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What the Mark McGwire trade meant to the Cardinals

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There wasn't any single turning point that turned the franchise from the lousy 90s to the excellent 00s, but acquiring Big Mac was an important piece of the continuum.

Milwaukee Brewers v St. Louis Cardinals Photo by Paul Nordmann/Getty Images

The 1997 season bore some resemblances to this year. The Cardinals never poked their heads above .500 and yet, because of a mediocre division, they were even in first place as late as the 4th of July.

But whereas this year's club did nothing at the trade deadline, in 1997 the club pulled off a trade for the preeminent slugger of the era: Mark McGwire. You might have heard of him.

Bolstered by McGwire, the Cardinals charged into the playoffs and won all the way to the... no, I'm kidding. They were still pretty bad.

In fact, even in the three years of the extension McGwire signed to remain a Cardinal at the end of the '97 season, the team only made the playoffs in the final year, and with the always ailing McGwire barely playing a role at that point.

So if the Cardinals finished 4th the season that they traded for McGwire to bolster the team at the deadline, and even during his extended tenure, only became a winner once he was in his twilight and more of a role player, why was his signing such an important milestone? It's not the reason you might think.

The justification for the McGwire signing is often framed as the 1998 home run chase. I hear from a number of younger Cardinals fans that it was their first real memory of the team. And let's be honest: It was amazing. What was expected to be a solo climb became a race with Sosa. You had live TV breaking-in to show McGwire at-bats. We may never see a moment like that again.

So if you wanted to argue that the joy McGwire provided during that '98 home run race was the most important thing to come from his signing, fair enough. But I'm not sure that it was.

Because the trade and signing of McGwire was also an important pivot point out of the lousy 1990s and into 15 years of the greatest success in franchise history. If you're too young to remember how bad the Cardinals were in the '90s... consider yourself lucky.

From pretty much the moment after they lost to the Twins in Game 7 of the 1987 World Series until they won 95 games and the division title in 2000, the St. Louis Cardinals were awash in mediocrity.

The first major changes came off-the-field. Between the end of the 1994 season and the start of the '96 season, the organization hired Walt Jocketty, acquired new ownership in the form of the DeWitt group, and hired Tony La Russa.

But no move reverberated more deeply with the fanbase than the 1997 deadline deal that brought McGwire to St. Louis.

Yes, the 1996 Cardinals, in La Russa's first year at the helm, had won a division title and advanced to the NLCS. But that team was very much an outlier. On top of that, the average age for the eight primary starters on that club was 30, and the bench was even older, with Willie McGee, Ozzie Smith, Danny Sheaffer and Mike Gallego who were aged 37, 41, 34 and 35, respectively. This was not a base to build around.

So it must have been a tough decision in '97, with a clearly inferior team, but one that was still hanging around within spitting distance of first place. I mean, can you even imagine?

Still, while I said the Cardinals were in 1st place as late as July 4, by the time the McGwire deal was done on July 30, they were in 3rd place and seven games out... so it was pretty clear they were cooked. But there were still several reasons to do the deal.

As I noted last week, they had a unique advantage when it came to McGwire that allowed them to pursue the slugger at relatively low cost. As a 10/5 player with full no trade rights, Big Mac had to approve any trade, and would only consent to come to St. Louis and rejoin La Russa. So Jocketty was ultimately able to acquire McGwire for just three ultimately underwhelming pitching prospects.

While no deal was in place beyond the '97 season, the team probably believed they had a good shot to sign the slugger to an extension, making this as much a free agent move as a deadline-deal rental.

And that boldness - in and of itself - that was a huge deal in 1997.

It had been 10 years since the '87 World Series, the last real hurrah for the Whiteyball Cardinals. The remnants of Whitey Herzog's masterpiece hung around into the early 90s, but the results were middling. And for the whole of the 1990s up to that point, the Cardinals really didn't look like a team that was trying very hard to win.

There was some talent that came through they system, minor moves here and there... but the idea that the Cardinals - the Cardinals - would go out and get the biggest slugger in the game: That was revolutionary.

In truth, it was part of a seismic shift that was underway: Signing a large, creative extension with Brian Jordan and going big on bonuses for blue chip draft picks like Rick Ankiel and J.D. Drew.

On its own, signing McGwire could have been something like the Marlins Giancarlo Stanton deal: A case of ownership simply making a show of the fact that they were willing to spend money. But luckily for us, it was only the most visible part of a revolution that was underway to make the team competitive.

Let's hope that revolution isn't over.