Before Big Mac: Cardinals First Basemen of the 90s by Brian Kist

Brian Kist writes the blog Punk On Deck. He’s on twitter, too, @punkondeck.

While Mark McGwire may be the pinnacle, the aspirational embodiment of nineties first basemen, other, less glorious athletes also manned the position. In St. Louis, a hodgepodge of players preceded “Big Mac.” They may not be as talented as the slugger, but they are just as noteworthy (because I’m noting them now).

1990: Pedro Guerrero opened up the decade at first base. On the downside of his career, Guerrero benefited from a time when it was still okay for management to acquire aging talent at the expense of young prospects. Anomaly First Baseman: Tom Pagnozzi started one game at first on Aug. 12, 1990. He went 3 for 4 and Bob Tewksbury threw a complete game shut out.

1991: Guerrero keeps getting older. Somehow, he had a better WAR this year than the last. The only memory I have of Guerrero is that odd 9-1-1 call from O.J. Simpson. I bet he has led a very colorful life. Anomaly First Baseman: Craig Wilson started one game at first, coincidentally on Aug. 12, 1991. He only went 1 for 5 in the loss. He was out of baseball two years later.

1992: Journeyman Andres Galarraga found himself at Busch Stadium in 1992. He played 83 games at the position with Guerrero getting 28 games. The Big Cat scratched out a .673 OPS that season before moving on to Colorado. My favorite players that year were Felix José and Ray Lankford. They led the team in home runs: 14 for José and 20 for Lankford. Yes, led the team. Anomaly First Baseman: Stan Royer played first base in four games in 1992. He was a “Coming Attraction.” He played sparingly over the next two years before retiring.

1993: The team acquired their first baseman of the future by trading for Gregg Jefferies. The former first round draft pick had the best year of his career and was an All-Star. Even though he made his MLB debut six years earlier, he was only 25 when the Cardinals acquired him. Plus side: he was a “Rated Rookie.” Down side: one of my favorite players Felix José was involved in the trade for him. Anomaly First Baseman: On July 30, 1993 Catcher Erik Pappas made his lone career start at first base. On Sept. 21, he started at catcher. In the seventh inning, he took over at first. In the eighth, he moved to right field. José Oquendo saw this and yawned.

1994: Jefferies once again started the majority of the games at the cool corner. He later had a contract dispute with the club and was granted free agency after this season. That’s around when my mom remarked about her distaste for him saying he was stuck up or something along those lines. Anomaly First Baseman: Scott Coolbaugh played most of his short MLB career at third base. He mostly pinch hit for the Cardinals but started two games including the last game of the shortened season. It was also his last game as a major league baseball player.

1995: This was a bit of a mish-mash year at first base. John Mabry held down first for 66 games. Mabry has become a Cardinal fan favorite mostly because he keeps showing up. He had three stints with the club during his career that spanned from 1994 to 2007. Todd Zeile had 33 games at the position that year. Anomaly First Baseman: José Oliva had two starts at first this year on Sept. 24 and 27. His MLB career ended in 1995. According to Wikipedia, Oliva died in a car accident in 1997.

1996: Mabry played the lion’s share of games at first in LaRussa’s first year as manager. Even though Mabry started 139 games at first, this may have been the most unusual collection of first basemen. Gary Gaetti, Mark Sweeney, and Willie McGee (RETIRE 51!!!) all made starts there. In late August, former first round draft pick Dmitri Young made his MLB debut. Anomaly First Baseman: Backup Catcher Danny Sheaffer made one start at first base that season on April 14 vs. the Phillies. The Cards won.

1997: Dmitri Young marked some stabilization at the position. I remember thinking that this kid had some big potential. In fact, when Mark McGwire was acquired on July 31, my first thought was “They already have a good first baseman.” Perspective is difficult sometimes. Young started 68 games, McGwire started 49, and John Mabry started 38. Starting on Aug. 1, McGwire hit 24 home runs. 1993 was a distant memory. Anomaly First Baseman: Mark Sweeney lived in the bowels of old Busch Stadium. He sometimes dressed up like a janitor in so he wouldn’t be thrown out. On May 13 and May 14, Sweeney the Elder started at first base for the Cardinals. When it was realized that Sweeney was somehow still on the roster, he was sent to San Diego in a trade that sent a mossy Fernando Valenzuela to the Cardinals.

1998: It’s hard to measure the magnitude of first base in Busch Stadium during the Summer of ’98. Baseball fans and media from around the world were pulled to the gravitational center that was first base. McGwire’s hunt for 62 overshadowed all other aspects of baseball, even his team’s success. It was the most exciting third-place-in-the-division season ever played. On Sept. 8, I was struggling with freshmen algebra homework. My mom called me to the living room when McGwire came to bat. The first time, he grounded out. The second time she called, he hit number 62 off Steve Trachsel. He raised his son, Sammy Sosa came out of left field (literally), and the Maris family gave McGwire their blessing. Looking back with cynical eyes, it was cheesy, but I distinctly remember being unable to stop grinning as I went back to deciphering algebra. McGwire would later hit number 70 off of Carl Pavano. Anomaly First Baseman: It’s true: McGwire only started 152 games that season. John Mabry was the main back up with eight starts. This was probably due to Mabry having the genial personality that would simply laugh off fans that booed another name at first. Gary Gaetti started one game at first while Mabry started at third. That was an odd defensive lineup. Brian Hunter was on the Cardinals and started two games that season. One was the second game of a double header.

1999: After the euphoria of the previous year, 1999 proved to be a sobering season. McGwire started 150 games that year. But already, he was like an old rock band that has the audience shout out the hits from decades ago. He hit 65 home runs that year. The law of diminishing returns came to fruition again as the team finished in fourth place heading into the 2000s. Anomaly First Baseman: With John Mabry leaving the team for the first time (but not the last) the role of understudy fell on various shoulders. Catcher Eli Marrero was the most common back up with three whole starts at first. Players that started those other eight games included Eduardo Perez, Shawon Dunston, David Howard, Craig Pauquette, Joe McEwing, and Willie McGee (RETIRE 51!).

All stats via Baseball-Reference.

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