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That time when Will Clark saved the Cardinals

Fifteen years ago, the Cardinals lost their starting first basemen to injury and found a more-than-adequate replacement.

Will "The Thrill," being all thrilling.
Will "The Thrill," being all thrilling.
Sporting News via Getty Images

With the news that Matt Adams shredded his quad and is likely out for the season, talk quickly shifted to who the Cardinals might acquire to fill the void at first base. It also called to mind a similar dilemma the team faced 15 years ago, and came through with spectacular results.

Looking back, it would be easy to call 2000 the first year of the modern Cardinals dynasty. It began a run that has seen the team make 11 postseason appearances in 15 years (and counting), following a barren stretch from 1987-1999 with only one postseason birth.

And yet, at least for me, that 2000 club feels like a transitional year. Sure, there were a few faces who would feature prominently in the Cardinals of the 2000s, like Jim Edmonds and Edgar Renteria. But the club still featured several players who were much more of the middling 90s, such as Ray Lankford. And still manning first base was the undisputed, cover-of-your-program, superstar of the team, Mark McGwire.

Big Mac came into 2000 after back-to-back seasons where he not only hit 70 and 65 home runs, respectively, but where he also posted 600+ plate appearances, something he only managed six times in his injury-laden, 16-year career. True to form, in 2000 McGwire did the two things he was known for: He socked some dingers and he got hurt.

During the first half of the season, the Cardinals were a charging War Rig and Mark McGwire was their Imperator. He hit 30 home runs before the All-Star Break. His wRC+ was 195, tops in the league, and he was in the Top 10 in WAR. The Cardinals were in first place for all but three days. But just three days before the All-Star Break, McGwire exited a game in the 4th inning, succumbing to what would be diagnosed as patellar tendonitis in his right knee.

As opposed to the current Matt Adams situation, it wasn't as certain how long the team would be without McGwire. They also had a fairly capable backup in the form of Eduardo Perez. But Perez was a classic platoon hitter who killed righties but gave up more than 200 points of OPS when facing a lefty.

From the time McGwire went on the DL until the end of July, the Cardinals saw their division lead slip from nine games down to four, so at the trade deadline on July 31, the Cardinals acquired Will Clark from Baltimore for minor leaguer Jose Leon and some cash.

Some reading this are probably too young to remember Will Clark, so allow me to offer a brief primer: Will Clark could hit the baseball. Pick an offensive statistic and marvel at his numbers and his consistency. Over his 15-year career, he hit .303/.384/.497. And then there was his swing, which was truly a thing of beauty. In fact, if you type "Will Clark" into Google, the second suggestion is "Will Clark Swing."

As beautiful as Will Clark's swing was, Will Clark the person was, by most accounts... less so? Take a spin around the Internet and you'll find plenty of accounts, from fans, journalists and the like, of ugly run-ins with Will The Thrill. It feels hard to justify calling someone you don't know a jerk, but Will Clark was actually voted one of the biggest jerks in sports by a 1996 Sports Illustrated poll, so there is some empirical data to support the classification.

Will Clark was the kind of guy who came into town and started a fist fight with your two most beloved players, which, incidentally, he had done in St. Louis twelve years earlier.

But if one thing is true about sports fans it is this: We are willing to set aside all manner of character flaws for someone who helps our team win - and Will Clark did just that.

In each of the first four games he started as a Cardinal, Clark homered. He would go on to hit 12 homers in just 51 games in a Cardinal uniform, with a monster slashline of: .345/.426/.655. His 161 wRC+ in the second half was the tenth best in all of baseball. For all intents and purposes, Will Clark had replaced Mark McGwire. McGwire would return in September, but only as a pinch hitter (and sometimes starting the game as a pinch hitter, in a classic bit of LaRussaing).

Will Clark kept on hitting into the playoffs, where the Cardinals began by sweeping the Braves in the Division Series. The team ran out of gas in the NLCS, which they would eventually lose 4-1. But Clark was still going strong, putting up a .412/.500/.706 line in the series.

That postseason run with the 2000 Cardinals turned out to be the final encore for Will Clark, who retired at the end of the season at the age of 36. McGwire would limp through one more season on his wounded knee before hanging it up himself. Luckily, the Cardinals had a corner infielder/outfielder type kid named Pujols come up that same season, who would eventually fill the void at first base.