The 100 Greatest Cardinals: 31-40
NOTE: The BND has endeavored to identify an objective list of the top 100 St. Louis Cardinals players of all time, based on statistical formulas developed through sabermetrics. We’ll count down the list daily, player by player, until April 4, the day of the Cardinals’ 2019 home opener. The running list and player bios can be found at bnd.com.
NO. 28: 1B MARK MCGWIRE
The five seasons Mark McGwire spent in St. Louis denting up the bleachers of Busch Stadium II offered a study in contradictions that began with his hulking physique, 20-inch biceps and the coy confession that he cries at the end of “Driving Miss Daisy.”
One other lingering paradox corresponds directly with a question that divides baseball fans to this day:
Did McGwire’s tape-measure assault on the record book resuscitate the game from the longest strike in MLB history? Or did his confession that anabolic steroids fueled the fun — which he made after nine years of denials — irrevocably tarnish his legacy?
In 1996 while still with the Oakland A’s, Big Mac bashed a big-league best 52 home runs while batting a career-high .312, stoking conversations about the security of Roger Maris’ single season record of 61 homers set in 1961.
In July of the following season, he was in the midst of another career year as the non-waiver trade deadline and the end of his contract approached. In the meantime, McGwire had groused in the press about the direction the team had taken after it had won three consecutive American League championships and a World Series in 1989.
Certain they would be unable to re-sign him at season’s end, and fearful they’d get only compensatory draft picks in return, the A’s made McGwire available in trade.
As a 10-and-5 man — 10 years in the league, five with his current team — any proposed trade was subject to his approval. McGwire surprised everybody, though, when he declared publicly that a trade to St. Louis and his former skipper, Tony La Russa, would be just dandy.
The Cardinals were in the market for a power hitter and had reportedly made overtures to Toronto about 37-year-old Joe Carter. Instead, they sent pitchers TJ Matthews, Blake Stein and Eric Ludwick to Oakland in exchange for the 6-5, 225-pound redheaded and the hope they could make him more than a half-season rental.
By the time he joined the Cardinals for an Aug. 1 game in Philadelphia, McGwire had already belted 34 homers in just 105 games. But he struggled early with his new team, going a combined 2-for-25 over his first seven games, all of them on the road.
At his Busch Stadium debut a week later, McGwire was a greeted with an ovation he said made him go numb with the feeling he was levitating above the batter’s box. He popped out to second base on that first trip to the plate, but on his second, he launched a laser beam just below the upper deck and off the glass of the Stadium Club.
The crowd that warm night fell into a frenzied state of baseball delirium that would last through four more years and spread to other National League cities. Fans would arrive at the ballpark hours ahead of game time to oooh and ahhh at his batting practice show. Each swing of McGwire’s bat set off a twinkling of camera flashes from all corners of the stadium.
On Sept. 16, prior to a Tuesday night game against the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Cardinals assembled the media to announce that they had signed McGwire to a three-year contract worth $28.5 million with a fourth-year option for $11 million more.
The hulking slugger cried during the press conference and announced a portion of his salary would be donated for the benefit of abused children. Then, as if on cue, he torched a Ramon Martinez pitch deep into left-center field for a home run.
McGwire would finish with 58 home runs — just three shy of the record — with 123 RBIs and a .274 average.
Few seasons have been more highly-anticipated in St. Louis than 1998, though the fans’ attention was affixed on the accomplishments of a single player moreso than the potential of the team. In truth, the Cardinals were not very good that year, finishing 83-79 and 19 games behind the Central Division champion Houston Astros. But Big Mac’s rocket flight into history was worth the price of admission.
As a bonus, the Chicago Cubs’ Sammy Sosa made it a two-slugger race for the record while finishing with 66 homers of his own.
Over his career, McGwire averaged a home run every 10.61 plate appearances, a major league record that tops even Babe Ruth and Barry Bonds. In 1998, he averaged one every 7.27 trips to the dish. But it wasn’t just the frequency with which he hit them. McGwire’s home runs were majestic and often timely.
Home run No. 1 was an Opening Day grand slam against the Dodgers.
No. 13 was the 400th of his career.
No. 16 was a towering 545-foot blast that knocked glass out of the Post-Dispatch sign beneath the upper deck in center. A giant Band-Aid covered the damage advertisement the remainder of the year.
No. 50 made McGwire the first player ever reach that threshold three seasons in a row.
No. 57 broke Hack Wilson’s 68-year-old National League single-season record (which has been broken eight times since).
No. 61 tied Maris, whose family watched and wept from the owners’ box.
No. 62, the record breaker, was at Busch Stadium against Sosa and the Cubs, a low line drive into the left-field corner. It was the shortest of his home runs that season.
No. 66 was another new record, since he had been passed the two days before by Sosa.
Nos. 68, 69 and 70 came on the final day of the season and established the new mark.
McGwire batted .299, scored 130 runs, drove home 147 more and led the NL in on-base percentage (.470), slugging (.752), OPS (1.222) and walks (162). He was almost as good in 1999, batting .278/.424/.697 with 65 home runs and 147 RBIs.
Injuries limited McGwire to 186 games over the next two seasons, but he still hit a combined 61 home runs with 137 RBIs and 108 more scored. The Cardinals were better in 2000 and 2001, too, returning to the postseason with 91 and 95 wins respectively.
McGwire retired with 583 career home runs, 11th all-time. After nine years dodging questions about his suspected steroid use, he finally came clean in 2010 as he rejoined the Cardinals as their hitting coach.
He fell off the Hall of Fame ballot in 2016 having never received more than 23.7 percent of the vote. St. Louis fans have forgiven him, though — they elected him to the Cardinals Hall of Fame in 2017.
SEASONS IN ST. LOUIS: 1997-2001
.270/.427/.683 with Cardinals | Avg. 67 HR per 162 games | 3x All-Star | 19.3 WAR | Cardinals HoF ‘17
TOP 100 SCORE: 3.86