Walt Jocketty was the St. Louis Cardinals’ General Manager for 13 years during one of the franchise’s most successful eras. Now, after the 2019 Baseball Winter Meetings, are you beginning to miss the three-time MLB Executive of the Year?
Mark McGwire, Jim Edmonds, Scott Rolen, Chris Carpenter, Jason Isringhausen, Edgar Renteria, Mike Matheny, and Larry Walker. These are just some of the names former St. Louis Cardinals General Manager Walt Jocketty either signed or traded for during his tenure in St. Louis.
Walt Jocketty also brought aboard (in 1995) the man who would become the Cardinals winningest manager in franchise history, Tony LaRussa. Under their joint leadership over the next 12 seasons, the St. Louis Cardinals made seven postseason appearances, won six Central Division Titles, two National League Pennants, and won a World Series in 2006.
From the time he arrived in St. Louis in 1994 until his brunt dismal in 2007, Walt Jocketty seemed to have the magic touch in making trades and with signing free agents. Yes, he had some clunkers (remember Mark Mulder and Kip Wells?), but overall he made many more deals which helped rather than hurt the Cardinals.
Now, after an uneventful Winter Meetings by the Cardinals front office, I’m missing the Walt Jocketty era in St. Louis. How about you?
Walt Jocketty’s arrival in St. Louis
Prior to the St. Louis Cardinals hiring Walt Jocketty on October 14, 1994, the franchise had not been to the postseason since 1987. In fact, from former manager Whitey Herzog‘s resignation during the 1990 season to 1995, the Cardinals had not even been close to touching the postseason.
The Anheuser-Busch ownership hired Jocketty away from the Colorado Rockies, where he was the Assistant General Manager, to be the General Manager for the Cardinals. Jocketty was retained after the Brewery sold the Cardinals to an investment group led by Bill DeWitt Jr. before the 1996 season.
It was also after the 1995 season that the University of Minnesota grad made his first game-changing move as the Cardinals GM. By hiring Tony LaRussa away from the Oakland Athletics to be the next Cardinals field manager, Jocketty had the first piece in place to begin an organizational revival.
The next step was Mark McGwire
The acquisition of Mark McGwire in 1997 was the next step in re-energizing the St. Louis Cardinals. On July 31, 1997, Jocketty traded T.J. Matthews, Eric Ludwick, and Blake Stein to the Oakland Athletics for the power-hitting McGwire.
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Upon his arrival in St. Louis, McGwire continued a home run tear which he started in Oakland with 34 home runs. In just 51 games with Cardinals in 1997, McGwire slashed another 24 home runs and 42 RBIs, giving him a season total of 58 homers and 123 RBIs.
Of course, his home run tear didn’t stop in 1997. The 1998 season was the historic year in which he eclipsed Roger Maris‘ 61 home run record from 1961. McGwire hit 70 homers during that memorable season and followed it up in 1999 with 65 homers.
Ironically, while McGwire saw his playing time and production decrease due to injuries in his last two years, the Cardinals returned to the postseason during the 2000 and 2001 seasons This started the stretch of six postseason appearances in the next seven years, which included two NL Pennants and a World Series Championship.
McGwire’s impact didn’t stop with the Home Runs
However, McGwire’s impact on the franchise was not only on the field but also by attendance at Busch Stadium. The attendance at Busch Stadium in 1997 was 2,634,000, or 32,500 per game. In 1998, during the McGwire/Sammy Sosa home run chase for the Roger Maris record, it increased to nearly 3.2 million. This was the first year the Cardinals attendance had reached over 3 million, setting a new franchise record.
Consequently, the St. Louis Cardinals home attendance has stayed above the 3 million mark since, with the one exception being 2003 when it dropped to a little over 2.9 million.
Major League Baseball also benefited from Mark McGwire’s stint with the Cardinals. In 1997, still trying to recover from the 1994 Strike, MLB total attendance was 63,168,000. During the McGwire/Sosa home run derby in 1998, attendance across major league baseball soared to 70,600,000. Over 18 of the next 22 years, MLB attendance stayed over 70 million and hasn’t been less than 67 million.
Walt Jocketty at his peak
By primarily the use of trades and free-agent signings, Jocketty took advantage of the increase in attendance and revenues to build the Cardinals into a consistent postseason contender. It was over the next few seasons that brought the names of Edmonds, Carpenter, Renteria, Isringhauser, Rolen, and Eckstein, to name a few.
However, there was the selection of someone named Albert Pujols in the 13th round of the 1999 MLB Draft which made a historic impact on the future of the St. Louis Cardinals. Also, let’s not forget about the selection of Yadier Molina in the fourth round of the 2000 MLB Draft.
With ownership committed to winning, Walt Jocketty rebuilt a Cardinal franchise that had entered the doldrums prior to his arrival. From the early to mid-2000s, Walt Jocketty was at his peak as a GM. When the Cardinals needed to make a move to improve the team, Jocketty always seemed to have some magic to pull out his hat.
Walt Jocketty’s fall from grace with the Cardinals
Jocketty’s fall from grace with Bill DeWitt Jr. and the Cardinals’ ownership group is too complicated to detail in this piece. Generally, it was about DeWitt’s moving the organization to analytics in regards to scouting and player development.
A feud developed between Jocketty and Vice President of Player Development Jeff Luhnow, which seemed to envelop the entire organization. When it was clear by 2007 that Jocketty and Luhnow couldn’t work our their differences, DeWitt intervened and surprisingly fired the GM on October 3, 2007.
For a detailed account of the events leading up to Jocketty’s dismissal and a behind-the-scenes description, I recommend reading Mark Tomasik’s piece of RetroSimba from October 2017. It’s a well written and researched article.
The Jocketty vs Mozeliak Eras
To be fair to the current front office led by John Mozeliak, this organization has changed along with the rest of Major League Baseball. Starting in 2003, when DeWitt hired Luhnow, the St. Louis Cardinals started moving toward an analytics/data-driven way of evaluating prospects.
It’s not the same organization or climate in 2020 that it was in 1995 when Walt Jocketty took the GM reins. Bill DeWitt has committed the St. Louis Cardinals to this sabermetrics approach and he isn’t backing off. Hell or high water, this is the direction of the organization. John Mozeliak and the rest of the front office is just the driver, not the navigator.
Also, keep in mind, there were four losing seasons during the Walt Jocketty Era (1995, 1997, 1999, and 2007) and while under the tutelage of John Mozeliak, the Cardinals have yet to suffer one.
So should we miss Walt Jocketty?
It should be pointed out that since Walt Jocketty was fired, baseball hasn’t been so bad in St. Louis. After all, the Cardinals have made six postseason appearances and won a World Series Championship without Walt Jocketty at the helm. Yes, there was a postseason drought from 2016-2018, but maybe the franchise just needed a reboot. We saw an NL Central title and an NLCS appearance in 2019.
So do I miss Walt Jocketty? Well, I guess what I really miss is the Walt Jocketty ‘years.’ The consistent postseason appearances, the MV3, Tony LaRussa’s postgame pressers, and solid fundamental baseball.
Finally, I’m relatively optimistic and look forward to the upcoming 2020 season. Nevertheless, I do want the Cardinals to sign another bat before the start of Spring Training and…I believe Walt Jocketty would find one.