staggering, almost unbelievable proportion. He ran as though he had a bonus clause in his contract for being tagged out. That's when blessed fortune arrived.
The "super" rookie on whom the Cards were counting--David Green--got hurt and Smith had to play. "I thought he'd have to go back to the minors (for a sixth year) because he'd never even been to AAA," said Herzog, "but he played so good I couldn't do nothin' but play him."
McGee, a switch-hitter, batted .296 and stole 24 bases, and for every weird play he made, like stopping at third base in the NL playoffs when he could have trotted home with a standing inside-the-park homer, he had nice nights that made people imagine the great nights to come. Like this one.
"I make rookie mistakes," said McGee a week ago. "Five years from now, I won't." Five years? Gotta love him.
Some players might use this evening's stage to criticize the Yankees for burying him in the deep minors for four years; or lobby for more playing time, or say how every glorious thing he did was by design.
Instead, McGee thanked the Yankees for "preparing me well for this situation." He said he didn't mind if Green started on Sunday against left-hander Mike Caldwell. "Why change now?" he said. As for those home runs, "No, sir," he wasn't trying for them, since "I'm just a line-drive hitter trying to make contact."
This raw, blustery evening, Willie McGee, rough edges and all, made the kind of contact with the baseball nation that most players never have, never dream of, in a lifetime.