April 8, 1997: Willie McGee hits his first career walk-off home run

After a winless six-game road trip to open the season, the 1997 Cardinals needed to turn their fortunes around. Willie McGee was all too happy to oblige with the first walk-off home run of his 16-year major-league career.

“How beautiful was that?” outfielder Brian Jordan said. “Just the perfect ending.”[1]

“You couldn’t write a better script,” teammate John Mabry agreed. “You couldn’t think of a better guy. You could probably catch him for an interview, but he’s probably down in the cage hitting.”[2]

The Cardinals already had been the victim of two walk-off losses during their season-opening road trip. In the first game of the season, a bases-loaded walk in the bottom of the ninth allowed the Expos to claim a 2-1 win. Three nights later, Jeff Bagwell hit a bases-loaded single in the bottom of the 11th to lift the Astros to a 3-2 win over the Cardinals.

By the time the Cardinals returned to St. Louis on April 8, their losing streak was up to six games and represented the Cardinals’ worst start to a season in 106 years.[3] To halt their slide, manager Tony La Russa turned to 25-year-old right-hander Alan Benes. Benes had struggled in his first turn in the rotation, allowing six earned runs in 4 2/3 innings in a 9-4 loss to the Expos.

This time, however, he fared far better, throwing two scoreless innings before second baseman Roberto Mejia hit a sacrifice fly to give the Cardinals a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the second.

The Expos answered in the third, as Chris Widger led off with a double and Mike Lansing hit a two-out single to score Widger and tie the game, 1-1. From there, Benes and Expos starter Jeff Juden traded scoreless innings through the fifth, when Benes was lifted for a pinch hitter and Mark Petkovsek took over the mound duties for the Cardinals.

In five innings, Benes had allowed one earned run on four hits and two walks. He struck out seven.

Dave Veres took over for Juden in the seventh and recorded four outs before Ron Gant hit a one-out triple in the bottom of the eighth. With the go-ahead run on third, Montreal turned to left-handed reliever Omar Daal, who got Dmitri Young to hit a soft ground ball to third base for the second out of the inning. Ugueth Urbina entered the game and, after walking Jordan and John Mabry to load the bases, struck out Gary Gaetti on three pitches to escape the jam.

In the top of the ninth, Petkovsek retired all three batters he faced to give St. Louis a chance to win the game in the bottom of the ninth. At first, that didn’t seem likely, as Tom Lampkin flied out to first base and Mejia struck out.

With Petkovsek’s spot due in the lineup, La Russa called upon McGee to pinch-hit. Originally obtained in a trade with the Yankees in October 1981, McGee had played a key role in the Cardinals’ 1982 World Series championship, batting .296 with four homers, 56 RBIs, and 24 stolen bases that season to rank third in the National League Rookie of the Year voting. In Game 3 of that season’s World Series, he put on one of the all-time postseason performances in franchise history, hitting two home runs and making a leaping catch to rob Gorman Thomas of a home run.

In 1985, McGee won the National League batting title with a .353 batting average. With 26 doubles, a league-high 18 triples, 10 homers, and 82 RBIs, he won the National League MVP and the Silver Slugger and Gold Glove awards. He also made the second all-star appearance of his career.

In August 1990, however, the Cardinals traded McGee to the Athletics for Felix Jose, Stan Royer, and Daryl Green. After playing the rest of the season with the A’s, McGee played four seasons for the Giants and one with the Red Sox before returning to St. Louis for the 1996 season. Playing a reserve role, McGee hit .307 with five homers and 41 RBIs, earning himself a new deal for the 1997 season and an opportunity to face Urbina with the game on the line.

McGee originally wasn’t expected to appear against the Expos that night as he recovered from a right calf injury that he suffered in Houston. During pre-game warm-ups, however, McGee told La Russa that he could pinch-hit.[4]

“As soon as he said that, I was sitting there waiting for the right time to use him,” La Russa said.[5]

La Russa found the perfect moment. Ugueth welcomed McGee to the game with a first-pitch change-up and McGee sent it over the right-field wall for a 2-1 victory.

“Willie, the most popular Cardinal now and forever, toured the bases with his head down, a living and breathing portrait of absolute humility,” wrote St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz.[6]

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like that,” La Russa said. “This was more dramatic than anything I’ve seen in a movie, and then, it’s real life. Think about it. He was the last guy introduced (before the game). He got the biggest ovation. People wait around. He hits with two outs in the ninth. They get a chance to see Willie and he hits a home run to win the game.”[7]

McGee said it was a unique moment in his career.

“As an individual thrill, it’s something I don’t think I’ve ever done in my career,” he said. “It’s something I thought about doing, and how nice it would be to end a game that way. That was something Ozzie Smith would do. It was a special moment.”[8]

Part of what made the moment special, McGee said, was the warm reception he received from Cardinals fans, both before the game and after he ended it.

“There are no words to explain what goes on inside a person when the fans cheer like that,” McGee said. “Hopefully, they’re cheering for the person. They see my love for the game. They see the way I care for them. They know I try hard.”[9]

Petkovsek earned the win after throwing four innings of scoreless relief.

“My first (home opener) and I got the win – I didn’t even realize that until just now,” he said. “That’s a pretty good feeling.”[10]


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[1] Bernie Miklasz, “First Jack Frost, Then Willie McGee: A Cold Night At Busch Heats Up Fast,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 9, 1997.

[2] Rick Hummel, “No Place Like Home,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 9, 1997.

[3] Joe Ostermeier, “McGee homers, ends Birds’ nightmare,” Belleville News-Democrat, April 9, 1997.

[4] Scott Puryear, “Cards add drama to their first win,” Springfield News-Leader, April 9, 1997.

[5] Scott Puryear, “Cards add drama to their first win,” Springfield News-Leader, April 9, 1997.

[6] Bernie Miklasz, “First Jack Frost, Then Willie McGee: A Cold Night At Busch Heats Up Fast,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 9, 1997.

[7] Rick Hummel, “No Place Like Home,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 9, 1997.

[8] Bernie Miklasz, “First Jack Frost, Then Willie McGee: A Cold Night At Busch Heats Up Fast,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 9, 1997.

[9] Bernie Miklasz, “First Jack Frost, Then Willie McGee: A Cold Night At Busch Heats Up Fast,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 9, 1997.

[10] Mike Eisenbath, “More Than A Game For Petkovsek As He Makes Dream Come True,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 9, 1997.