Willie McGee was my fisrt least favorite baseball player.
Yes, I am aware that Willie McGee is, for a certain generation of St. Louis Cardinals fans, a beloved figure. I am aware that, while we as a collective fan base generally overrate McGee, he had a few very good seasons with the Cardinals, including his 1985 NL MVP season. And based on what I’ve read about Willie McGee and what his statistics tell me about his 1980s heyday, he seems like the kind of player I would enjoy on a visceral if not an intellectual level–a man allergic to walks and swinging for the fences whose gave was built on speed and BABIP.
But I was a year and a half old when Willie McGee was traded to the Oakland Athletics in 1990, so I didn’t experience his heyday. What I did experience were the final four seasons of his career. He was adequate for the first two–an essentially league-average hitter who was relegated to only periodic center field duty, a man who certainly wasn’t a star but was perfectly fine as a backup outfielder. In 1998 and 1999, he was a disaster. In 1998, one of the greatest offensive seasons of all-time, he posted a .287 on-base percentage. In 1999, the second straight year in which multiple players cleared the once-vaunted mark of 61 home runs in a season, he hit zero home runs in 290 plate appearances. By wRC+, McGee was the fifth worst hitter with as many plate appearances as him in 1998 (the other four were two catchers and two shortstops). In 1999, he was the fourth-worst (one catcher, two shortstops). Willie McGee’s now-awful defense in conjunction with his terrible hitting made him, in 1999, a -2.6 win player by FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement–it is the single worst individual season in franchise history.
I was not the market when the Cardinals brought back Willie McGee. I was a dumb little kid who had no idea who Willie McGee was, so as far as I was concerned, he was just some older guy the team had brought in as a bench player, and despite the fact that he was brought to the Cardinals for the sake of nostalgia, this didn’t register at all with me. I was going to judge him on his contemporary merits. And he was terrible.
If I had memories of the 1980s Cardinals and loved Willie McGee entering the 1996 season, there probably wouldn’t have been anything McGee could have done, short of off-field scandal (which didn’t happen), to make me lose my positive view of him. But at the same time, watching Willie McGee on a regular basis wasn’t going to add to my perception of McGee. I would enter 1996 loving Willie McGee and exit 1999 loving Willie McGee and there wouldn’t really be any wiggle room.
While Willie McGee was a good and occasionally great St. Louis Cardinals player in his prime, Albert Pujols was a true generational superstar. For eleven seasons in St. Louis, the third baseman turned left fielder turned first baseman was the most lethal offensive threat the Cardinals had inserted into their lineup since Stan Musial. Fourth in hits, third in runs, second in both home runs and RBI, Pujols is clearly entrenched on the Mount Rushmore of Great St. Louis Cardinals (oops!). While Albert Pujols was part of a spurned-lover cycle of fan reception in St. Louis for a few years, he received a raucous ovation when he returned to St. Louis for a three-game series with the Los Angeles Angels last June.
Albert Pujols is also, at age 40, a shell of his former self. For each of the last three seasons, full seasons during which Pujols had no fewer than 498 plate appearances, Pujols has been a below-average hitter, a poor fielder, and a glacially slow runner. Only three players in all of Major League Baseball–Chris Davis, Lewis Brinson, and Victor Martinez–have been less valuable players over the last three years.
But I disgress, lest I start arguing with a straw man. If there are people out there who believe that Albert Pujols is, in reality, still a good Major League Baseball player, I do not know them. And I don’t want to waste your time with arguing against straw men. But just because “Albert Pujols is good” is an extinct opinion does not mean that “the Cardinals should acquire Albert Pujols” isn’t.
Last week, Albert Pujols expressed a desire to play Major League Baseball beyond his current contract, which runs through the end of the 2021 season. Based on his current state of play, Pujols seemingly wouldn’t garner much attention as a useful piece of a big league roster, especially with another two years of aging in him. But he would bring a less tangible benefit to the Cardinals–nostalgia. On Monday, KMOV’s Brenden Schaeffer weighed the somewhat obvious pros and cons of an Albert Pujols and St. Louis Cardinals reunion. On Wednesday, KSDK’s Dan Buffa took a more hardline pro-reunion stance.
Each cited the potential arrival of the designated hitter in the National League as a factor to weigh in considering Albert Pujols. From an on-field perspesctive, this shouldn’t really make much of a difference–Pujols is already a below-average hitter for any position and would be a decidedly below-average hitter for a position whose entire existence is centered around hitting. But neither Schaeffer nor Buffa is contending that this transaction would make sense from an on-field perspective–the case for Pujols is the case for nostalgia. But speaking as somebody who matured as a baseball fan with Albert Pujols front and center–he was the best player on the Cardinals in a season that began when I was in grade school and he was the best player on the Cardinals in a season that ended when I was out of college–I don’t need more Albert Pujols. Even if Pujols were an on-field success, he has already reached his peak favorability with me. Far more likely is that Albert Pujols would become an obstruction for younger Cardinals fans–a current high school student, for instance, would have at most faint memories of Albert Pujols.
Signing Albert Pujols would not be in the same stratosphere of decision-making as retaining Yadier Molina beyond 2020–Molina is still somewhere in the vicinity of average as a Major League starting catcher. Perhaps somebody just now learning to love the Cardinals isn’t going to gravitate towards Molina in the way that an entire generation before that fan did, but that fan would have no reason to view Molina as an obstruction. That fan would have every reason to be as annoyed by older fans mortgaging the team’s present and future in order to live in the past as I was when Willie McGee was in town. As an Albert Pujols fan, I’d hate to see any Cardinals fan feel that way about him.