If Giancarlo Stanton gives a rose to The St. Louis Cardinals on the season finale of this reality show, he will surely be the team's biggest acquisition since Mark McGwire, 20 years ago. The similarities - and differences - tell us a lot about how the team and its culture have changed over that time.
Both men were the pre-eminent sluggers of their era. McGwire finished the season he split between Oakland and St. Louis with 58 home runs. Stanton mashed 59 last year. But the more pertinent similarity is that, while both situations were trades, both men held full no-trade rights, meaning they had to choose to come to St. Louis.
While McGwire was dealt at the trade deadline of the '97 season, the A's were in a similar position to the Marlins: Re(dumping)building. McGwire was the sole remaining piece of the dynasty that had made back-to-back World Series appearances in '89/'90. The team had recently been sold to new owners who were looking to, uh... run a more efficient... They were looking to dump payroll and rebuild.
McGwire's contract was up at the end of the season, and he had made it clear he would not be returning, so the trade deadline was the team's last shot to get any value back for its franchise player of the last decade.
McGwire had two publicly stated priorities: He wanted to be part of a winning team again and he preferred to be on the West Coast where his family was. By most reports, it was the Cardinals and the Angels who were the last two bidders standing. But the Cardinals had the upper-hand.
Tony LaRussa - McGwire's longtime manager in Oakland - ended his tenure at the same time as the ownership change and was already at the helm in St. Louis. The added benefit of playing for his old manager and several familiar coaches was enough for McGwire to tell the A's he would only accept a trade to St. Louis, and the Cardinals acquired a few months of Big Mac for just a package of fairly underwhelming pitching prospects.
But for McGwire and the Cardinals, it was love at first sight, and he signed a below-market contract extension before the season even ended.
Now, the Cardinals find them in a similar spot to where they were with McGwire, but with a new player and a new era, the odds may not be in their favor.
On paper, the calculus is pretty much the same: Giancarlo Stanton has reportedly said he would like to play for a winning team and like to play on the West Coast. And again, with reports saying it is the Cardinals and the Giants who remain in the Stanton Sweepstakes, it seems like Stanton must also weigh the West Coast on the left with winning on the right.
But remember with McGwire, for all the talk about a winning team or playing close to home, what ultimately made the decision was the culture of the team itself. And the move that hooked McGwire was used repeatedly - most notably with Jim Edmonds, Scott Rolen and Matt Holliday: Trade for a player, get them to fall in love with the team and sign an (often below-market) extension.
That's how we've talked about it for years: The players fell in love with the team. But I think it's worth asking, did they fall in love with "the Cardinals," or did they fall in love with Tony La Russa?
As fans, it's our tendency to see the team as a monolith, but of course the people under the uniform and behind the front office doors are always changing. Let's call it the culture of the organization.
It seems clear that the culture of the Cardinals today is not what it was for much of the last 20 years. That could be due to any number of reasons, but the transition from the La Russa Regime to the Matheny Era certainly seems like a point of delineation.
While longtime Cardinals like Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina have signed extensions under Matheny's watch, the team has not been able to pull-off it's old Trade and Woo move, most notably with Jason Heyward.
And there have been rumblings that there might be some underlying cultural impediment to Stanton accepting a trade to St. Louis as well. As Craig Mish told Tim McKernan:
At first I thought it was geography. I thought it was strictly geography, but I'm not sure anymore if that's it. I just know coming to St. Louis is not one of his top teams/options.
Now maybe that's just some second-hand speculation, and Stanton is in the end, just one player, but it certainly fits a pattern that we're beginning to see where playing for the Cardinals is no longer the lure that it once was.